“They treated me well physically, but I was afraid they would kill me,” she said. “Up until yesterday, they were also using psychological torture, threatening to cut off my hands because they thought I was going to write a report about them. I was very frightened.”
The hostage-takers were believed to have included Algerian and Moroccans among their number. Ms Dabbous said that they were abducted as they wandered around a desecrated church. “They thought that we were going to attribute it to them, although we do not know who actually did this damage to the church,” she said.
At one point, Ms Dabbous was taken away to meet a woman who was introduced to her as the wife of one of the fighters. The pair spent time cooking together in a house, which at night was rocked by bombardments from Syrian government forces.
Speaking of her relationship with her abductors, she added: “I knew the only way to survive was to see them as human beings not as monsters.
Earlier this month, various jihadist websites reported that al-Nusra had formally emerged with al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is believed to have sent fighters across the border to join the efforts to topple President Bashar-al Assad. While many Syrian rebel groups do not share al-Nusra’s hardline vision, they value the group’s combat skills, which have made it one of the most formidable of the guerrilla units fighting President Assad.
The Italian government did not provide any details of how the four journalists were released. In the past, Rome is believed to have paid ransoms for hostages, but in the chaos of Syria’s civil war, it seems unlikely that that would have been possible. Sources close the kidnapping also said that no money had changed hands.
Sources close to the kidnapping said that the journalists’ translator, who was initially detained by the group and then released, played an important role in trying to get them freed. Liaising with local sheikhs, he went back and forth to the kidnap group’s headquarters several times to speak with their emir, or leader. On several occasions he slept the night in his car outside their base, despite it being within shelling range of government artillery.
“If it was not for him, we would still be inside,” said Ms Dabbous.
Abductions for religious, political or purely financial reasons are becoming increasingly frequent in war-torn Syria. In February, an Italian citizen and two Russians kidnapped in early December were released.
Ms Dabbous, who is half-Syrian and currently based in Lebanon, has spent the past 18 months covering the Syrian conflict.
The other three Italians released were Amedeo Ricucci, a correspondent for Rai TV, freelance photographer Elio Colavolpe, and cameraman Andrea Vignali.
Mr Ricucci told the Italian news agency Ansa “It was a misunderstanding. They thought we were spies and wanted to check what we had filmed. They thought we had filmed their base. They took a long time to verify this – too long”