There was fatigue in his eyes and his voice was as hoarse as a sick man's, but Hajj Ali Muhammad Tirmus was in jovial spirits when NOW met him in his modest Haret Hreik apartment Monday afternoon. Sitting comfortably in a black shirt, jeans, and leather sandals, he cracked jokes with the constant stream of well-wishing visitors and beamed at his wife Mona as she handed out festive sweets and coffee.
"It's so precious a feeling, it's undescribable," he told NOW of his returnto Lebanon after seventeen months of captivity in the northern Syrian town of Azaz at the hands of the Islamist "Northern Storm" rebel brigade. As relatives wiped tears of relief from their cheeks, Tirmus recounted his experience as one of the nine Lebanese men kidnapped in May 2012 while returning from pilgrimage to Iran and held in Azaz until a deal was reached over the weekend to exchange them with two Turkish pilots kidnapped in Beirut two months ago.
The group of pilgrims, which numbered over 60 men and women, had been traveling in two buses, and for the first couple of days, the men that were kept by the kidnappers were separated in two corresponding groups. "This scared us. We wondered, 'Are they going to kill us? Or kill the others?'" said Tirmus.
After a few days, the men were united, but their hopes of release began to decline as the weeks turned into months. "We were continuously promised that our release was imminent. [Northern Storm leader] Abu Ibrahim shook our hands and told us it was coming in a manner that genuinely convinced us. This was the worst part for me. It was like promising a child you'll give him a toy every day, and never doing it. After two months, we started to think we'd never be freed."
A typical day, said Tirmus, would consist of telling stories and recalling memories over cups of tea, in addition to praying and reading the Quran. "We complained to them that we had no Qurans to read. So, after some debate among themselves, they went to the local mosque and brought some for us."
At no point, he said, were they beaten. They did, however, have two major fears at all times. The first was being killed in the crossfire between Northern Storm and Syrian regime forces (of the approximately 60 militants who kidnapped them, Tirmus estimates more than 40 were subsequently killed in combat). The second was falling victim to internal disputes within Northern Storm itself. "They argued frequently, especially over money." One guard in particular, who was notorious for stealing cash and jewelry from captives – including Syrians – so irked his comrades that a quarrel eventually led to his being killed, said Tirmus.
Indeed, while a multitude of factors were evidently at work, it appears to have ultimately been inter-rebel dynamics in Azaz that made the pilgrims' release possible. Last month, al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) militants overran Northern Storm's positions in Azaz, killing a number of their fighters as well as their media spokesman, as a part of a wider campaign to eliminate nominally Western-backed rebel brigades. A statement issued by Northern Storm Monday admitted that ISIS' "occupation of our bases" compelled the group to "hasten the exchange." So weakened had the brigade become, according to Syria analyst and Middle East Forum fellow, Aymenn al-Tamimi, that holding on to the captive pilgrims may have simply no longer been feasible.
"Northern Storm has more or less been crushed by ISIS," al-Tamimi told NOW. "Apparently," over the past few days, "a number of their fighters have gone over the border to seek Turkish protection."
Adding to this consideration, Tirmus believed the Azaz clashes led to substantial pressure on Northern Storm from the Turkish government, mindful of the fate of its own citizens held captive in Lebanon.
"Our kidnappers had met with [US Senator] John McCain. In fact, they met him in a room we were once held in for a period. Because of this, [ISIS] considered Northern Storm to be kuffar [infidels]. When they began fighting each other, Turkey started working to release us, because they knew if we were killed, the two Turkish pilots would be killed too."
"As much as we are against kidnapping and all injustice, we have to say the kidnapping of the Turkish pilots was the reason we were freed. We wish Turkey had worked so proactively for our release from the start," added Tirmus.
Whatever the reason, Tirmus told NOW he just looked forward to putting the whole ordeal behind him.
"Now I'm going to spend time catching up with my family, friends and neighbors. Then, after a break, I'll go back to work and my normal life."
Luna Safwan contributed reporting.