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Syrian familys journey from Isis jail to audience with the pope

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Syrian Catholic Martin Tamras and his sons were held for ransom for a year by Isis

Sitting in the hushed and ornately gilded lounge of a Rome hotel, Carolyn Tamras perches on the edge of a well-stuffed pink velvet sofa. For three days last year, says Carolyn, she sat like this, leaning forward and wrapping her arms around her knees, head bent, gently rocking. Then I thought, I am no use to my family like this. This is my challenge.

It is her husband Martins 49th birthday and the couple can scarcely believe that he has just been wished many happy returns by Pope Francis in a private audience. They are still glowing from the experience, as any fellow Catholics would be. But there is a unique dimension to their joy: on this date last year Martin and their three children were being held in an Islamic State torture centre. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit and waiting to be killed, having seen his cousin and two other men put to death in front of him.

Syrian Christians, Martin and Carolyn lived with their three children in Tal Tamr, a little town 25 miles from the city of Hasakah, in the north-east of the country. On 23 February 2015 Isis arrived, bombing and burning homes and churches. Surrounding houses, the militants booby-trapped exits with explosives, trapping people inside while they took out any armed resistance. They then returned to usher 97 men, women and children out of their temporary prisons and into trucks.

By chance, Martin and Carolyn were away shopping in Hasakah that day and the couple had decided to stay the night rather than drive back. As they prepared to go to bed, Martin got a phone call from his son, Tommy. Daesh are here! They have surrounded us! Martin persuaded his wife to let him drive back to the village alone. I lied to her, said Martin. I didnt tell her what he said, I knew she would not stay in safety if I told her the truth. He arrived in time to be herded along with the others, Christian, Muslim and Hindu. They were held in brutal, overcrowded conditions, forced to witness electrocutions and beheadings, given water polluted with diesel and food that was infested with insects.

For 12 months, Carolyn and religious groups were bombarded with demands for $16m (12m) in ransom. A video of three men being killed was sent to them as a threat. Martin was in the video, clearly marked out for future death. As a desperate effort began to raise money, Carolyn had to endure the taunting contact of an Isis negotiator through the messaging service WhatsApp. At first I was disgusted, but then I realised he was human and through this humanity I might help my family. He began to trust me, to tell me about his sick baby. I looked up what medicines might help and sent him back details.

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When Isis fighters entered Tal Tamr they took whole families as hostages for ransom Photograph: REUTERS

The couple believe this human contact between Carolyn and Isis is what kept Martin alive. Because Isis founded their actions based on religion, this is a challenge, said Carolyn. Isis may be Islamic, but it is unfair to judge Muslims by Isis. We have to judge on human values, meet on human values. I saw humanity in that man, she said.

The familys release came as unexpectedly as their capture. Hearing a rumour that buses had been seen arriving in Tal Tamr, Carolyn and other relatives rushed to the desolated village.

More than $5m had been raised and handed over, some via Catholic clergy in Syria, some via the Assyrian church the family do not know the details and the issue of the ransom is difficult. Slaves, bought and sold, Martin said. I could not believe this. Going back 1,000 years to slavery. This is painful for me.

As a middleman handed over sacks of banknotes to the Isis fighters, the 93 hostages stepped off the buses. Carolyn remembers: I was running, running, like a crazy woman! I saw Tommy first, then my youngest, and I had my arms around them both, hugging, hugging. I couldnt believe it was real.

Martin grins: She forgot me! So I had to tap her on the shoulder and say, Excuse me, madam, do you not recognise your husband?

The children had witnessed terrible barbarity decapitations where heads were lined up like tomatoes on walls for children to play football with but they are, her mother says, coping.

The hostages all now suffer from kidney and lung complaints, after a year of water fed through pipes used for diesel, and days on end in packed cells in which no one had the space to lie down. One of Martins first tasks after release was to talk to the families of the three dead. The doctor, his sister, still will not believe it, he says sadly.

Another captive a girl picked out to be raped by a judge in Raqqa who had looked among the hostages for a wife is still missing. And, of course, we are still trying to help the father of this girl to find her.

Their homes razed, the hostages cannot return to Tal Tamr. Of the 45 families affected, only two remain in Syria. I understand why, says Carolyn. Yes, we lost everything, our home, everything we owned. But if we leave Syria you cannot stand up for peace. We lose our power. I hope we give Syrians courage.

It is my dream to rebuild our home in Tal Tamr. To say, we are here, we live here. This is my dream.

Their story is one they now hope to use. By coming forward as peace campaigners, the family hope to begin working to bring unity to Syrias traumatised faiths even as the civil war rages on. Its an important opportunity for us to be here because the business of our faith is peace, and so we have a duty to witness this fundamental conviction and to share the story and the message of mercy and love with others, says Martin.

Much is written in books about theology; this is not theology, this is life. We have been forced to confront the worst and our role is now to be witnesses. It is a real test to believe in mercy, he says. Of course at first I want to kill these Daesh. I want revenge on those who take my children and who kill my cousin and my friend in front of me, and who taunt me that I am next. Those who mock my wife and destroy my home, who want to buy and sell human beings.

Yes, I want justice, I want them to be brought to justice, but I will not hate them, and I will not hate my Muslim neighbour. Its important to think, to go back to family, to faith and to education…only forgiveness breeds peace. Only peace makes us comfortable. We will work together, he says.

In Syria, we are not unique. This is universal. People across the world are living in such difficulties, what is important is how we confront it.

On Martins big day at the Vatican, he received a congratulatory phone call from the family. Hasakah is relatively peaceful at the moment. For the last two weeks at least we feel safe, says Tommy, on his fathers mobile phone screen, his grinning little brother beside him. Their parents light up at the sight of their boys. This is my only regret, says Carolyn, that the family could not all be here together.

If all five had been in Italy together, would that mean she wouldnt have gone back to Syria? Oh no, she said. I want our message to be to those who harmed us: We will stay here in this land to fight them, to fight them in peace. We are luckier than the refugees because our family is alive and still together in Syria. We are lucky.

Yesterday Carolyn gave a speech in Rome on her belief in mercy, on forgiveness and on peace. Today, as the bells ring out across St Peters Square, they will be going home, to the war zone where they have chosen to remain.

The quality of mercy has been exalted by writers from Shakespeare to Voltaire. Pope Francis has made blessed are the merciful one of his key teachings. According to Fadi Daou, the chair of the Beirut-based Adyan Foundation, a peace organisation that made their trip to Rome possible, mercy has found its perfect role models in Martin and Carolyn Tamras.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/06/from-isis-jail-to-audience-with-pope

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