PARIS – The waiting was endless, counted by the drips from the water pipes, the two trips a day to the bathroom, the meals of rice and hard-boiled eggs.
Bound and blindfolded for 157 days in a tiny Baghdad (search) cellar, veteran French reporter Florence Aubenas (search) said she never knew the name of the group that held her, what her captors wanted or why she was taken hostage.
"For me, all hypotheses remain open," she told a packed news conference two days after her return to France.
Aubenas, 44, a reporter for the daily Liberation, searched the crowd for familiar faces and shared kisses with friends. With flashes of humor and surprising bravado, Aubenas recounted the drama she and her Iraqi guide, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi (search), endured for more than five months.
"Every day I was either hungry or sick," she said.
At times, "I thought they were going to make an example of us before the election by shooting us in the head on the Internet," she said referring to the January parliamentary elections in Iraq.
But it was the waiting in an unlighted about 6-by-12 foot cellar room under a private home that emerged as the most daunting aspect of her captivity.
"You're always waiting for things," she said, from sounds to visits from the captors. "You wait to go to the bathroom. It kills time. You wait permanently, but it's a frustrated wait ....
"It was unimaginable that I was going to stay there for five months without being transferred somewhere else," she said.
Forbidden from talking, Aubenas estimates that she spoke 80 words a day and walked 24 steps daily — to and from the bathroom — during her captivity. She showered once a month and, at one point, was "punished" for moving too much on the foam mattress on the floor that became her universe. Aubenas did not explain how she was punished.
So complete was her isolation that she said it took weeks before she learned that her cellmate — 35 inches from her — was al-Saadi, her guide.
The two were kidnapped after conducting interviews at a refugee camp outside Baghdad. Four armed men whisked them to a private home under the pretext that al-Saadi might have stolen some money, Aubenas said. Then a young man told her, "Don't you know? You're kidnapped."
She and her guide were separated. She was moved to a second house, ordered to strip and put on a sweat suit with "Titanic" written on it.
Aubenas' captors renamed her, first calling her "Leila," then "No. 6." They continually expressed frustration that her captivity was not paying off.
"You're a lousy hostage," she was told at one point.
The only public sign that Aubenas was alive during the ordeal was a videotape recorded by her captors that emerged on March 1. She looked pale and pleaded for help. Her guards were gleeful at the reaction in France.
Aubenas said her guard Hadji described his group as "fighting Mujahedeen combatting the Americans in Iraq" and said the group was part of a "religious movement."
French authorities have denied suggestions a ransom was paid for Aubenas, and she said her captors never discussed a ransom with her.
She said her captors spoke for weeks about freeing her before it happened. On Saturday, she was called to go upstairs: "No. 6, toilet." Then came the magic words: "Today, Paris."
She and her guide were served tea. A roast chicken was cooked and Aubenas was presented with a gift of rings and perfume. Their possessions were returned intact. Aubenas said al-Saadi convinced her to give her captors the $80 in her purse. "It's the tradition," she said he insisted.