'I Was Absolutely Terrified': American Sam Goodwin Describes Syrian Prison Time

Feb 4, 2021
Originally published on February 18, 2021 5:51 pm

Sam Goodwin's first day in captivity was one of his worst. "This was the point where I was incredibly terrified," he recalls about his ordeal. "I felt like I had committed suicide but I was still alive."

A few hours earlier, on May 25, 2019, Goodwin was detained at a Syrian army checkpoint in the northeast part of the country. "A truck pulled up and two armed men jumped out and told me to get inside. I did not have a choice," Goodwin says.

Goodwin, from St. Louis, was 30 when he was trapped in Syria's notoriously brutal prison system for 62 days. He's one of the few Americans who have been there and now, after his family and Lebanese intermediaries helped secure his release, he's telling his story.

On his first day, he says, he was shoved into a filthy jail cell, locked inside with nothing but regrets.

"My initial reaction was to reach for the reset button, like when you're playing 'Mario Kart' and you drive off a cliff, but it wasn't a game," he says about the first dark hours. "I will never forget my exact thought and it was: 'Is this where my story ends?'"

His fears were well founded; U.S. citizens have previously disappeared in Syria's prison system. The most high-profile case, freelance journalist Austin Tice, went missing in 2012 while covering the country's civil war. A U.S. psychotherapist, Majd Kamalmaz, was detained at a checkpoint in 2017. The Czech ambassador to Syria, an intermediary between the U.S. and the Syrian regime, initially confirmed that Kamalmaz was held in a Syrian prison, but the Syrian regime disputes the claim.

"I was in a dungeon"

This terrifying detour was not part of Goodwin's mission. He says he was on a quest to visit every country in the world. With only 13 to go, he decided to visit Syria.

Goodwin insists he is a careful traveler, with more than 180 countries under his belt. "I built an ice rink in Pakistan, I coached volleyball in Kabul," he says. "Tons of people are going to say, 'This guy is a total idiot.' But I think it would be good if just a little bit of context is provided."

He'd been to Somalia, North Korea, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Syria was a tough security challenge, but he says he followed the guidelines carefully researched by journalists and aid workers. He secured permission from the U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities who controlled areas in northeastern Syria. He traveled overland from Iraq, heading to the Syrian town of Qamishli, and checked into the Asia Hotel. What he didn't have was permission from the Syrian government.

Goodwin had scheduled a flight back to Missouri the following week. He walked out of the hotel to call his mother — when he took a wrong turn. He did not know there was a Syrian army checkpoint within walking distance of the hotel and he was detained.

Goodwin in Yemen in January 2019 with his Omani fixer, Azam Almhry.
Ania Budzinski

Goodwin was quickly transferred to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and detained in Branch 215, run by the country's military intelligence services. This was a notorious prison, called the "branch of death" in a Human Rights Watch report, documenting torture and thousands of executions of inmates.

"I was in a dungeon, there were men with no shirts on mopping the floor, it smelled horrible, there were rats," says Goodwin. "I never saw another inmate, but the facility was not soundproof. The inmates, they would scream. Hearing this happen every day — of course, I won't ever forget the sound of that."

"Want me to hand you over to ISIS?"

After 23 days of solitary confinement, Goodwin says, he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and marched to a room where his interrogator spoke perfect American English. For hours, he was asked the same question: "Why did you come to Syria, Sam?" Goodwin's answer, that he aimed to visit every country in the world, was not convincing.

"'Sam. You're a liar. You'd better start telling the truth. Or I will do a 180 with your life. Do you want me to hand you over to ISIS?" Goodwin remembers the interrogator say.

"I am handcuffed, blindfolded, I've spent the last three weeks in a cement box in a Syrian prison and now an interrogator is threatening to hand me over to ISIS? I was absolutely terrified," he says.

Syrian officials haven't responded to NPR's requests for comment on Goodwin's ordeal.

Family rescue efforts, a fateful call

But Goodwin's circumstances were about to change.

"We had very little information on where Sam might be held, or the conditions," says Luke Hartig, who was a counterterrorism specialist in the Obama White House. Then out of government, Hartig met with Goodwin's parents in Washington, D.C., soon after their son was detained.

The Goodwins also met with the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, led by the FBI and including staff from the State Department and the Pentagon. "They were pretty visibly distraught by the whole process," Hartig says of the parents.

The Goodwins worked closely with the U.S. government, but also charted a separate course to find and rescue their son. This Catholic family sent a letter to Pope Francis, and reached out to U.S. diplomats and journalists based in the region.

