BEIRUT — A Japanese journalist held hostage for more than three years in Syria returned home Thursday, ending an ordeal that he described as a personal “hell.”
Jumpei Yasuda, 44, was kidnapped by militants in June 2015 during a reporting trip to northern Syria. The freelance reporter was last seen, bedraggled and drawn, in a video circulated online this summer.
The circumstances surrounding Yasuda’s release were not clear as he was reunited Thursday with his family at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport. The journalist, sporting a black T-shirt and scraggly gray beard, was escorted from the plane by Japanese officials and ushered into a black van.
“The moment I saw him in the hallway, I ran up to him and hugged him,” his wife, Myu, said at a news conference. “He was being a little shy when I told him, ‘Welcome home.’ ”
Although Yasuda is thought to have been captured by fighters linked to al-Qaeda, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said he had been transferred under the custody of a Syrian commander to the Turkistan Islamic Party, a hard-line group dominated by Chinese Uighurs.
Yasuda was initially released across the Turkish border on Oct. 23. It was unclear whether the Turkish government played a role in negotiating an end to his captivity.
On Thursday, he described his detention as a physical and mental “hell.” Torture was frequent, he said. At one point, he said, he was unable to bathe for eight months.
“Day after day, I thought, ‘Oh, I couldn’t go home again,’ and the thought took over my head and gradually made it difficult for me to control myself,” he told the Japanese NHK television station.
Syria is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Dozens have been killed or taken hostage, all but severing the access of international reporters to opposition-held swaths of the country.
President Bashar al-Assad’s government also has controlled the flow of information by denying visas to reporters from most Western publications.
Among Yasuda’s final dispatches was a report on Kenji Goto, another Japanese journalist and a friend, held hostage in Syria before he was beheaded on camera by Islamic State militants.
Outside the family’s home near Tokyo on Thursday, Yasuda’s mother, Sachiko, fought back tears as she addressed reporters. “I could do nothing but pray, so I’ve been praying every day,” she said.
According to Japanese legend, anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish from the gods. During Yasuda’s time in captivity, Sachiko said, she had folded more than 10,000.
On a flight to Istanbul on Thursday, Yasuda spoke of relief tempered by fear for the future. “I’m so happy to be free,” he said. “But I’m a bit worried about what will happen to me or what I should do from now on.”