What happened to Elizabeth Tsurkov? Princeton PhD candidate missing for months abducted in Iraq

Elizabeth Tsurkov, an Israeli researcher with Russian citizenship, was abducted on March 21, 2023, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad while she was in the country finalizing research for her doctoral thesis for Princeton University. Per Multiple reports, Tsurkov was born in Russia but emigrated to Israel at an early age.

Tsurkov, a 36-year-old PhD candidate at Princeton who has been missing for months, was abducted by the Kataib Hezbollah when she was researching Iran-backed factions, Israeli officials confirmed in a statement. The research was focused on the movement of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr.

Israel reveals Elizabeth Tsurkov, Israeli & Russian academic who has been missing for several months in Iraq, is being held as a hostage by Hezbollah.Tsurkov is still alive. She disappeared in Iraq in late March. https://t.co/a4DJhN5svk

Kataib Hezbollah, part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), was formed to fight the Islamic State. The group is a radical Iran-backed Shiite paramilitary faction. The United States designated the group as a terrorist organization in 2009.

Three months after Elizabeth Tsurkov’s abduction, on Wednesday, July 5, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Office confirmed that the missing Israeli researcher was alive, noting Iraq was now responsible for the safety of Tsurkov.

Details of Elizabeth Tsurkov’s abduction explored

Elizabeth Tsurkov (Image via Ayham Marjeh/Twitter)
Elizabeth Tsurkov (Image via Ayham Marjeh/Twitter)

Elizabeth Tsurkov, who holds dual Russian-Israeli citizenship, reportedly entered Iraq on her Russian passport, as she had several times in the past, in December 2022. Per her website, Tsurkov, as part of her doctoral thesis for Princeton University, previously conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and other countries in the middle east.

According to the New York Times, Tsurkov was leaving the Ridha Alwan cafe in the Karada neighborhood in Baghdad on March 21, 2021, when she was taken by the Kataib Hezbollah.

An Israeli official cited in the Times of Israel said that the researcher was abducted due to her ties with Russia and Israel. The official said that the radical group suspected Tsurkov to be a spy for Mossad (Israeli Intelligence).

The suspicion was based on the researcher performing military service in the Israel Defense Forces. However, the service is supposedly mandatory for all Israeli citizens who are not Israeli soldiers residing in the country. The Israeli official vehemently denied the spy allegations and said:

“She is absolutely not a member of the Mossad, period, exclamation, underline.”

The officials said that Tsurkov and the Israeli government were in touch with her family. However, Tsurkov’s mother Irina told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that she has not heard from Israeli officials and has not spoken to her daughter for months.

“I worry about her. I exchanged messages with her two months ago.”

Meanwhile, Emma Tsurkov, Elizabeth’s younger sister, told the Israeli news site Ynet that she last spoke with the PhD candidate in March. She said:

“We were trying to figure out what was going on. I knew she was there because she was researching. We spoke quite a lot about her research and how she will write her doctorate. I knew she was doing the fieldwork there.”

Emma said that her sister was studying the political movement in Iraq through the lens of ordinary people.

“She conducted interviews with people to understand how they saw the world, that’s what the doctorate is about.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov is the second Princeton PhD candidate to be abducted in a Middle Eastern country

Kataib Hezbollah, the Shiite Iraqi militia, abducts Israeli-Russian Elizabeth Tsurkov’She may be moved into Iran, and then it will be very tricky to get her out,’ @NeriZilber says https://t.co/IAyb6aeZey

Elizabeth Tsurkov is the second Princeton doctoral student to have been taken hostage in a Middle Eastern country. In 2016, Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-born US citizen, was accused of being a spy and imprisoned in Iran.

Wang was freed in 2019 as part of a prisoner swap for Masoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist arrested for violating US trade sanctions in 2018.

In the wake of Tsurkov’s abduction, Wang slammed Princeton for continuing to put their students’ life at risk by allowing them to carry out research in war-torn countries. Wang, in a statement to Al-Monitor, accused the university of discouraging him from contacting authorities after he was detained in Iran. He said:

“My passport was confiscated 18 days before I was arrested and the university decided to not go public and discouraged me and my family from informing the authorities about what was happening.”

Statement on Princeton graduate student Elizabeth Tsurkov. https://t.co/23OpqwZt8v

As Israeli authorities are working towards the release of Elizabeth Tsurkov, Princeton in a statement on Wednesday said that they are concerned for the safety of their student.

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Edited by Anushree Madappa

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