Two Turkish journalists who went missing while reporting on the uprising in Syria two months ago were released on Saturday with Iran's help.
The journalists, Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun, arrived in İstanbul early on Sunday, where they were greeted by Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay.
The release of the pair demonstrated Iran's influence with its ally Syria, which lost Turkey's friendship when it cracked down on pro-democracy protests that erupted last year. Iran and Syria, both isolated by the West, have stuck by each other.
The two journalists were first flown to Tehran, from where they headed to İstanbul.
Welcoming the two men, Atalay said at a press conference at İstanbul Atatürk Airport that both Özköse and Coşkun witnessed a humanitarian tragedy in Syria during their 65 days there. “It is our wish to see the end of violence in Syria and all Syrians experiencing peace and tranquility. We are thankful to God to be able to welcome our two journalists back to Turkey,” Atalay stressed.
Özköse, 34, a reporter with Milat, a small Islamic-leaning startup newspaper, and freelance cameraman Coşkun, 21, went missing in early March after sneaking across the border into Idlib, a northwestern province that has been the focus of an offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
Meanwhile, speaking to the Anatolia news agency, Özköse and Coşkun said they were detained by the pro-Assad Shabiha and that they thought they would not be able to return to Turkey for years.
Özköse said that once the Shabiha learnt that the journalists were Turkish, they started behaving poorly and being rough to the two. He said that he felt the fear of death at that moment.
Coşkun said that his fear was at peak when he saw their driver being dragged out of their car and being stuck into the boot of another car.
“They took us down to a basement of a home. They covered our eyes and put handcuffs on our hands. Guns were pointed at us. They were talking about what to do with us and they were confused. They wanted to swap us with the pro-Assad people who were taken by opponents. They also mentioned killing us,” the two Turkish journalists told Anatolia.
“I wanted to pray and did it as if it was my last prayer. I told Hamit to do so too. I had that blood-chilling feeling. I could recognize from what they were saying that they were youngsters," not the government forces who would have acted in a more disciplined and authoritative manner, according to Özköse.
Özköse stated that they were passed to the hands of the police on their ninth day in Idlib. He said that when they were given to the police they were relieved that they were saved and being sent back to Turkey. However, soldiers came and took them. He said that they were treated badly and taken to Damascus with a helicopter.
The journalists described their “cell days” and said that they did not get to see each other for days. Özköse said that the cell was at about two meters high and a meter wide.
As Özköse knew Arabic, he was questioned in Arabic and Çoskun was questioned in Turkish with the use of a Turkish interpreter. They did not get to see each other until 52 days after they were locked into cells. They did not hear each other till the seventh day of their jailing. “We stayed in single cells,” said Özköse.
When asked whether he thought Syria wanted to send a message to Turkey by detaining them, Özköse replied that armed forces had anger toward Turkey but they did not get the opportunity to discuss this issue due to the problem with communication.
The journalist said that to have pen, paper and books were forbidden as well as looking in the mirror. "What we heard all the time was ‘memnu,' which means ‘forbidden' in Arabic,” Özköse said.
Özköse also stated that they did not face physical torture per se. “They pointed guns at us; this is itself a form of torture, actually. But we didn't face physical torture,” said Özköse.
Özköse said that he and Coşkun passed their days in their cells by reading the Quran. “We could not communicate with the armed forces. The Quran protected us from their threats,” said Özköse.
When asked whether they were suspected of being spies, Özköse replied that there was some kind of bargaining. “They wanted to release us in return for certain things. But we were not informed about this issue. Due to the bargaining, the process was delayed,” said Özköse.
Özköse and Coşkun said they were in Syria to shoot a documentary. “We realized that we were involved in the documentary of our own lives. In the past two months, we have experienced so many things that it could be the story for an action film or a novel,” Özköse said.
Özköse gave thanks to President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Bülent Yıldırım, the chairman of the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH), for their help.
According to the Turkish press, Özköse was on board the ship Mavi Marmara, where eight Turks and one Turkish-American were killed in 2010 in a confrontation with the Israeli military in the eastern Mediterranean. İHH was a main organizer of the trip.
The process leading to the release of the two journalists was conducted by a special unit established at the Turkish Prime Ministry.
Erdoğan personally followed the efforts of the unit and gave directives related to the developments. He requested from Davutoğlu that two journalists be taken from Damascus and sent to Tehran. It was also Erdoğan who told Davutoğlu to send a plane to Tehran to bring the two journalists back to Ankara.
Once the first phase for the release of the two journalists was completed, Davutoğlu announced their release with a message posted on Twitter. In remarks on his Twitter account, Davutoğlu said the Turkish government was sending a plane to bring them home. His Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, had told him earlier that the journalists had been freed, he added.
Davutoğlu said: "It is pleasing to see happy endings. I hope that both journalists get back into their routines as soon as possible. I would like to say to all our citizens that the Turkish Republic always stands by and will stand by its citizens in all corners of the world."
Davutoğlu thanked all the nongovernmental organizations that tried to find the two journalists. He underlined that during extraordinary events, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations should work together.
To questions about why the journalists were not released via the province of Hatay on the Syrian border rather than being released via Tehran, he responded: "We are experienced in these situations. In these situations, countries, especially neighboring ones, help each other and cooperate.”
He reminded the press of the 11 Iranians who were captured in Syria and sent to Iran via Turkey a couple of months ago and said: "It's pointless to even discuss these details. What is important here was how to send the Iranians safely and easily.”
“We were in touch with Iran from the beginning of the process. These are humanitarian issues. In the past, Turkey had made contributions to such issues when Iran was involved. I would like to thank our friend and brother Iran for their contribution in this incident,” Davutoğlu added.