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Scholar, World Traveler and START Intern

Scholar, World Traveler and START Intern

David MacNeil has led an interesting life - one that includes being captured by Syrian police

November 24, 2014Lauren Sagl

Former START intern David MacNeil grew up in Boston, graduated from Harvard, worked for Fortune 500 companies and went back to school for his Ph.D., all while traveling the globe. To date, he’s been to a number of Arab countries and all the largest Muslim countries in the world including Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, and India. However, one trip remains particularly memorable: MacNeil’s visit to Syria in the late 1980s.

“Most people usually can’t figure out what I was doing in Syria at all,” MacNeil says, with a chuckle.

As a scholar, MacNeil has been fascinated by many different fields of study. Despite receiving his undergraduate degree in government and dedicating his post graduate studies to communications, it was archeology that drove MacNeil to visit the Middle East.

In the year prior to visiting Syria, MacNeil was visiting Antakya, one of the biggest cities in the ancient world, in the Hatay province of Turkey. While on a group tour of a cave where St. Peter had supposedly lived, explosions were heard in the distance. MacNeil’s tour guide told the group that it was probably the Syrian military test firing weapons.

With his sense of adventure sparked, MacNeil decided he’d visit Syria the following year.

The next year, MacNeil flew into Damascus, where he met up with Syrian friends from the United States. From there, he headed northeast into the desert to tour the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra. It was just outside the ruins where MacNeil checked into his hotel that required, by law, he surrender his passport for security purposes.

After checking in, MacNeil began to explore. He found a small town just beyond the ruins where people live today, called Tadmor. It was there where MacNeil stopped for lunch and sightseeing.

“I walked through the town and I had a camera with a big telephoto lens, which is the best way I’ve found to get pictures of people, particularly in cultures where they’re not always open to photography,” MacNeil explains.

After wandering around with his camera, MacNeil finally reached the edge of the town, where he found himself face-to-face with a Syrian soldier.

“I knew to respect Syrian soldiers, and so I indicated that what I wanted to do was walk around him and take more pictures. He indicated that I shouldn’t. Then I was just going to pack up and walk away, but he wouldn’t let me do that either,” MacNeil says.


An offer of tea

Unbeknownst to MacNeil, there was a place nearby where other soldiers were also stationed. The original soldier called for assistance, and a man in a beret showed up.

“I knew that wasn’t a good thing, because a beret is not what privates in the army wear. I knew then that this guy was a commando,” MacNeil says.

The commando and his friend escorted MacNeil to a hut down the road. It was there that MacNeil met their commanding officer, a man who was sleeping with his pistol on the table.

“He was very hospitable,” MacNeil said. “He even offered me some tea.”

After proving to the commanding officer that he was American, MacNeil was taken to a huge complex, which he quickly figured out was a prison camp. It was only later that he found out this prison camp was where Hafez al-Assad had sent commandos from Damascus to murder political prisoners. MacNeil was taken inside the main administration building, where he met a commandant.

“This guy did not look like he was happy to see me,” MacNeil recounts. “But, again, they offered me tea.”

MacNeil was kept in a room inside the prison camp for hours.

“I had no identification, I was clearly American and I was walking around this area near a prison camp that I had never seen, carrying a camera with a telephoto lens,” MacNeil explains. “They thought I was working for the CIA or Mossad.”

MacNeil insisted that his captors take his film. He knew all they would find would be pictures of houses, animals and people. They then took the film and promised to return it, but still held MacNeil there for four hours.


A long four hours

In those four hours, soldiers were searching for a truck to transport MacNeil. Once they found one, they stationed guards on either side of him to make sure he didn’t try to scoot out before they returned him back to the town where he had lunch.

After returning to the town, MacNeil started to notice things he hadn’t seen earlier, including a compound behind the tiny restaurant where he had lunch.

“There were young, well-built guys with no uniforms and very big guns stationed there,” MacNeil said. “I knew if the other guy was a commando, these people must be secret police.”

They were, in fact, the Mukhabarat.

The men without uniforms brought MacNeil upstairs to a room in the compound, where a secret service officer offered him tea and lectured him on the evils of Zionism.

“I figured that was not the moment to engage in political debate,” MacNeil chuckles, “as much as I wanted to.”

At this point, MacNeil was tired and frustrated. He had shared his film and cooperated fully.

“I understood they didn’t want people going places they shouldn’t,” MacNeil says, “but this is a major archaeological site and they’re going to get tourists. Shouldn’t they have put up a flag or sign or something indicating not to pass a certain point?”

MacNeil voiced this concern with the intelligence officer, who agreed with this idea. MacNeil said he was surprised no one had thought of this yet, but then again it’s not every day that an American goes wandering out on their own. Most times, tourists from other countries come in busloads.

After a lengthy back-and-forth with the officer, MacNeil was finally released but was told he would be put under supervision until his pictures were officially cleared in Damascus, which would take a few days. The officer offered MacNeil a ride back to his hotel, to which he politely declined.

MacNeil arrived back at his hotel and demanded his passport. The manager of the hotel offered him a drink and explained that the prison camp was for political opponents of the regime. In addition, just a week before, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya was also staying in the same hotel and engaging in unsavory practices.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is great. The crossroads of the world,’” MacNeil says.


Embassy assistance

Despite the hospitality of the hotel, MacNeil was extremely angry with the situation. He decided then that instead of heading to Turkey, his original destination, he was going to go to Damascus to report the incident to the U.S. embassy.

While waiting for the bus to Damascus the next day, an intelligence officer from the Mukhabarat approached MacNeil. The officer questioned MacNeil on why he was going to Damascus when he told officers the previous day that he would be going to Turkey.

The intelligence officer was not pleased with the new plan, but MacNeil persevered.

Once in Damascus, MacNeil was led to a safe room within the embassy.

After leaving an incident report on file with the embassy, MacNeil decided his time in Syria was up. He boarded another bus from Damascus that went straight through the center of the country and into Turkey.

“While on the bus, I noticed the passengers were almost exclusively members of the Syrian military,” MacNeil says. “I believe this was just a coincidence, but it was really kind of funny.”

The bus stopped in the Syrian town of Hamah for the night.

The next day, the bus happened to have an accident while trying to leave Hamah. The driver then had to pull over and everyone had to get off the bus.

“While we were waiting by the side of the road, a large, powerful looking guy approached me, started talking and asking me where I was going, a conversation I’d had many times that week,” MacNeil says. “He didn’t offer me tea, however.”


A great story to tell

Until he reached the Turkish border, Syrian intelligence had eyes on MacNeil.

“It was interesting because once you clear customs on the Syrian side, you head over to the Turkish side and the bus pulls into a parking lot,” MacNeil recounts. “It was the first parking lot I’d seen since I had flown into Damascus, and I was ready to kiss those white lines because the sense of order that you get just from those white lines is tremendous.”

MacNeil continued from the border to the Turkish capital of Ankara, where he boarded his plane back home. Sadly, he never got his pictures back.

“I remember sitting in that commandant’s office thinking, ‘You know, if I ever live through this, it would be a great story to tell,’” says MacNeil, with a smile.

He took an opportunity to tell a bit of that “great story” to his fellow START interns during orientation. At START, he interned with the Risk Communication and Resilience team.