On Tuesday the news was on the television, muted as usual, in our New York bureau. Sitting at my desk, I glanced up at the screen for a second and watched as the silent image zoomed in on a social media message that simply said the word “courage” in Spanish, English and Arabic.
As the name came into focus on the screen, I suddenly realised that the message in question had been posted by a Spanish friend of mine, a fellow journalist who regularly travels to the Middle East, normally based in Buenos Aires, where I lived before relocating to the US. I immediately sent him a message. “Boludo,” I wrote, a vaguely coarse term of affection used in Argentina, “I’ve just seen you on the BBC.”
Then I felt very stupid. As I searched his name – Ángel Sastre – on the internet to find out what this was all about, I discovered that a Spanish media organisation had just announced that he was missing from the city of Aleppo, Syria, along with two other journalists, also from Spain. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It’s a strange thing when you start reading about someone you know in impersonal, factual prose; perhaps stranger still when someone who normally reports the news becomes part of it.
The three have now been missing for 10 days according to a statement from their families. Although Spanish authorities don’t want to admit to a kidnapping, it seems likely. The hope is that the group that took them, in a land that has splintered into confused factions, is looking for a ransom.
This is the second time Ángel has travelled to Syria from Argentina to cover the civil war – a valiant thing to do. He asked me the first time if I wanted to go with him, before retracting the offer with a laugh, due to my British passport. In truth I wouldn’t have had the courage to put myself in his shoes.
Syria has become one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist. Most media organisations have pulled out and it’s often left to freelancers such as Ángel to fill the void. Twenty-seven journalists were kidnapped in the country during the course of 2014 and many of them remain captive. What’s difficult is the lack of information about what has happened as this surreal waiting game begins. My thoughts go out to the families of all three Spanish journalists and countless other reporters held around the world. Courage, indeed.
Ed Stocker is Monocle's New York bureau chief.