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.
Baxter said he's looking forward to eating steak, surfing in Tofino and taking advantage of all of British Columbia's outdoor opportunities.
"I can't wait to resume my life again."