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From 'hell' to home: Journalist Jumpei Yasuda arrives in Japan after three years in captivity

Reuters, Kyodo, Staff Report

After three years of “hell,” journalist Jumpei Yasuda is home.

Yasuda arrived at Narita airporton Thursday evening, reuniting with his wife and parents for the first time since he was abducted by an Islamist militant group in Syria three years ago.

The 44-year-old freelance journalist was held hostage for 40 months in the war-torn country until being freed Tuesday.

Speaking on board a flight from Antakya in southern Turkey to Istanbul, where he transferred to a flight for Narita in Chiba Prefecture, Yasuda said he did not know what the future holds for him.

“I am happy that I can return to Japan. At the same time, I don’t know what will happen from here or what I should do,” he said. “I am thinking about what I need to do.”

He also said he had not spoken Japanese for 40 months and was struggling to find the right words. On board the same flight, Yasuda told NHK that the time he spent in Syria was a hell, not just physically but also mentally.

“Day by day, it became difficult to control myself, just thinking that I would not be released today,” he said. “I began to feel like a life in a solitary cell was now a norm. I was surprised at that feeling and to feel that way in itself is a very sad thing.”

He also said he is in good health and apologized for causing trouble. But at the same time, he expressed anger that his belongings were taken away.

“For three years, or 40 months, I could not work or do anything, and all my assets — cameras and other work tools — were taken away,” he said, recalling how he felt at the time he was released.

After he landed in Japan and met with his family, Yasuda’s wife spoke to reporters, expressing joy at being reunited with her husband.

“The moment I saw him in the hallway, I ran up to him and hugged him. He was being a little shy when I told him ‘welcome home,'” his wife, a singer who performs under the name Myu, told a news conference, as she held back tears of joy.

Myu added that she had not been expecting Yasuda’s release and that the news had taken her by surprise.

She felt like “she had suddenly been hit by lightning” when she first heard that her husband had been freed from captivity.

When she talked to Yasuda briefly at the airport, he had described his years in captivity as a “particularly agonizing” experience, she said.

Myu went on to say that Yasuda was “not thinking about the future yet” and that their top priority is ensuring Yasuda’s health, both physically and mentally, given the “gruelling” environment he had to survive in.

“He did say that he wanted to explain the situation he was put through to the public as soon as he can,” she added.

For now, however, she just wanted her husband to settle back into daily life, and enjoy the little pleasures of life, like taking a hot bath and sleeping in a proper bed.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Thursday that a doctor at a Japanese diplomatic mission examined Yasuda and found he was in good health.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conveyed Japan’s gratitude to Qatar and Turkey for their help in securing the release of Yasuda. Abe told reporters that he had spoken by phone with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after confirming the journalist was safe.

Yasuda entered Syria from Hatay, Turkey, in June 2015 to cover the civil war and then disappeared, apparently after being taken hostage by a militant group.

Although it was not immediately known how or why Yasuda, who often provided coverage on war zones, was freed, Suga indicated Qatar, which has some influence over Syrian rebel groups, and Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, brokered negotiations.

The Japanese government had called for cooperation from Qatar and Turkey through the International Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Collection Unit, launched in 2015, to gather information on global militant groups.

After he went missing, footage apparently of Yasuda reading out a message in English to his family and the Japanese public was posted online in March 2016.

In May 2016, an image surfaced of what appeared to be a bearded Yasuda holding a sign bearing a handwritten message in Japanese saying, “Please help. This is the last chance. Yasuda Jumpei.”

Multiple video recordings showing a person believed to be Yasuda were also posted online in July this year.

While Yasuda was believed to be in the hands of an al-Qaida-linked group, some information suggested he had been handed over to a splinter organization.

Yasuda’s three years in captivity were not the first time he had been detained in the Middle East.

He was held in Baghdad in 2004 and drew criticism at home for drawing the government into negotiations for his release

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