Looking back, Sam Goodwin says the turning point came when his younger sister, Stephanie McCue, made a call to her former college roommate, Stephanie Hajjar. He learned about the call after his release and describes the exchange.

"If there is anything I can do, just let me know," Hajjar said, according to Goodwin.

"Honestly, there's probably nothing you can do unless you know Assad," he says his sister replied, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad. "And the other Steph says, 'Wait a second. Let me call you back.'"

As it turns out, Hajjar's uncle in Connecticut was a former Lebanese military officer who remained friends with Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, Lebanon's top security official.

"So, that's really how I got out — it was through this phone call," Goodwin says.

Hartig sees the liaising with a Lebanese security official as key as well. "We knew that Abbas Ibrahim was probably one of the best bets we were going to have to make anything happen, given the situation," he says.

Message smuggled in laundry

Ibrahim now had to convince Syrian authorities that Goodwin was an adventurous traveler — not a spy.

In the meantime, Goodwin was moved to Adra prison, northeast of the capital, where he shared a cell with 40 men, including a telecom executive, students, activists, laborers, even a couple of English teachers.

"They became friends. We cooked and we shared food together. On the prison basketball court, I taught some of them to play knockout. It was unquestionably an upgrade from where I had come from," Goodwin says.

They told him their stories about brutality and torture in prison. "He was just like us," says Mahmoud Hamoud, a fellow prisoner, arrested at 17, released seven years later, now living in exile in Paris with his parents.

Goodwin spent 34 days with these Syrian men. In that time, inmates helped him smuggle out messages to his family. His first note was carried in dirty laundry.

"I am safe and healthy but I need help," he wrote to his father. Goodwin also included personal details that only his family would recognize, he says, "I wrote: 'I am excited for my next salmon dinner at the Missouri Athletic Club.'"

Another inmate got a call out to his family and included a message from Goodwin. "I had a friend at Adra who called his sister in Syria and his sister then messaged my sister on Instagram," says Goodwin. He learned later that security professionals warned that these messages were likely a hoax.

"My faith was absolute"

Goodwin's family did not publicize his disappearance. They worked quietly with U.S. officials, but put their faith in Ibrahim, the security chief in Lebanon.

Goodwin (left) with top Lebanese security official Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim. The Lebanese official played a crucial role in securing Goodwin's release from Syrian prison.
Elizabeth Goodwin

In Adra prison, Goodwin knew nothing about the negotiations. He met Ibrahim for the first time in an office in Damascus, when Goodwin finally realized he was going home.

"I said, 'You're from Lebanon.' And he looks at me and he says, 'Yeah, I'm going to take you there today — so you want to go?'" Goodwin recalls. "We drove out of Damascus at 100 miles an hour."

When the convoy stopped at the Lebanese border, an officer leaned over to whisper to Goodwin, "'Sam, you're in Lebanon, you are safe now.' Words I will never forget," he says.

He was reunited with his parents in Beirut. On July 26, 2019, they issued a statement confirming his release.

Goodwin now is enrolled in a master's in international affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. A devout Catholic, he is often invited to speak to religious groups about this time in a Syrian prison. "Everything was taken from me," he says about his detention, "my material possessions, my communications, my freedom. But I knew that no matter what, my faith was absolute. And that's what I had to hold on to when I had nothing else."

He also held on to his travel dream. "It was therapeutic," he says, "it helped me feel normal again post-captivity."

Brazil was Goodwin's last stop in his quest. On New Year's Eve he celebrated the end of 2019 on Copacabana Beach. Within months, the pandemic shut down international travel.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We have a story now about a dream that turned into a nightmare for 30-year-old American Sam Goodwin. He was trying to visit every country in the world. He had worked at it for a decade and was down to the last 10 when he went to Syria in May of 2019. Within hours of his arrival, he was arrested, and Goodwin spent 62 days in Syria's notoriously brutal prison system. He's one of few Americans who have been there and gotten out, and now he is telling his story to NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: For Sam Goodwin, the first day of captivity was one of the worst.

SAM GOODWIN: This was certainly the point where I was incredibly terrified. Nothing like this has ever happened. I felt like I had committed suicide but was still alive.

AMOS: Alive but isolated deep inside a Syrian prison.

GOODWIN: I will never forget my exact thought. And it was, is this where my story ends?

