20 December 2019
The head of the Gift of the Givers, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman has denied that he endangered the life of South African photojournalist, Shiraaz Mohamed, who was kidnapped in Syria in January 2017 and subsequently escape in December 2019.
Speaking to various media outlets, he has said that the GOGT tried everything within reason to work for the release of Shiraaz who was held by unknown armed groups demanding a large ransom that fluctuated between $1,5m and $700 000 over the period of time.
On Thursday the journalist’s mother, Shireen Mohamed, released a statement that was highly critical of the way Dr Sooliman handled the issue accusing him of putting her son’s life at risk.
She again reiterated her view that Shiraaz went to Syria at the behest of the GOGT.
“For two and a half years, we believed and trusted Gift of the Givers (GOTG) to bring my son home after the organisation took him to Syria to cover its winter campaign. We were forced to seek other help because Dr Imtiaz Sooliman failed in his promises to free Shiraaz from his captors and bring him home to me. There was no progress, only media hype,” she wrote.
Her full statement can be found here.
Dr Sooliman has vehemently denied in recent months that Shiraaz was part of a delegation arranged by the GOGT to the town of Darkoush in the Idlib province where the South African funded Ar Rahma hospital is located. It is the largest medical facility in the north of the country caring for the needs of up to 10 000 people a day according to Sooliman.
Speaking to the SABC Morning Live team, he said it was a Turkish volunteer with the organisation who invited Shiraaz to Syria and the family took a decision to use this person instead of the GOGT for negotiations earlier in 2019.
Dr Sooliman also said he advised the family against speaking to multiple groups or using multiple negotiators in Syria as this often complicated the situation.
During the interaction on the SABC show he denied knowing the details of the journalists. “I didn’t even know Shiraaz was going to Syria. Actually I don’t know who Shiraaz is. I’ve never met him, to be honest with you. I just got news that he was there and I was wondering why did he go?”
Since Sooliman’s decision to distance himself from the negotiations, due to the family’s decision to use the secondary negotiator, he has been unwilling to comment on the situation and even when the latest videos showing Shiraaz in detention were sent to media in South Africa, Sooliman preferred not to comment.
The latest stance by Dr Sooliman claiming to not know Shiraaz however contradicted to a degree statements he made in a previous interview with Salaamedia conducted by the late Ebrahim Gangat. Dr Sooliman was quite candid in detailing the relationship that the GOGT had with Shiraaz within the first two minutes of the engagement.
The complete podcast can be found below.
Asked whether Shiraaz went on his own or with the Gift of the Givers, Dr Sooliman answered that it was a combination of both.
“Shiraaz has been in touch with me since 2013 and always wanted to go. I told him Shiraz, I don’t take teams unless I go myself. We don’t do that. And so continuously he has been waiting to go. He has been very enthusiastic… Finally this year (2017), my Turkey office called him and said look, you always wanted to go, now is the time after the evacuation of Aleppo. There’s virtually a ceasefire, it’s much safer now and we can facilitate the trip for you. So it was partly to facilitate a trip for him and partly for our work because he wanted to document our work. So we said it’s ok, you can come through and they took him in. Through the border was no problem, taking the area was no problem, taking him to see different parts was no problem. Everybody loved Shiraaz. They got along well with him, he stayed at my teams houses he met the hospital staff and he wanted to go to Aleppo. That’s the point we said sorry, there we can’t send you.” (sic)
In this week’s interview with the SABC when questioned for a second time Dr Sooliman said they had not no team going in at that time in 2017 and that he only found out about the existence of Shiraaz when he was inside Syria.
“When we , we go as a team. We don’t go as one person. We don’t go as a journalist, we go as a medical team. So he was not part of a Gift of the Givers team. Yes, his entry was facilitated by a guy who volunteered for the Gift of the Givers and he went to the Gift of the Givers hospital because it’s a South African landmark and through the hospital he wanted to film the camps that South Africans through Gift of the Givers was running. And he was very visible doing that for three to four days before being captured. So he was not part of a team. I would never have sent him alone and as I said, I never spoke to him, I don’t even know who Shiraaz is. I only came to know of his existence when he was on the other side.” (sic)
Ultimately it is hoped that Shiraaz will return to his distraught family soon and shed light on what happened to him in the last 35 months.
During an on air programme on Friday morning, Inayet Wadee and Azhar Vadi analysed the story and explored what could have been done differently to ensure an amicable outcome to this tragic story. Salaamedia has contacted Dr Sooliman directly for an opportunity to clarify but did not received a response at the point of publishing.