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Puk Damsgård's The ISIS Hostage Examines the Horror of an Irregular War

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Puk Damsgård's <i>The ISIS Hostage</i> Examines the Horror of an Irregular War

The ISIS Hostage: One Man’s True Story of Thirteen Months in Captivity is a case study in what might be called the New War Journalism. Puk Damsgård’s unadorned chronicle of Danish photojournalist Daniel Rye’s capture, confinement and eventual release delivers a lesson as astringent as medicine: in the modern era of irregular warfare, battlefields are no longer demarcated by flags or trenches but by ideology and memory. Beyond bombs and drones and Kalashnikovs, wars are now fought via emotion and media, perception and pressure. The modern front is personal.

Few acts of unconventional warfare are more personal than kidnapping. Long a standard fundraising tactic for various piratical and criminal organizations, kidnapping became de rigueur among the Syrian Civil War’s clashing factions—especially the Islamic State. ISIS takes hostages for financial gain and for a darker reason as well: to serve as sacrificial revenge killings, brutally mutilated political pawns whose blood is worth more than any dollar amount.

isishostagebetter.jpegRye was a competitive gymnast when he fell in love with photography. Shooting his teammates’ travels and his own wanderings, he refined his passion under the tutelage of Danish war photographer Jan Grarup. After an injury cut his gymnastics career short, Rye served as Grarup’s assistant and accompanied him on an assignment to Somalia. While there, his experience shooting a soccer game amongst the bombed-out buildings of Mogadishu inspired him to chronicle not the combatants and corpses of war but the people who survive in its very midst. Noticing a lack of such imagery coming out of Syria, Rye arranged for a trip just inside the country’s border.

His kidnapping comes quickly in the book’s narrative with precious little foreshadowing. Rye is repeatedly tortured—including beatings and being stretched taunt from the ceiling like a dry strop—and is shuttled to various makeshift jails throughout the newly established caliphate. Eventually, he joins a broader coterie of Western prisoners from Italy, Germany, Russia, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. Lost in a routine of horror and boredom, exercises and ersatz boardgames their only relief while awaiting their ransoms (or other fates), Rye and his fellow hostages unknowingly become the world’s proper introduction to the Islamic State.

The ISIS Hostage is haunted by two ghosts: American journalist James Foley and his executioner, the English national Mohammed Emwazi known as “Jihadi John.” Foley’s decapitation in direct retaliation for American airstrikes in Iraq marked the first killing of an American hostage by ISIS and the beginning of its bloody presence on the forefront of American consciousness. Rye spent portions of his captivity with Foley, whose fate provides the counterbalance to Rye’s own—he was spared via a $2.2 million ransom raised by his friends and family. It is to Damsgård’s great credit that this horrific tension between the two men is never milked but is left to reverberate on its own.

In fact, The ISIS Hostage’s purely journalistic approach, lacking much in the way of manufactured foreshadowing or analogy prompting, is its best attribute. Because Damsgård resists the urge to adorn it with embellishments, the book reads not as a nonfiction thriller, but as a reminder of the new realities of irregular war. Presented fast and free, the only emotional trappings those provided her by her subject, Rye, and the other interviewees, The ISIS Hostage unfolds as if it were written from a distant waypoint— a position that paradoxically hones the story’s terrible power.


B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in Hazlitt, Sports Illustrated, The Chicago Reader, VICE Sports, The Creators Project, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.

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