AMOS: His story was right on track earlier that day. He'd arrived in northeast Syria in the town of Qamishli, territory partly controlled by Syria's U.S.-backed Kurds. He checked into the Asia Hotel. It was a top stop for international journalists and aid workers. Goodwin says he was careful after more than 180 countries under his belt, even in the dangerous places.

GOODWIN: I built an ice rink in Pakistan. Like, I coached volleyball in Kabul.

AMOS: Sure, Syria was a tough security challenge, but he had official permission from the Kurds. What he didn't know - a checkpoint within walking distance of the hotel was manned by the Syrian army. And that is where his luck ran out. He did not have their permission.

GOODWIN: A truck pulled up, and two armed men jumped out and told me to get inside. I did not have a choice.

AMOS: He was quickly transferred to the Syrian capital and held in Branch 215, one of the most notorious prisons in the country. Goodwin got a rare glimpse into Syria's vast complex of detention centers. While the Syrian regime regularly dismisses reports on torture, Goodwin was a witness.

GOODWIN: I was in a dungeon. There were men with no shirts on mopping the floor. It smelled horrible. I never saw another inmate, but the facility was not soundproof. The inmates, they would scream. Hearing this happen, you know, every day was, of course - will never forget the sound of that.

AMOS: After 23 days in solitary confinement, Goodwin says he was handcuffed, blindfolded and marched into a room where his interrogator spoke perfect American English. For hours, he asked the same question. Why did you come to Syria, Sam? Goodwin's answer - his aim to visit every country in the world - wasn't convincing.

GOODWIN: Sam, you're a liar. You better start telling the truth, or I will do a 180 with your life. You want me to hand you over to ISIS? I'll do it right now. I'm, you know, handcuffed, blindfolded. I've spent the past three weeks in a cement box in a Syrian prison, and now an interrogator is threatening to hand me over to ISIS. I was absolutely terrified.

AMOS: Syrian officials haven't responded to emails from NPR about Goodwin's ordeal, but his circumstances were about to change. He says he was moved to Adra Prison north of Damascus. Now he shared a cell with 40 men, including an executive with a Syrian telecom company, with some students, laborers, even a couple of English teachers. They told him their stories about brutality and torture in prison.

GOODWIN: They became friends. We cooked, and we shared food together on the prison basketball court. I taught some of them how to play Knock-Out. It was unquestionably an upgrade from where I had come from.

AMOS: He would spend 34 days with these men, and in that time, inmates helped him smuggle out messages to his family, one time smuggled out in dirty laundry.

GOODWIN: That note actually made it to my father. It said, I am safe and healthy, but I need help.

AMOS: The text made it to his father's phone from a cell phone in Damascus.

GOODWIN: Because I wanted them to know that it was me. And so I wrote that I'm excited for my next salmon dinner at the Missouri Athletic Club.

AMOS: Another inmate smuggled out a message. His sister posted it on Instagram.

GOODWIN: And it starts out - it's like, hi, Stephanie. My brother is in prison with your brother, like, just freaking out, like, the U.S. intelligence community.

AMOS: And here the outside story and the inside one begins to come together. Goodwin's family didn't publicize his disappearance. They worked quietly with the U.S. government and private sources to negotiate his release. The family also reached out to Lebanon's security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, who became a key negotiator. Goodwin says when he met Ibrahim in Damascus, he finally realized that he was going home.

GOODWIN: And I said, you're from Lebanon? And he says, yeah. I'm going to take you there today. Do you want to go? We drove out of Damascus at what seemed to be a hundred miles an hour.

AMOS: The convoy only stopped at the Lebanese border. Then an officer whispered to Goodwin.

GOODWIN: And he quietly said - and, again, words I'll never forget. He said, Sam, you're in Lebanon. You're safe now.

AMOS: His parents were waiting, as well as officials from the U.S. embassy. There are at least two other U.S. citizens held in Syria, most notably Austin Tice, a freelance journalist, and Majd Kamalmaz, a psychologist from Texas. Goodwin's observations may help with their release. Goodwin is now enrolled in a graduate program in Missouri. A devout Catholic, he's often invited to speak to religious groups about his time as a prisoner in Damascus.

GOODWIN: Everything was taken from me - my material possessions, my communication, my freedom. But I knew that no matter what, my faith was absolute. And that's what I had to hold on to when I had nothing else.

AMOS: And he also held on to his travel dream. He completed his quest after his release. Brazil was the final stop - a New Year's visit in 2019, right before the pandemic shut everything down. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTH LAGOON SONG, "17") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.