Middle East

Syrians live in fear as kidnappings increase

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Media captionBassam Wahbh's kidnappers filmed as they cut off his finger and sent the video to his family

Bassam Wahbh holds up his hand to show where his finger was severed with an axe - another victim of Syria's growing epidemic of kidnapping.

As Syria's war-torn towns and cities descend into increasing lawlessness, civilians caught between the warring sides can now add kidnap to their growing list of concerns.

At a meeting with regime officials, local people in one government-held suburb put kidnapping at the top of their agenda.

President Bashar al-Assad has brought in the death penalty for kidnapping but the way law and order is breaking down has led Wael Mahmoud - a pharmacist and local Baath party official - to move his family to the US next month.

"Today it's a business," he said. "There is a big mafia who get people and ask for money.

"Police try to stop this but it's very hard because there are many people in Syria today who have guns and there is no law in many areas."

When I asked if he had a gun, Mr Mahmoud replied: "Of course I have a gun. It is necessary to protect myself, my family."

I walked through the narrow lanes of the Old City with journalist Rafiq Lotfe and his half dozen police bodyguards, all carrying Kalashnikovs.

Mr Lotfe campaigns against the armed rebels and says they have tried to kill him.

We meet the local popular committees - vigilantes who have been armed by the regime - and it is clear that the influence of the state, good or bad, is receding.

He introduces me to Abu Samir who runs a group of 40 armed men tasked with protecting the area. Mr Lotfe says it is groups like these - not the government - that now control parts of the city.

"We have to protect ourselves, protect our country, we have no choice," he says.

Image caption The Old City in the Syrian capital Damascus is increasingly deserted

Three weeks ago Rafiq Lotfe negotiated the release of one of his neighbours - Bassam Wahbh, a shopkeeper.

He says Mr Wahbh was held for 53 days by the rebel Free Syrian Army.

During the ransom talks, Mr Wahbh's captors cut off his little finger and sent it, along with a video showing what they had done, to his family. Mr Wahbh played me the two video messages they received.

In the first, a man asks them to send money quickly and says they are going to cut Mr Wahbh's finger off. In the second video Mr Wahbh is bound and gagged. They put his finger on a block and hit it half a dozen times with an axe.

Asked why he was kidnapped, Mr Wahbh tells me: "For material and sectarian reasons. I'm a Shia. The sectarian factor was clear, they directed sectarian insults to me and my sect.

"They consider me an infidel. They hold a firm belief that we should be slaughtered and killed. This surprised me a lot. I didn't expect that such ignorance existed, and such hate existed."

Gunmen loyal to both sides kidnap people - sometimes for political reasons but more often as a money-making criminal enterprise. So most people in Damascus think it is safer to stay at home after dark.

It is another way in which the war is destroying Syria's social fabric and it will make putting this country back together a much harder job, whoever wins the war.