Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, has given details of his captivity for the first time and told of his uncertainty about the future as he prepared to return home.
Speaking aboard a flight from southern Turkey to Istanbul, from where he was due to fly to Tokyo on Thursday, the 44-year-old freelance journalist said he was struggling to speak fluently in his native language after 40 months as a prisoner of a group with links to al-Qaida.
“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,” Yasuda told Reuters a day after his release. “I am thinking about what I need to do.”
Earlier, in a brief video released by Turkish officials, Yasuda, who had lost weight and grown a thick beard, confirmed his identity. “My name is Jumpei Yasuda, Japanese journalist,” he said in English. “I have been held in Syria for 40 months, now in Turkey. Now I’m in safe condition. Thank you very much.”
He is expected to come under pressure to offer a more detailed account of his time as a hostage, which began when he was captured, allegedly by the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida linked militant group, soon after entering northern Syria from Turkey in June 2015.
“What he witnessed during his captivity is precious information. We want to hear from him to use his experience in helping to end the war [in Syria],” Maki Sato, secretary general of the Japan Iraq Medical Network, told Kyodo news.
It was the second time Yasuda, who has been reporting from Middle East war zones for almost two decades, had been captured. He was held in Iraq in 2004 along with three other Japanese citizens but they were released after an intervention by Muslim clerics.
Speaking outside their home near Tokyo, Yasuda’s parents fought back tears. “I could do nothing but pray, so I’ve been praying every day,” his mother, Sachiko. She said she had folded more than 10,000 paper cranes during her son’s ordeal in the desperate hope that her wish would be granted.
His father, Hideaki, said: “Above everything else I want to see that he is fine. When he gets back I want to tell him one thing, that he did a good job hanging in there.”
Yasuda’s wife, a singer who goes by the name Myu, was appearing on live TV when news came through that her husband’s safety had been confirmed. “First I want to tell him welcome back and then praise him for enduring his ordeal,” she said. “I’m so glad he survived.”
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he had called the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to thank them for their countries’ role in securing Yasuda’s release.
“He looks to be in good health, but our staff will check his condition and transport him to Japan as soon as possible,” the foreign minister, Taro Kono, told reporters. A Japanese government spokesman said no ransom had been paid.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, said Yasuda was most recently held by a Syrian commander with the Turkistan Islamic Party, a group comprising mainly Chinese jihadis in Syria.
His last reports from Syria included one about his friend Kenji Goto, a Japanese freelance journalist who was beheaded by Islamic State along with his friend Haruna Yukawa in January 2015.
Contact was lost with Yasuda after he sent a message to another Japanese freelancer on 23 June 2015. In his last tweet two days earlier, he said his reporting was often obstructed and that he would stop tweeting his whereabouts and activities.
Several videos showing a man believed to be Yasuda were released in the past year.