The families of nine Lebanese soldiers abducted in 2014 by the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) recently learned the group may have transferred their sons from Syria's al-Qalamoun region to its stronghold in al-Raqa.
While the Syrian Democratic Forces' operation to liberate al-Raqa from ISIL has given the families some hope that the group's demise is imminent, they remain wracked with concern over the fate of their sons, they told Al-Mashareq.
The nine soldiers were among 28 army and police personnel kidnapped by ISIL and al-Nusra Front (ANF), now known as Fatah al-Sham Front (FSF), during battles in Arsal between the security forces and the two groups in August 2014.
ANF released the soldiers and police in several batches, with the last batch of 16 released last December. ISIL killed two of the kidnapped soldiers, including Sgt. Ali al-Sayed and soldier Abbas Medlej, whose corpse was not returned.
ISIL is believed to be still holding Khalid Hassan, Hussein Ammar, Mustafa Wehbe, Ali al-Masri, Ali Hajj Hassan, Ibrahim Mgheit, Abdel Rahim Diab, Mohammad Yousef and Seif Thebian, all members of the Lebanese forces.
In a November 8th report in al-Joumhouria newspaper, journalist Nasser Sharara revealed that ISIL was holding the soldiers in al-Raqa.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Mashareq, Sharara said this information came "from reliable sources, and the authorities concerned with the case know this".
This was revealed in a phone call made by a mediator to ISIL leadership, he said, who confirmed the soldiers had been moved from al-Qalamoun, along the Syrian-Lebanese border, to al-Raqa, along Syria's northern border with Turkey.
The mediator "received assurances from ISIL's leadership that the soldiers are alive, and that they are holding on to the body of another", he said. "He also received verbal confirmation from them that they were moved to al-Raqa."
Based on information obtained from sources with links to international human rights organisations, Sharara said the kidnapped soldiers "could be held in the prison in the village of Ayed, which is a very mysterious and secretive prison".
The father of soldier Mohammed Yousef told Al-Mashareq he rarely leaves the tents outside the government headquarters in Beirut where the families of the abductees gather for their daily sit-in.
"This news reopened our wound, which will not heal until all the abductees return," he said, adding that he lives in hope of seeing his son again.
"Our concern and anxiety over the fate of my son and his fellow soldiers never abated for a moment," he said. "The fear never left our hearts for a second; it has been increasing by the day for over two years and three months."
"We have a gut feeling that the issue will come to a happy ending, although the facts do not support our optimism," he said.
Yousef said the latest information available to the families "is one year and 11 months old, the date of our last contact with our sons, and the last time I heard the voice of my son Mohammed".
The families have received conflicting information about the location of their sons, he said: "One time we are told they are in Mosul, other times in Arsal or al-Raqa. Unfortunately, no one confirms or denies."
When he heard the news of their possible relocation to al-Raqa, ISIL's stronghold in northern Syria, Yousef said, "I was as terrified as everyone else."
Yousef, who cares for his son's wife, Ghinwa and the couple's 2-year-old son, said he believes the ongoing military operations will eventually liberate al-Raqa from ISIL and ultimately reveal the fate of the soldiers.
Following the news of ISIL
Nitham Mgheit, brother of kidnapped adjutant Ibrahim Mgheit, told Al-Mashareq his family, like those of the other soldiers, is "living a daily tragedy".
"The news of their presence in al-Raqa has heightened our fears," he said. "We follow all the news and watch all channels to learn what is going on in Syria and Mosul."
Like Yousef, Mgheit said the families have received conflicting news about the location of their sons, "as someone previously told us they are in Mosul, and today, in al-Raqa".
"Our fears were intensified further by the news of their presence in al-Raqa," he said. "We have become obsessed with following the news of the battles against ISIL."
"We often thought of going to Arsal to search for them," he said. "I do not know how to answer my brother's three sons. They ask me about him every day, to the point that his 5-year-old son Hamza wants to go look for him on his own."
Mgheit said his brother's daughter was born after he was kidnapped, and knows him only from photos. Meanwhile, he added, his brother's wife is living on sedatives and his parents cannot stop crying.
"Our mental state is extremely bad," Mgheit said. "We cannot find news about them or whether they are still alive."