Peter Theo Curtis grateful to those who won his release
CAMBRIDGE — After two years of captivity in Syria, during which he was reportedly tortured, Peter Theo Curtis stood in front of his mother’s house Wednesday and said how grateful he was to all those who campaigned for his release — and for the warm welcome he has received since his return.
“I had no idea that so much effort was being expended on my behalf,” the journalist said in his first public comments since he was kidnapped in 2012. “I suddenly remembered how good the American people are and what kindness they have in their hearts.”
He gave a “huge thank you” but did not want to answer questions, saying he needed to bond with his mother and family. “I will respond, but I can’t do it now,” he said.
Curtis, 45, returned Tuesday to Cambridge, where his mother, Nancy Curtis, had led the patient and emotionally draining effort to win his return.
Curtis was released Sunday, five days after a horrific video was released of another American journalist, James Foley, being executed by militants from a different group, known as the Islamic State, whose growing strength has alarmed American officials.
In a family statement, his mother said her son needed “private time to adjust.”
In a phone interview, Curtis’s father said he never doubted for “one-billionth of a second’’ that his son would return.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘faith’ because I am not a religious man,’’ Michael Padnos said from Paris, where he lives. “But I just believed 100 percent that he would be back.’’
Padnos said he spoke with his son by phone when he was in Tel Aviv on Monday. “I was thrilled,’’ Padnos said. “He sounds great. He sounds in good health and good spirits and good humor.’’
He said he could not describe his son’s captivity or the circumstances of his release.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” in November, parts of which the program didn’t broadcast to protect Curtis, Matt Schrier, a photojournalist who was also working in Syria, said he spent more than six months in a cell with Curtis.
In the interview, released on the program’s website this week, Schrier said Curtis was tortured by his captors because they thought he was a CIA agent.
“He’s very intelligent, in terms of Islam, the region,” Schrier said. “Because he knew so much more about the area, it made him more suspicious in terms of being a CIA agent.”
He added: “I was wondering myself at some points, but he clearly wasn’t once I got to know him. He was just like an intellectual who got in over his head.”
Schrier said their captors used a tire and cable to torture them. “They put a tire over your knees and then they put a stick through the top of it, so you can’t bend your knees, and they flip you over so your feet are in the air,” he told “60 Minutes.” “Then they pull out a cable . . . [and] whack your feet in sets of like 15.”
He said the masked captors took turns and poured water on their feet to make it hurt more. “They go nuts,” he said. “They enjoy it. Most people, they hit their ankles, too, which is the worst part of it . . . it’s horrible . . . it’s not like anything you can possibly imagine.”
Once, they were caught trying to escape using a screw and iron bracket. One of their captors kicked and punched them and hit them over the head with concrete. Then, he took their beds and blankets from their freezing cell and said he would come back to inflict more pain.
When they did, about 10 masked men in black took Curtis first, cuffing him. “Then I heard him screaming,” Schrier said “It lasted five minutes. I was pacing back in forth. It’s worse going second.”
He added: “You have to hear the other guy getting tortured.”
They waited until Ramadan to try to escape again, planning to leave after the pre-dawn meal and prayers, when they expected their guards would be sleeping. Schrier said they tried to escape through a small window about 9 feet off the ground in their cell. They used a bucket to reach it and managed to remove the wire bars.
Squeezing through would be a challenge. They used rope to measure themselves and oil from olives they had for food, thinking that might help lubricate their escape.
When they undid enough bars, Schrier went first. He got stuck halfway and had to unbuckle his pants to get through. Curtis was larger and couldn’t make it, even as they held each other by their arms and wrists. “I was pulling him as hard as I could,” Schrier told “60 Minutes.” “He just wasn’t fitting.”
After several minutes, Schrier said he had to go. “I said, ‘I’ll get help,’ and he was like, ‘Go,’ ” Schrier said, using sneakers to flee that Curtis received at a previous prison. “Within five minutes, I was walking through the streets of Aleppo — free.”
Padnos said his son wrote a novel during captivity and that he expected his son would resume his career.
“The only thing I want for him is to be happy and be successful,” he said. “But I don’t want him to go back to Syria.’’
Padnos said his ex-wife had told him over the intervening months that she had received updates from the FBI with proof that Curtis was alive.
Padnos thanked his former wife for the “fabulous job” she did to help free their son.
“A lot of people did a lot of things to help get him released,’’ he said.
Foley’s Islamic State captors had demanded a massive ransom. US officials say they do not pay ransoms because it would encourage kidnapping.
“The government of Qatar told us that a ransom was not paid,” Padnos said.
Laura Crimaldi and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.