* Drivers recount being seized at gunpoint by ISIL fighters
* One driver says fear gave way to understanding
* Diplomats, soldiers, children still held
By Humeyra Pamuk
SANLIURFA, Turkey, July 8 When truck driver
Vehbi Demir was handcuffed by masked Islamists wielding machine
guns and driven to an unknown destination, he little imagined he
would end up sympathising with the militants' cause.
Demir was among 32 Turkish truck drivers seized by fighters
from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in the northern
Iraqi city of Mosul last month, as the Sunni insurgents seized
territory in an offensive that threatens to break up the
Jubilant crowds greeted the drivers in the eastern Turkish
town of Sanliurfa after their surprise release last week, but 49
others, including diplomats, special forces soldiers and
children, are still being held by ISIL.
The group, which has changed its name to Islamic State and
declared its leader the head of a medieval-style caliphate, was
known in Turkey for little more than brutality and savage social
media postings before the hostage crisis erupted last month.
"I knew them from these videos on the Internet in which they
behead people," Demir told Reuters of the first few terrifying
hours as ISIL fighters seized the power station his truck had
But during his 23 days in captivity, Demir, a Turk of Sunni
Arab heritage, used his Arabic language skills to interpret
between his fellow drivers and their captors.
Brief conversations turned into longer discussions about why
the Sunni fighters took up arms against Iraq's Shi'ite Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki, and Demir found himself increasingly
sympathising with their plight.
"After I spoke to them and heard their stories, I was almost
going to ask them to give me a gun and suggest fighting
alongside them," he told Reuters at his home near Sanliurfa.
"They told me how they came home and their wives, sisters
were gone. How Maliki's soldiers did horrible things to their
women in front of their eyes. They said Maliki was eventually
going to kill them, so they chose to fight."
The speed of the Islamic State's metamorphosis from al-Qaeda
offshoot to regional player has surprised many, its growth
fuelled by anger amongst Iraq's Sunni minority over Maliki's
perceived sectarianism. It is a resentment understood by many
across the border in Sunni-dominated Turkey.
Worldwide attention on the group has until recently centred
on its ability to attract thousands of European and North
African foreign fighters to its campaigns in Iraq and
neighbouring Syria, as well as its brutal tactics.
The Islamic State has posted videos and pictures on social
media that appear to show captured Iraqi troops being massacred,
whilst New York-based Human Rights Watch has accused them of
showing an "utter disregard for the rules of war."
But Demir says during his captivity he saw a different side
to the young Sunni men who make up the group's rank and file.
"They gave us mattresses to sleep on, while they slept on
concrete themselves. They drank the water from the pond, but
gave us bottled water. They said they like Turkish people and
they don't harm anyone who confesses and calls himself a
Muslim," he said.
Not all of Demir's companions were so sanguine about their
time as hostages. Mehmet Olgun is safely back at home in the
bustling city of Sanliurfa, but he still weeps as he remembers
the terror he felt during his captivity.
"On the first day when they brought us to the air base, one
of them held a grenade with a pulled pin in front of us and said
'run away if you can'. We were dead silent, with fear and
shock," the exhausted looking 46-year-old said.
For his part, safely back with his family, truck driver
Olgun has no desire to return to Iraq.
"I am home but I still can not believe it. I am never ever
going back to Mosul. There is no chance," he said.
(Editing by Jonny Hogg, Nick Tattersall and Giles Elgood)