It is a brave man who returns to the city where he was once held hostage by the Islamic terrorist group ISIS. But Marc Marginedas, a war correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Periódico, did just that for Albert Solé and Raúl Cuevas’ vividly disturbing Return to Raqqa. Marginedas, a fluent Arabic speaker who had been to Syria twice before his fateful visit in 2013, opens the film walking through snow-covered streets in Moscow: the next geopolitical fault line he was based in after the kidnapping and hostage ordeal drew a line under his Middle Eastern days. Finished in 2022, the film does not delve deeper into Marc’s life since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although he told Modern Times Review that he had left on 24 February, 2022, because he «felt that Russia was no longer safe» for him.
«What the film really tells is that the story of Islamic State is not over; we need to know more about it and how the Syrian and Ukrainian wars are linked together,» Marc tells MTR.
«This film exposes the fact that the war in Ukraine did not come out of the blue. It was a process of empowering Putin, and the war in Syria is part of that. It links Syria with Russia and the Islamic State with Russia. After the kidnapping, I decided to move to Russia because I was looking for answers.»
No stranger to danger, Marc and a couple of colleagues entered Syria to meet up with members of the Free Syrian Army. He describes a sense of unease – the kind of supportive atmosphere he had felt among Syrian militias on previous visits was lacking – and within a couple of days, things quickly soured: another militia group turned up and began talking with members of the group Marc was with. It soon became apparent that they were from ISIS – or Daesh, as the group was known locally. The group’s leading figure wrapped up a speech one evening approached Marc and said: «You are coming with us.»
«I realised he was a jihadist, and he realised who I was,» Marc states.
«My trauma is nothing compared to what many of these people have been through»
Six month nightmare
It was the start of a six-month nightmare for the rugged journalist. Accustomed to the hardships of adventure, nothing could prepare Marc for imprisonment in a dark, windowless room in an abandoned hospital in Raqqa.
The directors of Return to Raqqa turn to illustrations to show that they have no documentary footage relating Marc’s story of beatings and threatened shootings. It is a device that other recent documentaries charting the iniquities of the Syrian civil war have also used.
An acute observer of human nature, Marc shuddered when he heard shots echoing from a prison yard; he did not allow himself to acknowledge it at the time, but he knew these were the sounds of other prisoners being executed.
Return to Raqqa treads a careful line between telling the story in all its unvarnished truth – and showing that. There are videos on smartphones of ISIS gunmen killing prisoners in the street. For example, prisoners left when the Raqqa clinic was cleared just before the city fell to pro-government forces. The video cuts to black as the shots ring out. Another video – of a woman accused of prostitution – shows the middle-aged woman kneeling before a man, justifying her imminent killing in the name of the Quran. A second man steps forward and points a pistol at the top of her head as she raises her eyes imploringly, and the shot rings out. The editing to black screen is timed to the split-second.
Marc soon began to understand some elements of his imprisonment. Bullied by a guard in Raqqa who carried out a mock execution, he calculated that, since he had been there several weeks and had not been tortured – unlike many of the other inmates – the guards had been given orders not to hurt him. His logic and ability to analyse, which had served him so well in his career as a newspaper journalist, were defences against the inevitable fear and floods of emotions he also had to struggle with.
Having established Marc’s story (the opening sequence traces his early development and character as a journalist) and recorded hostage-taking, the film opens out to bring in all those concerned for his well-being – his family and colleagues at El Periódico. As publicity for his case grows, his situation in Syria becomes darker when, 50 days after his abduction, he is transferred to another prison, this time in Aleppo. Pushed into a darkened room, he found himself surrounded by all the Western journalists who had been seized in the previous months: the American Steven Sotloff, Danish photographer Daniel Rye, Britons David Haines and John Cantlie, and the American photographer James Foley, along with others. It was now clear that ISIS had plans for this group, and the hostages soon found that this revolved around using them in propaganda videos or raising millions of dollars in ransoms in return for their lives.
At first, the men existed in relatively benign incarceration – food was scarce, and they were constantly hungry, but they were allowed to freely associate and even organise group yoga classes for themselves. Guards bringing food brought greetings from Javier Espinosa and Ricardo Vilanova – the colleagues Marc had travelled with to Syria – held in separate cells. All this changed when the British ISIS converts, known as ‘The Beatles, ‘ were put in charge of them. Sadistic and brutal, the men were frequently beaten, although, at the same time, contact was made with families with ransom demands. The Spanish and most other European hostages had some hope – they were from countries that did not forbid paying ransoms to ISIS. But for the US and British hostages, where this was deemed a criminal offence, it signalled a much darker trajectory.
The directors skillfully weave the chronology of these days with interviews with Marc’s sister, newspaper colleagues, and fellow hostages – Javier, Daniel, and French photojournalist Pierre Torres. There are also contributions from Sotloff’s parents.
«I remember hearing a knocking on the door and seeing David’s face – he just went completely white and said: ‘It’s the Brits. Do what they say, nothing else,’» Daniel says.
The four included Londoner Mohammed Emwazi – who was to become knowns as Jihadi John – and the hostages suffered grievously under their watch.
Against all odds
There is also footage of Marc’s return to Raqqa, where he talks to local people in the extensive ruins of the city, finding that none have good memories of the ISIS caliphate they once lived under.
«Our captivity is nothing compared to how these people suffer,» Marc observes. «We’ve become the main players in a story that doesn’t actually belong to us. What is my situation compared to these people who have lost everything.»
More than three months into his ordeal, Marc and the other hostages were transferred to a house near Aleppo overlooking the Euphrates river. This would become their «Guantanamo Bay» – modelled on the appalling conditions at the US base in Cuba where jihadist prisoners were held, the men were now dressed in orange jump suits and the pressure to appear in propaganda videos increased.
International efforts to save the men were stepped up. The families of the American hostages, fearing the worst, petitioned President Barack Obama to ease the sanctions on negotiating with ISIS to no avail. For the Europeans, things looked better. Marc was released in March 2014 – possibly for a ransom, although the Spanish government has only ever said that «maximum discretion» was used in negotiating his release. His Spanish, French and Danish colleagues followed. Others were less lucky: In August 2014, James Foley was beheaded, and a video was released of his killing. The following month Steven Sotloff suffered the same fate. Five others also died at the hands of ISIS – including all but one of the British hostages. John Cantlie, who cooperated with ISIS in making a propaganda video, disappeared in Syria in 2018.
Return to Raqqa is not always an easy film to watch, but the strength of its central character carries its message of the ability of the human spirit to endure to the extreme ably.
Concluding with Marc’s return to the site of the house of the Euphrates (now entirely destroyed by Coalition bombing), the film is dedicated to the seven hostages from Marc’s group of 23 killed by ISIS during their incarceration.
Return to Raqqa screens in competition at the 2023 Al Jazeera Balkans Documentary Film Festival.