Freed French journalists tell of mock executions, beatings in Syria hostage ordeal

Ten-month nightmare at hands of Syrian jihadists included mock executions and beatings

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 11:02pm


Mock executions, hunger, thirst, cold, beatings, a makeshift chess game to pass the time... and a "surreal" snowball fight with their jailers.

Details are starting to trickle through of the ordeal experienced by the four French journalists who returned home on Sunday after being held hostage for 10 months at the hands of the most radical of Syria's jihadist groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

But the journalists were reluctant to give too much away for fear of jeopardising the safety of those who remain in captivity in the war-torn country, including US freelance journalist James Foley, who went missing in November 2012. According to Didier Francois, 53, a highly respected war reporter for Europe 1 radio who was kidnapped on June 6 north of Aleppo with photographer Edouard Elias, 23, the first few days were particularly tough.

"They put you in the mood straight away. The pressure is very, very, very strong. Four days without eating or drinking. On the fourth day without drinking, you start feeling really awful, handcuffed to a radiator and being beaten. It's... to break any will to resist," he said.

Francois and Elias were stopped by armed and masked men after they crossed the border into Syria from Turkey.

"A Kalashnikov to the head, handcuffed in the back... In English, they told us 'Don't worry, we will check everything, this can be settled in one hour'... Typical," Francois said. Then "we find ourselves in T-shirts, without belts or shoes, without our phones, with nothing. And with something on the head."

Nicolas Henin, 37, was captured several weeks later in Raqqa in the north, as was photographer Pierre Torres, 29.

The four were held together after having initially being detained separately, and appeared thin when they were welcomed home on Sunday in an emotional reunion with their loved ones at an air base near Paris.

Henin said hunger had been tough to endure, as was the cold.

"There was also a little physical abuse, but that's what all Syrian prisoners endure," he said.

Francois said his jailers staged several mock executions, placing guns on his temple or forehead.

The journalists were regularly moved around, and Henin counted about 10 locations, in war zones and sometimes near the front line.

To pass the time, Elias and Francois made a makeshift chess set out of a cheese box, with nail clippers and a pen they kept hidden in the jacket and socks of the photographer.

He also described a "surreal moment" when the guards entered their cell pretending to bring food and instead, "they had brought snow and they had a snowball fight with us".

The four were eventually brought by car to the border with Turkey, which they crossed on foot, and were picked up by Turkish soldiers on the other side overnight Friday to Saturday.