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Bünyamin Aygün: Photojournalist survives 40 days as ISIS hostage

02/02/2015 09:00 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT
Few things make photojournalist Bünyamin Aygün flinch anymore.

But hearing even a second of his strained voice on a video from last January is too much.

He turns the volume down and stares at the screen during our interview. He is haggard, wild-eyed and a full 15 kilograms under his normal weight in the year-old images.

Aygün is watching news footage of when he became the lead story — when he was freed from his 40 days in ISIS captivity.

A 'Syria expert'

Aygün's expertise as an award-winning photojournalist in war zones was well-known. 

He was one of the first three journalists to enter Syria when war broke out and was considered the Syria expert in his newsroom at Turkey's Milliyet newspaper in Istanbul.

"I was putting together a story about the Turkmen people in Syria … that they didn’t have anything but olive oil and bread to eat. They had no water, no electricity," Aygün says.

He had a nagging feeling he couldn’t quite place, but pushed on.

It was to be a quick trip — just a few hours, Aygün says.

Then, another story that was too good to pass up landed on Aygün's lap. He had a chance to interview a man wanted by both the Assad government and Turkish authorities. His short stay would drag on for two more days. When it came, his meeting with the man would expose both of them to armed, masked men.

"In an instant eight people got out with guns, surrounded us. They pulled me out of the car by my shoulders. They covered my head and my eyes," Aygün says.

He was questioned for hours, sometimes as many as five times a day and in too many locations to count.

He says his honesty with his captors helped. The fact his name is one used widely by Jews and Christians did not.

"They said 'you are a very professional spy. Maybe Mossad, maybe CIA.'"

Most of his guards were Turkish. But he remembers the kindness of a young guard with what he believes was a British accent.

But it was the kindness of the man known as Dayi – the Turkish word for maternal uncle — that gave him hope.

"He would loosen my handcuffs. He said I’m going to treat you well. He would bring me food and drinks."

Aygun’s eyes were covered for almost the entirety of his time in captivity, while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

Still, he prayed five times a day to prove he was a Muslim. It was also the only way he says he could keep track of the days.

He heard screams. Torture. Interrogations.

There were physical threats, but Aygün won’t elaborate publicly.

"There are journalists like James Foley whose beheadings were shown all around the world. What I lived through … is very light compared to them. It would be disrespectful to their families, their loved ones [to talk about it]. They lost their lives."

Execution day

Even the kindest captor was ready to kill.

"They put a piece of chocolate in front of me, along with a Koran and a flashlight. 'We are going to execute you tomorrow morning,' they said."

"They said the knife is holier," Aygün added. "They use bullets on those they don't respect."

But execution day came and went.

On the third day, the guards revealed why. Dayi was killed in a firefight.

Weeks passed.

Then, one day in early January 2014, armed men stormed the building where Aygün was being held.

"I thought, 'That's it, this is the team that’s going to take me outside and shoot me.'"

It was actually a team of Free Syrian Army fighters that would ultimately return him to Turkish officials.

Freedom is real

It took months of solitude and sleep, Aygun says, to help him understand his freedom wasn't a dream.

Once again, his camera is his companion.

And he says he isn't bitter.

It was destiny, he says and the result of a bad decision made in the field.

But — would he go back?

Not where ISIS is, he says. But other war zones, absolutely.

Aygün has dedicated his new book to his fellow journalists.

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