The parents of missing American journalist Austin Tice made a heart-wrenching appeal for his safe return Thursday in an open letter addressed to his captors in Syria.
“We urge you, whoever you are: let Austin come home for Christmas,” Marc and Debra Tice wrote in the letter, published by McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Post. “Let us hug him, laugh and cry with him, love him in person. Let us be a whole family again.”
Austin Tice was reporting on Syria’s civil war when he disappeared Aug. 13 near the Damascus suburb of Darayya. The 31-year-old freelance journalist from Houston reported from the front lines of the conflict for McClatchy, The Post and other news outlets. He is a Marine Corps veteran and a student at Georgetown University Law Center.
State Department officials say they believe Tice is in the custody of the Syrian government, but the regime has denied any involvement or knowledge of his whereabouts.
In their letter, the Tices said their eldest son’s 18-week absence has been agonizing for their close-knit family, especially for his six younger siblings.
Thanksgiving dinner without him was unbearable, they wrote.
“Now, as we prepare for the joyful celebration of Christmas, we desperately want our family to be whole,” the Tices wrote. “Our hearts are heavy to think his chair may once again be empty at our family table; we dread missing his great storytelling and contagious laugh.”
The couple said they encouraged their children “to learn about and understand other cultures,” a value Tice took to heart in his globetrotting career.
“Austin has traveled widely, always eager to meet and engage the local people,” they said. “He has a special affinity for the people of the Middle East – he is especially attracted to your tradition of hospitality. He deeply connects with your intense loyalty to family, faith and ideals.”
The Tices described their son as “a passionate and serious man” who went to Syria to witness the truth and share the stories of its people with the world.
He has a soft spot for children and tried to capture in his photographs how events in Syria affected the country’s youngest citizens, they said.
“Austin is just one of the many journalists taking great risks to further knowledge and understanding of other people, places, and events,” his parents wrote. “There is a global consensus through treaty and convention that the work of journalists is essential and should be protected and respected.”
The State Department is working with Czech diplomats in Syria to get information on Tice’s location and welfare, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement Thursday. The Czech Embassy in Damascus represents America as a “protecting power” in Syria because the U.S. Embassy has been closed since February.
“The Syrian government has informed us that Austin Tice is not currently in Syria or in Syrian custody,” Ventrell said. “However, Mr. Tice’s last known whereabouts placed him inside Syria, and we have received other reports indicating that he may be held in custody by Syrian authorities. We call upon the Syrian government to assist our protecting power in locating Mr. Tice and to ensure his welfare and safety.”
A YouTube video posted in September – and promoted on a pro-regime Facebook page – appears to show Tice alive in captivity. In the 47-second clip, masked men chant, “God is great,” as they drag the journalist up a hill and force him to his knees. Blindfolded and distraught, Tice can be heard trying to recite an Islamic prayer. Then he gasps, “Oh, Jesus. Oh, Jesus,” and the video cuts off.