Two journalists held hostage by the Taliban for 18 months in Afghanistan came home to France on Thursday to an emotional welcome and nationwide relief.
Television reporter Herve Ghesquiere, 47, tears of joy in his eyes, described being confined indoors “23 and three-quarters hours a day” and repeatedly having his hopes raised of an imminent release -- and then dashed.
Cameraman Stephane Taponier, 46, at his side, broke into a grin as he said, “We’re doing really, really, really well.”
Both looked quite pale but otherwise healthy, and were visibly moved by the huge crowd of journalists gathered at a military airbase outside Paris for the long-awaited homecoming.
Their plight was one of France’s longest-ever hostage ordeals, and had become a national cause. President Nicolas Sarkozy, first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and France’s defence and foreign ministers met the two men as they descended from a plane from Kabul.
The two journalists and three Afghan associates were kidnapped in December 2009 while working for France—3 television on a story about reconstruction on a road east of Kabul. They had been embedded with French troops in Afghanistan, but decided to take off to report on their own and were captured.
They were freed Wednesday along with their Afghan translator, Reza Din. The two others were freed earlier.
French officials insisted that no ransom was paid for the men’s freedom, though the circumstances of the release remained unclear.
The journalists insisted Thursday that they had not been beaten or mistreated by their Taliban captors, just suffered “very very difficult” living conditions. They said they were separated after the first three months and spent the rest of the time isolated and confined.
“We represented something important for” the Taliban, Mr. Taponier said, which he said gave him hope that they would eventually be freed.
The Taliban made a set of demands in exchange for the men’s freedom. In April 2010, after posting a video of the hostages on the Internet, the Taliban said it had submitted a list of prisoners to French authorities that it wanted freed in exchange for the journalists.
Last week, French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said that the announcements of staggered French and American troop withdrawals might help the cause of freeing Mr. Ghesquiere and Mr. Taponier. President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by September 2012, and France followed suit, announcing it will pull out a quarter of its force of 4,000.
The Taliban gave each journalist a radio at some point, they said. Mr. Taponier was able to listen to Radio France International, which was broadcasting regular messages of support to the two men in hopes they were listening.
“That warmed our hearts,” Mr. Taponier said.
But Mr. Ghesquiere was only able to get a signal from the BBC, and said he was largely unaware of the large support movement in France campaigning for their release.
He described battling boredom and discouragement by exercising in the small room where he was isolated for months, and writing.
And he exclaimed in dismay in recalling that a year-and-a--half of notes he took were taken away before his liberation, because his captors didn’t want any document released with them.
Mr. Ghesquiere specialised in war reporting, covering the Balkans conflict and doing investigative reports from around the globe, from Cambodia to the disputed Western Sahara territory. Mr. Taponier had filmed in the past in Afghanistan, notably a 2000 report on the northern commander Massoud, who was later killed.
Mr. Ghesquiere said he wanted to get back to a “normal life” as soon as possible, and not “play the role of an ex-hostage.”
For the past 547 days, banners bearing their photos hung in city halls around France -- banners taken down in jubilation after their release.