‘So grate­ful’ to be back

B.C. man home af­ter eight-month de­ten­tion in Syria

Ottawa Sun - - NEWS - AMY SMART

VAN­COU­VER — A Canadian man who spent eight months in Syr­ian pris­ons said he wept three times on his flight back be­cause he was so ex­cited to fi­nally be com­ing home.

Kris­tian Bax­ter of Nanaimo, B.C., re­turned to Van­cou­ver on Satur­day, just days af­ter he was re­leased from Syr­ian custody thanks in part to Le­banese me­di­a­tion. The 45-year-old was de­tained while vis­it­ing the war-rav­aged coun­try as a tourist last De­cem­ber.

“I’m just thrilled to be a Canadian cit­i­zen and I’m just so happy to see green grass and trees and flow­ers and the big Canadian flag over there,” he said dur­ing a brief and emo­tional in­ter­view on his way home to Nanaimo.

Bax­ter ap­peared pale but in good spirits, hold­ing his arm around his mother An­drea Le­clair and his hand on step­fa­ther Jean-guy Le­clair’s shoul­der as he spoke. He hadn’t slept in three days, he said, and was over­whelmed with gratitude for ev­ery govern­ment of­fi­cial, ne­go­tia­tor, lawyer and fam­ily mem­ber who worked “tire­lessly” for his re­lease.

A warn­ing against travel to Syria has been in place since the war broke out in the Mid­dle East­ern na­tion in 2011. Canada does not have an em­bassy in the coun­try.

Le­banon’s Gen­eral Se­cu­rity Chief Ab­bas Ibrahim said at a news con­fer­ence in Beirut yes­ter­day that Bax­ter was de­tained for what Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties con­sid­ered a “ma­jor vi­o­la­tion” of lo­cal laws, adding that au­thor­i­ties there may have con­sid­ered the in­ci­dent se­cu­rity re­lated.

Bax­ter’s re­lease marked the sec­ond time Le­banon has helped free a for­eigner held in Syria.

Lawyer John We­ston of Pan Pa­cific Law Corp., who has been work­ing with the fam­ily, said they aren’t aware of any charges that were brought against Bax­ter in Syria but be­lieve he may have bro­ken some travel reg­u­la­tions.

Bax­ter de­clined to go into de­tail about his ar­rest or con­di­tions of his de­ten­tion, but he said he rarely had any­one to speak with and wrote a diary on the walls of his cell to keep his mind busy. He didn’t real­ize any­one knew where he was and be­lieved he would have to make his own way out of Syria, if he was ever re­leased.

On his way to the bath­room one day while in de­ten­tion when a Syr­ian gen­eral called out, “Kris­tian.”

“They never used my name, so that was bizarre,” he said. “And he goes, ‘you need vi­ta­min D, you need vi­ta­mins.”’

The gen­eral said they were also go­ing clean his room and give him a mat­tress, to which Bax­ter replied that all he cared about was go­ing home, he said.

The gen­eral told Bax­ter that he would be go­ing home in a week or two, but when Bax­ter asked for de­tails, the gen­eral said he didn’t have any, he said.

Three or four days later, Bax­ter said, his hair and beard, which had both grown long over the months, were cut. Later, he heard the gen­eral on the other side of his cell door.

“He came to my room and they had a lit­tle slot where they pass you food,” Bax­ter said.

“He pushed his hands through and he said, ‘You’re go­ing home, I’m so happy for you.”’

Bax­ter still thought it might be a trick when he was told he was be­ing taken across the bor­der into Le­banon to be re­leased. His great­est fear, he said, was that he would be re­leased in Syria and kid­napped. He had no money, no friends in the coun­try and does not speak Ara­bic, he said.

He be­lieved it was real when he said Em­manuelle Lamoureux, the Canadian ambassador to Le­banon, in­tro­duced her­self.

“I said, ‘my name is Kris­tian,’ and she goes, ‘I know who you are.’ And then I just broke down and hugged her and I cried, I just couldn’t stop.”

Bax­ter said that when he ar­rived at the Van­cou­ver air­port, he was es­corted to a se­cu­rity room to find his mother and step­fa­ther wait­ing.

An­drea Le­clair, who has ad­vo­cated for her son since he stopped re­ply­ing to mes­sages while trav­el­ling last De­cem­ber, said the ex­pe­ri­ence has taken an emo­tional toll.

“It’s been hellish. We just worked tire­lessly and it’s just all paid off,” she said.

I’m just thrilled to be a Canadian cit­i­zen and I’m just so happy to see green grass and trees and flow­ers and the big Canadian flag.” Kris­tian Bax­ter

MO­HAMED AZA­KIR/REUTERS

Kris­tian Lee Bax­ter, who was be­ing held in Syria, re­acts dur­ing a news con­fer­ence, af­ter be­ing re­leased, in Beirut, Le­banon.

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