QAMISHLI, SYRIA/WASHINGTON —
Swedish journalist Joakim Medin knows he is lucky.
He survived a week-long detention in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media workers.
Less than 24 hours after his release late Saturday, he sat for an exclusive video interview with VOA in the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Qamishli, where he says government authorities arrested him and interpreter Sabri Omar on February 15.
The 30-year-old freelancer said the first four days were spent isolated in what he described on social media as a tiny cell with no light and blood-spattered walls before he was flown, blindfolded and handcuffed, to Damascus for questioning.
"They asked me first why I was here, who I was working for. Then they wanted to know what kind of relationships I had to Turkey and to Israel," Medin said.
Their release was brokered by local Kurdish authorities and the Kurdish People's Protection Units, known as the YPG, in exchange for a high-ranking Syrian military official the Kurds had detained in retaliation, Medin told VOA.
The YPG also threatened to take over an airport in the area and block the road to the city of Hassaka, to the south, if the men were not freed.
"That put, you know, enough pressure on the Syrian government to finally release us," he explained.
Before the ordeal
Until his detention, Medin had reported for foreign news outlets from other parts of Rojava, the de facto Kurdish region in northern Syria.
He had been in the area for two weeks reporting, he said. He felt safe enough as a journalist there that on the day the pair reportedly was detained, Medin posted to Twitter that they were in Jazira Canton, and included a photo.
"The situation here is much better than in other parts of Syria," he told VOA. "Journalists can work here, and in areas under control by the regime (like Damascus). For sure, I'd not felt in any danger at all before this incident when I've been working in Rojava."
In a video interview with Kurdish television station Ronahi TV published online in early January, Medin spoke about Kurdish resistance from the border city of Kobani, the site of fierce fighting between Islamic State militants and local Syrian Kurdish forces.
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While on the border in late 2014, the freelancer also reported a story for US-based news website VICE on allegations of cocaine found in the home of an Islamic State leader.
Medin's safe release was one of few positive outcomes for journalists held in Syria, where civil war has commingled with an Islamic State takeover in northern and eastern parts of the country, leading to thousands of civilian casualties and some of the most dangerous working conditions for the media in the world.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that for the third consecutive year, Syria was the deadliest country for journalists in 2014. Seventeen were killed there, including the highly publicized beheadings of freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State group.
CPJ also notes that of the at least 12 journalists detained by the Syrian government in 2014, three died in custody.
More than 20 media workers remain missing in Syria, in some cases years after they disappeared. Among them: Bashar Fahmi, a reporter for US international broadcaster Alhurra, which like VOA is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
Fahmi was last seen while reporting from a firefight in Aleppo in 2012.
“No one could have imagined that two years after that tragic day, there would still be no word about Bashar," Brian Conniff, president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN) that oversees and manages Alhurra Television, wrote last August.
"For sure it was the most unpleasant thing I've been through and it could have lasted much longer and ended much worse, had it not been for a few lucky circumstances," Medin wrote on Facebook after his release. "But this is another example of the great risks journalists are facing, simply for reporting from areas that really needs attention, regardless of borders.
"Long live freedom!" he concluded. "My spirit is unbroken."