Counting days with potato skin in captivity in Syria

Counting days with potato skin in captivity in Syria

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Counting days with potato skin in captivity in Syria

Cüneyt Ünal, who spent three months in a Syrian prison, says he is coming back to his normal pace and has no intention of leaving the profession. DAILY NEWS photo, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

Turkish journalist Cüneyt Ünal, who was recently released after spending three months in a Syrian prison, has said he is slowly coming back to his normal pace and has no intention of leaving the profession.

In an interview with the Hürriyet Daily News, he said he counted the days in captivity by sticking pieces of potato skin onto the walls of his five-step-long cell.

Ünal, who works for U.S.-funded broadcaster al-Hurra, went missing with his Palestinian-Jordanian colleague, Bashar al-Kadumi, soon after crossing the Turkish-Syrian border on Aug. 20 to report on the civil war in the country.

“They would bring boiled potatoes and bread in the mornings. I would take a piece of the potato skin every day and paste it to the wall, so that I could count my days,” Ünal said.

He explained that he was exposed to physical and psychological suffering in his cell. “They would give me 15 seconds before and after breakfast to use the toilet. When they did not give me water in the evenings, then there was no toilet. To be at home [now] and to be able to go to the toilet when I wake up in the mornings is a huge luxury,” he said.

Losing hope

When asked if he ever lost his hope of being saved, Ünal said: “In the first week, I motivated myself by saying that I expected to be saved. My photo was then printed on an A4 sheet with a rocket launcher and I was declared a terrorist. I lost my hope at that moment.”

Ünal said the photograph was a pose he had taken before being captured. “I posed for my Japanese colleague with a rocket launcher. His camera was taken from him and they found this photo in his camera. Then they modified the photo and then I was declared a terrorist,” he said.

Ünal also expressed his concern about the situation of his friend, Kadumi, who was shot and who was with Ünal when they were both arrested. “When we entered Aleppo, two helicopters were bombing the city. I had served in Libya and Gaza before, but I realized that Syria was in a much worse chaos. Some people came and told us they would take us to a safer street. People around us were running in panic. Then we heard gun shots. We left the camera recording in front of the door and sheltered inside a building. Then we went out to the front of the door and Bashar had a small camera in his hand. Somebody in plain clothes hit Bashar. Then they covered my head and took me somewhere. While they were torturing [me], they were speaking in Arabic. I could not understand what they were saying but our prime minister’s name was mentioned,” he said.

‘I thought I was dreaming’

An opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) delegation went to Syria to bring Ünal back, and he returned to Turkey on Nov. 18. “I had lost all hope. They took me out of my cell and brought me to the assistant of [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad. When I saw the CHP delegation, I knew I was saved. When I went outside for the first time and when I saw the sunshine, I thought I was in a dream. I still think I’m in a dream. When I wake up at night with nightmare, and when I see my wife and my child, I still think I’m in a dream,” he said.

“The voices of torture are still in my ears but my willpower is strong,” said Ünal, adding that his only shortcoming was that he had no training for war reporting and did not have the necessary safety equipment. Nevertheless, he stressed that he had no intention of leaving the profession.