National

Freed journalist Jumpei Yasuda expresses gratitude, apologizes over Syria ordeal

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Journalist Jumpei Yasuda, who returned to Japan last month after being held by militants in Syria for more than three years, said Thursday that he did not hold any grudge toward the Japanese government over his ordeal.

“I believe the government officials did everything they could,” given their stance of not paying ransoms to terrorists and that gathering information on the situation in that region is difficult.

“I owe an apology to all those who did their utmost to secure my release, and I’d also like to say that I’m deeply grateful for all the efforts” that led to the release, he told a jam-packed news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo.

“I’m really sorry for involving, and thus endangering, the government.”

Addressing a recent barrage of criticism, mostly online, which claimed that Yasuda should take personal responsibility for entering a war zone, the journalist said that he deserved it.

“You enter conflict-stressed zones on your own responsibility, and you can blame yourself if something happens to you,” he said.

Yasuda, who after returning to Japan spent several days in a hospital, said he was still recovering from the traumatic events.

Yasuda was abducted soon after he entered Syria from Turkey via a mountainous route on June 22, 2015. He believes he may have been deceived by people who were meant to be helping him cross the border.

Yasuda said he did not know for certain the name of the group that held him.

However, based on conversations he was part of or heard while in captivity, he concluded that the group may be the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or the Levant Liberation Committee.

The group was formed from a merger of the Nusra Front and other militant groups.

He said he could keep track of the events because he was allowed to keep records in a diary.

Yasuda said that in late July 2015, the militants informed him that they had demanded the Japanese government pay a ransom. The group was reported to have been seeking $10 million (¥1.1 billion).

Apparently the militants had high hopes that Tokyo would respond to their demand, and they allowed Yasuda to watch television and treated him to sweets and local delicacies while keeping him under surveillance during the first months of his ordeal.

Yasuda said the militants informed him that the government was willing to pay. But in the closing days of December that year, they told him that Tokyo had ceased negotiations.

“During that time, I clung to the idea that the government was trying to buy time,” he said.

Yasuda, who was transferred to various locations over the period of his 40-month detention, was held alongside other hostages. They included Pakistanis and an Italian man, who like Yasuda appeared in a video wearing orange jumpsuits begging for help.

Yasuda said that to scare him and prevent him from leaking information about his whereabouts or the militant group, he was often forced to listen to other hostages being tortured. He mentioned that Uighurs were among the militants keeping him under surveillance in the last months of his ordeal.

Militants suspected him of spying, and later played with his emotions by keeping him in a room where he wasn’t able to move, he added.

He said he was given script for most of the videos that militants released for negotiations, some of which were disclosed by media in Japan.

Before filming, he said, he was often required to eat chili peppers because the militants wanted him to appear tearful.

“They assured me they wouldn’t kill me,” he said. He also said his captors repeated promises of a prompt release numerous times, but in the last weeks he felt desperate and told the guards to “either let me go or kill me.”

Looking ahead, Yasuda said he had no idea whether he would return to Syria or neighboring countries to report.

“I go to such places when I want to get information, when I have questions,” he said.

He also stressed that “the role of journalists reporting from conflict-stressed zones is indispensable,” as they observe events impossible to cover and hard to comprehend from the outside.

For example, he said that in Syria he was hoping to obtain documents concerning members and the structure of the Islamic State group, which in 2015 wielded power in the nation and posed a significant threat to the world.

“At that time I wanted to see how the world of Islam works there, whether an outsider can grasp how it works and what problems exist in that society,” he said.

“I still want to learn more about Syria and convey the voices of people living there.”