ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We have a story now about a dream that turned into a nightmare for 30-year-old American Sam Goodwin. He was trying to visit every country in the world. He had worked at it for a decade and was down to the last 10 when he went to Syria in May of 2019. Within hours of his arrival, he was arrested, and Goodwin spent 62 days in Syria's notoriously brutal prison system. He's one of few Americans who have been there and gotten out, and now he is telling his story to NPR's Deborah Amos.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: For Sam Goodwin, the first day of captivity was one of the worst.
SAM GOODWIN: This was certainly the point where I was incredibly terrified. Nothing like this has ever happened. I felt like I had committed suicide but was still alive.
AMOS: Alive but isolated deep inside a Syrian prison.
GOODWIN: I will never forget my exact thought. And it was, is this where my story ends?
AMOS: His story was right on track earlier that day. He'd arrived in northeast Syria in the town of Qamishli, territory partly controlled by Syria's U.S.-backed Kurds. He checked into the Asia Hotel. It was a top stop for international journalists and aid workers. Goodwin says he was careful after more than 180 countries under his belt, even in the dangerous places.
GOODWIN: I built an ice rink in Pakistan. Like, I coached volleyball in Kabul.
AMOS: Sure, Syria was a tough security challenge, but he had official permission from the Kurds. What he didn't know - a checkpoint within walking distance of the hotel was manned by the Syrian army. And that is where his luck ran out. He did not have their permission.
GOODWIN: A truck pulled up, and two armed men jumped out and told me to get inside. I did not have a choice.
AMOS: He was quickly transferred to the Syrian capital and held in Branch 215, one of the most notorious prisons in the country. Goodwin got a rare glimpse into Syria's vast complex of detention centers. While the Syrian regime regularly dismisses reports on torture, Goodwin was a witness.
GOODWIN: I was in a dungeon. There were men with no shirts on mopping the floor. It smelled horrible. I never saw another inmate, but the facility was not soundproof. The inmates, they would scream. Hearing this happen, you know, every day was, of course - will never forget the sound of that.
AMOS: After 23 days in solitary confinement, Goodwin says he was handcuffed, blindfolded and marched into a room where his interrogator spoke perfect American English. For hours, he asked the same question. Why did you come to Syria, Sam? Goodwin's answer - his aim to visit every country in the world - wasn't convincing.
GOODWIN: Sam, you're a liar. You better start telling the truth, or I will do a 180 with your life. You want me to hand you over to ISIS? I'll do it right now. I'm, you know, handcuffed, blindfolded. I've spent the past three weeks in a cement box in a Syrian prison, and now an interrogator is threatening to hand me over to ISIS. I was absolutely terrified.
AMOS: Syrian officials haven't responded to emails from NPR about Goodwin's ordeal, but his circumstances were about to change. He says he was moved to Adra Prison north of Damascus. Now he shared a cell with 40 men, including an executive with a Syrian telecom company, with some students, laborers, even a couple of English teachers. They told him their stories about brutality and torture in prison.
GOODWIN: They became friends. We cooked, and we shared food together on the prison basketball court. I taught some of them how to play Knock-Out. It was unquestionably an upgrade from where I had come from.
AMOS: He would spend 34 days with these men, and in that time, inmates helped him smuggle out messages to his family, one time smuggled out in dirty laundry.
GOODWIN: That note actually made it to my father. It said, I am safe and healthy, but I need help.
AMOS: The text made it to his father's phone from a cell phone in Damascus.
GOODWIN: Because I wanted them to know that it was me. And so I wrote that I'm excited for my next salmon dinner at the Missouri Athletic Club.
AMOS: Another inmate smuggled out a message. His sister posted it on Instagram.
GOODWIN: And it starts out - it's like, hi, Stephanie. My brother is in prison with your brother, like, just freaking out, like, the U.S. intelligence community.
AMOS: And here the outside story and the inside one begins to come together. Goodwin's family didn't publicize his disappearance. They worked quietly with the U.S. government and private sources to negotiate his release. The family also reached out to Lebanon's security chief, Abbas Ibrahim, who became a key negotiator. Goodwin says when he met Ibrahim in Damascus, he finally realized that he was going home.
GOODWIN: And I said, you're from Lebanon? And he says, yeah. I'm going to take you there today. Do you want to go? We drove out of Damascus at what seemed to be a hundred miles an hour.
AMOS: The convoy only stopped at the Lebanese border. Then an officer whispered to Goodwin.
GOODWIN: And he quietly said - and, again, words I'll never forget. He said, Sam, you're in Lebanon. You're safe now.
AMOS: His parents were waiting, as well as officials from the U.S. embassy. There are at least two other U.S. citizens held in Syria, most notably Austin Tice, a freelance journalist, and Majd Kamalmaz, a psychologist from Texas. Goodwin's observations may help with their release. Goodwin is now enrolled in a graduate program in Missouri. A devout Catholic, he's often invited to speak to religious groups about his time as a prisoner in Damascus.
GOODWIN: Everything was taken from me - my material possessions, my communication, my freedom. But I knew that no matter what, my faith was absolute. And that's what I had to hold on to when I had nothing else.
AMOS: And he also held on to his travel dream. He completed his quest after his release. Brazil was the final stop - a New Year's visit in 2019, right before the pandemic shut everything down. Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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