Families measure time in milestones, so three years to the parents of Austin Tice amount to two weddings, three graduations, four overseas trips, and too many birthdays and anniversaries to tally.
And that’s still just a fraction of all that Tice, a former Marine and law student who became a freelance journalist, has missed since he was abducted from the Syrian battlefield in August 2012 while covering the conflict for McClatchy, The Washington Post and other news outlets. On Tuesday he turned 34, his third birthday in captivity.
“When it was a month, three months, six months, we thought, ‘We can catch him up.’ But three years? It’s impossible,” said Tice’s father, Marc Tice. “The landscape of his life here has completely changed. What he will be coming back to is, in some ways, unrecognizable from the life that he left when he went to Syria.”
Tice’s mother, Debra, said she sometimes imagines the jolt her son will get when he finds out that his “diapers and spaghetti” Texan mom has traveled the world to raise his case with foreign ministers and other dignitaries. In June, the family met with President Barack Obama on the day the White House announced an overhaul of U.S. hostage policy after months of campaigning by the Tices and other families of American captives.
“The kind of people I'll get peeved at if they don’t respond in 24 hours are people I never even thought I’d see from an audience,” she said.
Despite a maddening lack of basic information – Is he OK? Who is holding him? Why? – Tice’s family is convinced he’s alive and that the hostage policy reforms along with political developments in the Middle East are reinvigorating chances for his release.
Tice’s parents point to improved U.S.-Iranian ties and some small gestures by regional powers toward organizing Syrian peace talks – all steps they hope will help resolve the civil war and carve some space for them to find their son. The fact that most Middle East analysts don’t see any near-term solution for Syria doesn’t dim the Tices’ conviction.
“Even if we’re the only ones who can feel it and see it, it’s important for us to know that there is momentum. There is a positive shift in a number of areas, even if it’s not what others would define as a shift or political change,” Marc Tice said. “It’s not easy to see, but it’s important for us.”
The identity of Tice’s captors is the biggest mystery in his disappearance. Unlike in the cases of other foreigners abducted in Syria, no group has claimed responsibility for his capture.
Tice’s satellite phone, which he used to communicate with his editors and his family in Houston, last transmitted in the midafternoon Syrian time on Aug. 13, 2012. The Tices think their son was kidnapped the next day as he began a trip that was to take him from south of Damascus, where he’d been reporting for several weeks, to Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
The only news of him since has been a video that was posted to YouTube Sept. 26, 2012. It shows an obviously distraught Tice, blindfolded, being led up a hillside by gunmen. The video breaks off as he’s heard speaking fractured Arabic, then saying, “Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”
Analysts doubt the authenticity of the video, saying that it looked like a Syrian regime ploy to blame the kidnapping on Islamist extremists. The regime has denied holding him.
“There’s no hard evidence pointing to anyone as the captor. We’ve been told indirectly that the Syrian government says they don’t have Austin. We’ve also been told by them that they’d assist in locating him,” Marc Tice said.
“We certainly cannot say anything concrete about who’s responsible and who’s holding him, but it seems beyond obvious to us that the government in Damascus is the greatest resource for figuring out who is holding him,” he added.
The Tices say, without elaboration, that they’ve been assured that their son is not with the Islamic State, the jihadist group known for beheading hostages, including James Foley, an American journalist who knew Tice and had helped search for him before his own capture in November 2012. The Tices said they didn’t plan to mark their son’s birthday this week because last year, en route to a birthday prayer vigil, they received the news of Foley’s death.
Until a breakthrough, the Tices said, they'll continue raising awareness about their ordeal, pressing foreign policy figures to look into their son’s whereabouts. This week, a donated billboard will go up in Houston reminding passersby about the native son who vanished in Syria.
“We’re not sitting quietly at home and not making a fuss,” Debra Tice said. “We are making a fuss. We want him home.”