BERLIN – A German freelance journalist illegally inside Syria wondered why passing motorists kept making hand gestures. Moments later he realized why. They were trying to warn him of Syrian soldiers just over the crest of a hill.
By then it was too late. Billy Six was soon lying face down in the mud, surrounded by a dozen Syrian army soldiers. Thus began a 12-week saga that ended Tuesday, when he was handed over to Russian diplomats in Damascus who had helped secure his release.
Six met with reporters Wednesday to offer one of the few detailed, first-hand accounts by a Western journalist detained during the Syrian civil war.
He said he was handcuffed and driven to a military camp. From there he was taken to a prison in the central province of Hama, where he was held for 12 days. During interrogations, he was blindfolded and several times guards threatened to beat him.
Six said he heard other detainees being tortured at night and later saw lots of blood on the floors of the prison's hallways. In the end, the journalist said, his German passport was probably what saved him from such abuse.
Six, who was writing for a conservative German weekly Junge Freiheit, said he was mostly held in solitary confinement with no word to his family or his employer that he was still alive. He said his first sign of hope came when two Syrian soldiers offered him tea.
Six said he entered Syria illegally in August from Turkey after the Syrians refused to issue him a journalist's visa.
Once inside Syria, he was able to file several stories for his newspaper, mostly from the northern province of Idlib, where the rebels control major swaths of territory.
He decided to venture into Hama to visit the town of Tremseh, the scene of one of the deadliest massacres of civilians in July. He was captured en route.
He was held at the Hama prison for 12 days, then transported to Damascus, the Syrian capital. Through his detainment, his interrogators accused him of being a terrorist or a spy.
"I tried to be as polite as I could and establish a relationship with the prison wards and interrogators," Six recalled. "They threatened to beat me, but they never did."
Despite the misery of his situation, Six said he managed to build up personal relationships with some of the guards, saying he understood why they were suspicious of him.
"I understood that they had a case against me," he said. "After all, I entered their country illegally and spent time with the rebels and there were plenty of photos as evidence of my work."
To keep up his spirits, Six scribbled notes and story ideas on the prison walls and exercised in his cell. He tried to convince himself that his situation wasn't as his bad as it could have been. But there were also days when he feared the Syrians would just let him disappear and deny they ever held him.
It was only on Thursday, when he understood there were people working on his release.
"All of a sudden, the guards gave me eight slices of bread at once, and I was allowed to wash myself with warm water for the first time. They then returned my passport, rushed me to a car and said: 'You're going back to Germany.'"