No warning signs prior to Elizabeth Tsurkov abduction, her sister says

The Princeton researcher was kidnapped in March.

July 12, 2023, 3:08 PM

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a doctoral student in political science at Princeton University, was abducted in March from a café in Iraq, where she had been doing research. The Israeli Middle East expert was doing field studies in Karrada, Iraq, when she was kidnapped.

Tsurkov’s sister, Emma Tsurkov, spoke to ABC News Live’s Linsey Davis about when she realized something was wrong, who is responsible for bringing Elizabeth safely home, and the message she has for her sister.

LINSEY DAVIS: Israeli researcher and Princeton student Elizabeth Tsurkov has been missing for months in Iraq. And Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu's office, says the 36-year-old is being held captive by a Shiite militia. We're joined now by her sister, Emma Tsurkov. Emma, thank you so much for joining us. You say that your sister was kidnaped at a cafe back in March. Walk us through what you believe happened that day.

EMMA TSURKOV: So, I spoke with her the day before. There were no warning signs. We had a completely normal, routine conversation about finishing up her fieldwork for her dissertation, then coming back to Princeton to do the last part of writing up her dissertation. We even talked about flights to New Jersey. Really such a mundane conversation.

There were no warning signs. And then the next day, which is a day when she went missing, I knew that she was going to go to a café because she often goes to work there. But I haven't heard back from her after and we're always in very close contact. And no matter how busy she is, when I send her pictures of my son, her nephew, she always responds. He’s truly the apple of her eye. And she didn't.

And I immediately, within 12 hours, I knew that something must be wrong because there is no way that she's fine and is just not responding.

PHOTO: Elizabeth Tsurkov is seen here in an undated file photo.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is seen here in an undated file photo.
Newlines Institute for Strategy /AFP via Getty Images

LINSEY DAVIS: The prime minister's office says that they believe that she's still alive. Have you heard anything from Elizabeth or her captors since she was taken?

EMMA TSURKOV: So, I haven't heard from them directly. But I was informed by the Israeli authorities that she is alive. Generally, they're very cautious. And they have been, with everything that they've told me throughout this situation. So, I'm certain that they have some good reason to tell me that she's alive.

LINSEY DAVIS: She was in Baghdad at the time doing research for her doctorate in political science. Why do you think that they would want to take her captive?

EMMA TSURKOV: From what I understand, she was at the wrong place at the wrong time. She was just there doing fieldwork and interviewing people. And she wasn't interviewing some militia people or doing something really dangerous. She was really interested in understanding how ordinary Iraqis understand their political realities. So, it was completely innocuous research. And to the extent that they were looking for some intelligence operative, they just, they have the wrong person.

LINSEY DAVIS: Did she ever describe during her time in Iraq feeling unsafe?

EMMA TSURKOV: No, not at all. Actually, there's a contrary. She said the Iraqi people are very warm and welcoming and, generally, she felt very welcomed. And there actually was a sense of pride in the fact that a Princeton researcher is coming to study there. And to interview them.

LINSEY DAVIS: ABC News received a statement from Princeton saying the university is concerned for her safety and well-being. Israel's government has acknowledged her abduction. What else do you think can be done at this point to get her home?

EMMA TSURKOV: So, I think the main party responsible for her safety is the Iraqi government. And that's responsible for her safety. She was kidnapped in Karrada -- it's a neighborhood, and it's a very bustling neighborhood. There are a lot of Westerners there, and it's considered one of the safest parts of Baghdad -- and Iraq, in general. So, it is squarely the responsibility of the Iraqi government to ensure that the militia that holds her returns her safely home.

PHOTO: Elizabeth Tsurkov is seen here in an undated file photo.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is seen here in an undated file photo.
Ahmad Mohamad/AFP via Getty Images

LINSEY DAVIS: If Elizabeth could hear you right now, what would you want to say to her?

EMMA TSURKOV: I love you more than anything. And I miss you so, so much. And I promise I'll do everything I can and more to bring you back home.

LINSEY DAVIS: Are you optimistic and have faith that you'll see her again?

EMMA TSURKOV: I'm really trying to keep an optimistic outlook on this. But I have to admit that the nightmare scenarios are very hard to avoid thinking about because so many terrible things can go wrong with a Jewish woman being at the hands of a terrorist organization. It's just all the horrible things that can happen just keep me up at night and are deeply worrying.

LINSEY DAVIS: We can imagine, and our thoughts are certainly with you. Emma Tsurkov, we thank you so much for joining us.