Four French journalists taken hostage in Syria were reunited with family and colleagues on Sunday in an emotional homecoming after 10 months in captivity during which they were chained together and held in dingy basements.
Looking thin and tired but overjoyed, the men hugged relatives and colleagues waiting at an air base southwest of Paris where they flew in early Sunday from Turkey.
“It was a long haul, but we never lost hope,” said radio reporter Didier Francois, who, like the rest of the group, had shaved the long beard he grew in captivity before the reunion at the Villacoublay base.
“From time to time, we got snatches of information, we knew that the world was mobilised,” said Francois, 53, an experienced and highly respected war reporter for Europe 1 radio.
Francois said the conditions of their captivity had been “tough”. We “stayed 10 whole months in basements without ever seeing daylight”, including a month and a half with “all of us chained together”, he said.
“In a country at war things are not always simple, when it comes to food, water, electricity, sometimes things were a bit hairy, the fighting was close by.”
President Francois Hollande said it was “a day of joy for France” as he met the four men at Villacoublay, where they were due to undergo medical checks.
Francois and photographer Edouard Elias, 23, were taken north of the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo on June 6.
Nicolas Henin, a 37-year-old reporter for Le Point magazine, and freelance photographer Pierre Torres, 29, were seized two weeks later, also in the north of the country, at Raqqa.
– ‘No ransom’ –
They were held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the most radical of Syria’s jihadist groups, and the precise conditions of their release remain unclear.
Hollande reiterated that France “does not pay ransoms” for hostages, and said “all is done through negotiation and discussion”.
A source close to the matter said French intelligence services had tracked the journalists and were “constantly able to locate them”, working to free them with help from the US, Britain, Spain and Turkey.
Turkish soldiers found the men abandoned in a no-man’s land on the border with Syria overnight Friday to Saturday, blindfolded and with their hands bound.
The soldiers initially thought they were smugglers, but took them to a police station when they realised they were speaking French.
Hollande said France was “proud” to have secured their release, but cautioned that “there are still hostages being held in Syria because they are journalists.”
Around 30 foreign journalists covering the Syrian civil war have been seized since the conflict began in March 2011, and many are still missing.
Syria is the most dangerous country for journalists, according to a report released on Wednesday by the New-York based Committee to Protect Journalists, which highlighted the rising number of “targeted killings” of reporters.
– Captors ‘spoke French’ –
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said some of the men’s captors spoke French.
“French, Belgians, Italians, Europeans in general have gone there for jihad,” he told journalists.
Asked whether they were treated well Henin, his two children in his arms and his voice cracking with emotion, replied: “Not always. It wasn’t always easy.”
The reporter said earlier he had managed to escape once, but was recaptured.
“I took the biggest risk three days after my kidnapping, because I escaped. I spent a night in freedom running through the Syrian countryside before my kidnappers caught up with me,” Henin told France 24 television.
Recounting the last hours before he was freed, Henin said: “Usually we were not very well fed. But the guards came to our cell and brought us a meal that was better than the usual, and even asked if we wanted to eat more, which never happens.
“So we thought: something’s going on. And quite rightly, as we hardly had any time to eat before they came in the next minute to say ‘let’s go, we’re going to the border'”, he recalled.
The group’s release was met with outpouring of joy from friends and colleagues, with the head of Europe 1 Denis Olivennes describing emotional scenes in the office.
“It is an immense joy, we are in tears,” he said. “We have endured 10 months of terrible anxiety and anguish. Now they are freed, I have no words to describe how it feels.”
The four men’s release comes a few weeks after two Spanish journalists taken hostage in Syria in September by ISIL also walked free.
Among those still held in Syria are US journalist James Foley, who had been working for Global Post, Agence France-Presse and other international media and went missing in November 2012, and Austin Tice, who disappeared in August the same year.