‘I suffered mock executions,’ says freed French journalist
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Released on Saturday, Didier François returned to France on Monday after ten months of captivity in Syria with three other French journalists. He said his long experience as a foreign correspondent had helped him to cope during his ordeal.
He arrived smiling at the Paris premises of his employer, radio service Europe 1. "It's very nice to get one’s bearings, to see one’s friends. There was a lot of excitement and emotion. I have my radio station back, and my job. I knew that everyone was behind me," he said.
Interviewed on radio, the reporter recalled his captivity alongside Edouard Elias, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres. "I suffered mock executions, guns put to my forehead," he said. But "mock executions never particularly stressed me’’, he added. He knew that real executions were more ritualised.
François, 53, had gone to Syria to report on the use of chemical weapons. He and the other French reporters were captured in June 2013 by the jihadist group ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. They were freed less than three weeks after the release of two Spanish journalists taken hostage by the same group.
François had previously covered many conflict zones, including Chechnya, Kosovo, the Middle East and Iraq. "I was lucky because I was familiar with these kinds of situations. Hostage affairs – I have followed many of them for a long time, and closely. I know the drill quite well ... I saw that we had not reached the limit."
François said the conditions were harsh. “In ten and a half months of captivity, we stayed ten months in basements without seeing daylight," he said. He described cellars "with iron gates, [and] bars on all the gaps".
The early days were particularly tough: "They put you straight into (prisoner) mode. The pressure is very, very, very fierce. Four days without eating or drinking. The fourth day without drinking, it gets really nasty; you are handcuffed to a radiator and beaten. It's to break any attempt at resistance."
Asked about his captors, some of whom spoke French, François did not want to answer . "I do not want to make any statements which could have consequences,” he said. He referred journalists to earlier remarks by the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius.
Fabius had said, "Unfortunately, there are French, there are Belgians, Italians – there are a whole series of Europeans, including French people, who left to ‘fight jihad’ in Syria."
On Sunday, another hostage, Nicolas Henin, also recalled his captivity on the TV network Arte, where he works. "What we most suffered from during the first part of our imprisonment was a lack of food. Luckily we regained over the last few months some of the weight we had lost. The cold, too – we had no hot water. I kept on the clothes in which I had been captured from June 22 until December 23."
Henin said there was also physical abuse, of the kind suffered by all Syrian captives: "Syria has always been a world centre of torture."
And there was psychological distress: "Every time we were moved to a new place of detention, they told us they were going to free us to make us keep quiet during transport.”
But Henin said he had always remained confident: "They regularly came to get from us evidence that we were alive, making videos or asking questions to which only our families would know the answers, and that was very reassuring.”
Three days after he was captured, he managed to give his captors the slip and made it ten kilometres before being picked up. He decided then to not try again.
“If they shoot me, let the blood be on their hands,” he told himself.