For weeks, freelance photographer Matthew Schrier stood shoulder to shoulder with rebel fighters in Syria, documenting their slow but steady gains against government troops.
Small arms. Grenades. Mortars. But he walked away.
Then, on his way out of the country, in an instant, Schrier was ambushed by members of an al-Qaida faction. They held him for seven months, in a basement converted into a makeshift prison.
Today, the Deer Park native and Hofstra University graduate is the only American to break free from captors in Syria, according to the U.S. Department of State.
In his new memoir “The Dawn Prayer (Or How to Survive in a Secret Syrian Terrorist Prison),” the 39-year-old Schrier writes with unflinching detail about his harrowing time with the al-Qaida faction al-Nusra Front.
The memoir, released last week by Dallas-based Ben Bella Books, describes the beatings, death threats and torture Schrier endured in a dark, dingy boiler room during those seven months in 2013. Twelve-year-old boys with bombs strapped to their bodies witnessed the cruelty.
Schrier managed to survive by figuring out who he could trust and who he couldn’t. He became friends with captured government troops who shared a cell with him.
“They knew I was there to photograph their enemy,” Schrier said in an interview. “But they didn’t hold it against me. We became a family.”
Schrier’s story caught the attention of North Babylon native Billy Hayes, whose nightmarish incarceration in a Turkish prison was depicted in the 1978 film “Midnight Express.”
Hayes read an early draft of Schrier’s book and encouraged him to finish it.
“As a Long Island guy, I admire Matt,” Hayes said. “He didn’t do anything wrong. He was a pawn in a political game and was used because he is an American. That made it more difficult. He had to figure out the game and won.”
Schrier’s ordeal began on New Year’s Eve 2012. After several weeks photographing the rebel fighters, he climbed into a taxi headed for the Turkish border. On the way north, Jihadist fighters ambushed the cab.
The taxi driver had set him up, Schrier said.
“He never went for his gun that was in the front seat,” he said.
Soon after, Schrier found himself jailed just outside the city of Aleppo.
The sound of beatings with metal cables echoed throughout the prison. Inside the boiler room, where a handcuffed prisoner hung from a pipe, captors forced Schrier to bend his legs into a tire, with a wooden club locked behind his knees. Then, they flipped him to his side and battered the soles of his feet with a cable, he said.
“They would pass the cable around and take turns. They just started whacking you,’’ Schrier said. “I took it. I screamed as loud as I could. I was thinking, the louder I screamed, the sooner they would think they were doing their job and stop.”
All the while, Schrier was planning his escape. Over many days, he gradually untangled a patch of enmeshed wire cemented atop a broken window. In the early dawn of July 29, 2013, Schrier squeezed through the broken window. He soon found himself outside the prison walls, zigzagging through the bombed outskirts of Aleppo. Schrier came across a Syrian humanitarian worker, who fed and gave him a new set of clothes before driving him to the Turkish border — and eventually, freedom.
Schrier believes it was his humor that probably kept him alive.
“These guys needed a laugh so bad and here was this goofy American,” said Schrier, who introduced his cellmates to the game hackysack. He made the hackysack out of orange peels and a plastic bag with a piece of cloth that he tied with a shoe lace. Another prisoner sewed a sock around it to make it durable.
For the writer and Afghanistan War correspondent Sebastian Junger, Schrier’s humor, intelligence and ability to assess who he could trust were key to his breakout.
“He’s clearly brave and an intensely smart guy,” Junger said, “who was basically playing chess with his captors and won.”