Sometimes, in the moments immediately after he wakes up, Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda does not realize that he is free.
“It’s strange, but one of the dreams I often had when I was being held in Syria was that I was in my home in Tokyo and that if I could just open the door and step out, I would be free,” 44-year-old Yasuda told WNO in an interview.
“And now my dreams are that I am back in Syria, being held and not being permitted to move at all. It is a very strange sensation,” he added.
There are countless other adjustments that Yasuda has had to make after being held for three years and four months in Syria, where he was detained by the Hayata Tahrir al-Sham group, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria.
Working as a freelance journalist, he had crossed the border from Turkey in mid-June 2015 and was almost immediately taken as a captive.
Yasuda was held in at least 10 locations in Syria, including a bread factory and in private homes. During this time, foreign journalists and aid workers were being publicly executed by different factions operating in the conflict-ravaged country.
After he was released and arrived in Japan on October 25, Yasuda faced fierce criticism from some sections of the Japanese media and on social media over what commentators say are diplomatic difficulties that he caused for the nation.
There have also been suggestions that the government paid a substantial ransom to win his freedom — allegations that Tokyo has declined to comment on.
Japanese commentators claimed Yasuda should have taken responsibility for his own actions and that he had invited disaster entering Syria by himself, along with being unprepared for what he might face.
Messages on social media platforms accused Yasuda of “disturbing society,” causing “negative publicity” for Japan and being an “anti-citizen.”
Yasuda apologized for any inconvenience that he may have caused his family or the authorities. But Yasuda refused to apologize for being a journalist and doing his job, particularly when conflicts in the Middle East receive scant coverage in the Japanese media and the public are largely unaware of the danger and human misery that continue to grip large parts of the region.
September 11 attacks
“I was working for a local newspaper in Japan when the September 11 attacks took place in America and it was immediately obvious that this was going to be a turning point,” Yasuda narrated his story to WNO. “I felt that Japan was in many ways in a bubble and I wanted to go out and see and report on what was actually happening as a result of the attacks.”
“The Japanese people tend to only care about what is happening immediately around them — North Korea, South Korea, China — so they don’t know what is happening in the Middle East, for example,” he said. “But what happens there is important because it is where we buy our oil from and we need to know what is happening in the world.”
Resigning from his job at a city newspaper in northern Japan, Yasuda first traveled to Afghanistan, where he was kidnapped and held for three days before being released.
Undeterred by the experience, and admiring the work done by other journalists in the region, such as Kenji Goto, he decided to travel to the Middle East and enter Syria to report about the escalating crisis there.
“In 2012, I was in the media center in Homs City and I was with Kenji Goto, James Foley, Ricardo Vilanova and Austin Tice, and we were friends working together,” he said. “The situation was bad, but we were all trying to cover the news.”
Goto was beheaded in January 2015, three months after being captured, by members of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS). US-born Foley had met a similar fate in August 2014. Vilanova was released after spending eight months in the hands of IS militants. Tice disappeared while on a reporting assignment in August 2012 and has not been heard of since.
Read more: Kenji Goto: A life in the service of others
‘I had to go back’
“I felt that I had to go back, even if I knew that my friend Goto had already been killed,” Yasuda said. “I felt ashamed that I could not do my job as a journalist, like they had been doing. Even if it was dangerous, I had to go back.”
Yasuda opted to avoid IS-held areas in Syria and instead was heading for a region controlled by Kurdish groups. Waiting at the designated spot for a guide after crossing the border from Turkey, two men called out to him and, believing they were his contacts, he went with them and got into a vehicle.
His ordeal in captivity lasted the following 40 months — and he managed to record many of his experiences in a series of school notebooks in spider-like writing that he kept as small as possible because he feared his captors would not give him more paper to continue writing his diaries.
“The fact that I survived when others did not is something of a miracle,” he said. “I was fortunate that the group I was held by was not IS and I was never traded to another group. Some of the people who held me were extremists, like IS followers, but most of them were quite moderate. Some of them abused me while I was in captivity, but others showed me sympathy.”
Some spells of his captivity were worse than others, Yasuda admitted.
Suspicion of spying
“For a while I was put in a small room with a toilet, and for some reason they thought that I was spying on them,” Yasuda continued. “Every time I made the slightest noise, they would come up to the cell and listen to me. So I started to keep very still. They were in the rooms on both sides of me and I heard them torturing other prisoners, so I kept very quiet.”
“It was like that for about three months and I could only move and make a sound when they came to bring me food. To pass the time, I tried to remember the ‘manga’ comic books that I had read as a child,” he said.
“I tried very hard not to think about my friends and family because I feared that it could make my breathing change and they would hear. And then they would come back again.”
Yasuda was moved on numerous occasions and spent time incarcerated in a bakery and an apartment complex. In one location, he heard his captors interrogating a young boy, maybe 12 or 13 years old, on suspicion that he was a spy for government forces. He does not know what happened to the child later.
Refusing to hope
Yasuda had been told on more than one occasion during his detention that he was going to be released, so he did not get his hopes up in early November when his captors indicated to him that he was being set free. The reality only sank in when he was handed over at an immigration facility on the Turkish border.
“I could not believe it was happening,” he said. “When I was a prisoner, I was not able to do anything, not even move or make a sound, so suddenly I did not know what I should do. After more than three years of just eating and sleeping and reading books, but without anyone to talk to, I did not know how to act.”
Yasuda is planning to write a book about his experiences but is not sure if he will ever return to the Middle East for work.
“It’s a very difficult thing and I cannot say for sure that I won’t ever go back,” he said. “But my wife is quite adamant, she does not want me to even go back to Turkey.”