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SYRIA: Questions linger in case of American journos Chmela and Luck

October 17, 2008 |  7:38 am

In conversation after conversation, in cocktail parties and sheesha cafes from Lebanon to Syria to Jordan, one question continues to pop up over and over again:

What was up with the two Americans who illegally crossed the Lebanese border into Syria and found themselves suddenly locked up by Syrian authorities?

The two journalists, Holli Chmela, 27, and Taylor Luck, 23, were writing for the Amman-based English-language Jordan Times. They went missing Oct. 1 during a holiday in Lebanon. They showed up a week later, safe and sound, locked up in a Syrian prison. They were released to American officials in Damascus, and went back to Amman.

But the real story of what happened remains murky.

Were they plucky journalists trying to get a scoop, as the Syrians say?

Or were they a couple of hapless kids suckered into intrigue, as they contended in a lengthy article for their newspaper?

Or were they up to something more nefarious, as some have whispered?

Readers in the U.S. and abroad have been generous with their insights and queries.

A reader named Vincent said the media were too quick to believe Chmela and Luck's story. "Who gets kidnapped by way of locked doors in a cab?" he wrote.

If the taxi driver could lock them in and demand money he could have just 'kidnapped' them got money and not drove them anywhere if he were really trying to rob them. Who gets Kidnapped by a Lebanese cab driver, only to be detained by Syrians? This is a joke. Furthermore, this is just an gross example of Americans behaving badly. When can you illegally cross into a country and then 'demand' to be put with your girlfriend and have this granted? ...

And what adds insult to injury is Luck's statement at the end of the article when he says, "We may have exercised poor judgment, but at the end of the day, we were victims," Luck said. What kind of kidnapping victim exercises poor judgement? I thought they allegee their doors were locked in the cab and they were helpless? Poor judgement implies they tried to do something stupid.

A Syrian reader from Damacus wrote to say he doubted the pair's story, wondering if they were just trying to get out of paying the visa fee:

I wonder what will happen to me if I get into the U.S without visa? How many days I will spend in jail there?

Another makes a more pointed comparison, recognizing the strained relations between the U.S. and Syria:

Imagine if North Koreans tried to enter the US though Mexico. What kind of media circus and sensationalism would we see then, and would the US Government just allow them to return to North Korea after a week?

Twisted relations between Syria and Lebanon have always made the border between the two countries a complicated frontier. Sometimes and for some people it's super easy to cross. Other times and for other people, it's super hard, a situation that may change for the better once Damascus sets up a diplomatic outpost in Beirut.

Chmela and Luck did not arrange for Syrian tourist visas before arriving in Lebanon. Syrian authorities frown on journalists trying to enter the country without letting them know beforehand.

But several readers wrote to point out that it is possible for some Americans to obtain a transit visa on arrival at the Syrian border from Lebanon. "Visas to Syria can be purchased at the border, though the wait time is a lot longer than most European wait times," wrote one American who has traveled to Lebanon."This is not something that is advertised or suggested by the US Embassy."

She wrote:

My husband and two daughters and I crossed the Lebanon/Syria border to Damascus last December. We got a taxi from Beirut, who was able to drive us all the way to Damascus. We spoke, with the aid of the taxi driver, to border guards and Syria officials at the border office, had our passports looked at, and our information faxed to the Syrian govt. office in Damascus. Then we waited for official permission. After about three hours we were given the all clear, bought our visas, and had our passports stamped. Then our Beirut taxi driver drove us the rest of the way to Damascus.

One reader in California said that while she has doubts about their story, she thinks life for those working in media in the Middle East will only get tougher. "The threat to journalists in that entire region is too real," she wrote. "That reality isn't lost on me."

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

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