Syria’s long and brutal civil war has sucked in and too often destroyed the lives of thousands of foreigners — from aspiring jihadists who joined the Islamic State militant group, to journalists who came to document the war and aid workers who wanted to mitigate its horrors.
But as dangers to outsiders have increased, a reality made clear by the filmed beheadings of Western hostages by Islamic State, fewer non-jihadists have been willing to risk travel to Syria. Some who do are desperate or troubled. Haruna Yukawa, a Japanese national held by Islamic State, appears to have been both.
Yukawa appears in a just-released Islamic State propaganda video alongside fellow Japanese national, freelance journalist Kenji Goto. In it, a masked jihadist who speaks in a British accent and resembles the infamous Islamic State executioner “Jihadi John” holds a knife and threatens to kill both men unless Japan’s government pays a $200 million ransom.
Prior to traveling to Syria, Yukawa had hoped to work as a mercenary and security contractor. But he had no military experience or skills, and it seems his real reasons for going were more complex.
“He felt his life had reached its limit,” Yukawa’s father, Shoichi, told Reuters following his capture in August.
Yukawa started a business after high school selling surplus military equipment. It failed. He later tried to kill himself by cutting off his genitals. His wife saved him, then died two years later, according to Reuters.
Yukawa seems to have been searching for meaning in his life. He adopted a feminine name. He started hanging around with Japanese nationalists. But Goto, who first met Yukawa in Syria prior to his capture, told Reuters Yukawa had a gentle personality that endeared him to a unit of Free Syrian Army rebels.
“I want to devote the rest of my life to others and save many people. I want to make my mark on history one more time,” Yukawa said in a June blog post.
Yukawa was captured after an August battle between Islamic State and his new friends in the Free Syrian Army. Goto, who was in Japan at the time, returned to Syria and somehow fell into Islamic State’s hands as well. The Islamic State militant in the propaganda video says Japan has 72 hours to pay the ransom or both will be killed.