Nineteen South Koreans freed by Taliban captors returned home to loved ones' tearful embraces Sunday, expressing sorrow for two in their group who were killed in Afghanistan and apologizing to the nation for causing trouble.
The 19 former hostages, let go in stages last week under a deal between the Taliban and the South Korean government, arrived on a flight from Dubai. They were reunited with family members at a hospital in Anyang, South of Seoul, where they were receiving medical checks.
After hugs and tears, some family members were gently critical, questioning why the group went to Afghanistan in the first place.
"I thought you would be killed," Cheon Kwang-sil, 77, told her granddaughter Lee Young-kyung, who at 22 was the youngest of the hostages. "I told you not to go there."
Lee, thin and pale with hands marked by insect bites, said she spent 20 days of the six-week captivity in a cellar.
"I was really scared the whole time," she said, adding she was unable to eat well. "I drank water from a stream."
Earlier, Yoo Kyung-shik, at 55 the oldest of the group, spoke briefly with reporters at the airport, apologizing to the South Korean people and government for causing concern to the nation.
"We appreciate the Korean people for helping us to return to our families," Yoo said. "We owe a big debt to the nation and people."
Fighting back tears, Yoo also expressed condolences to the families of the two who were killed. Their relatives, holding photos of their lost loved ones, appeared with the former hostages.
The group of 23 Christian volunteers from a suburban Seoul church was abducted at gunpoint on July 19 while on their way to do aid work for about two weeks in the southern city of Kandahar.
The Taliban killed two men, one the church pastor, in the early stages of the crisis because, they said, their demand for the release of imprisoned fighters was not met.
Two female hostages were freed and returned last month after direct talks were launched with South Korea's government. The remaining South Koreans left Afghanistan on Friday.
In their first media interviews Friday, the hostages also apologized for causing trouble and gave detailed accounts of their ordeal, saying it included death threats and a lack of food.
Public criticism of the group has been intense in South Korea, where many are angry because they went to Afghanistan despite government warnings that the country was unsafe.
Critics also say their "rash" trip sullied the country's international reputation by forcing their government to negotiate directly with the Taliban - a move widely seen in South Korea as a violation of international principles regarding contact with terrorists.
Yoo tried to offer an explanation for why they made the trip.
"We went there to realize and share the love we have received, albeit in a small way," he said, adding they now "resolve to live a life that meets public expectations, knowing that we escaped death."
The individual reunions were interrupted for a prayer.
"We thank God and His blessing, the (South Korean) people and government officials for bringing our loved ones back home," said Sohn Young-kyu, a pastor and doctor at the hospital, leading a group prayer.
Kim Man-bok, chief of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, called for South Korea to learn lessons from the ordeal.
"I hope that the government and the public make efforts that this kind of incident would not happen again," he told reporters at the airport.
Kim, who directed negotiations for the hostages' release from Afghanistan, returned home with them.
"I am sorry for having failed to rescue all 23 kidnapped people," Kim said.
Further embarrassing Seoul, the Taliban have claimed the kidnapping of the South Koreans was "successful," and have vowed to continue with similar actions.
There also have been persistent claims that South Korea paid the Taliban a ransom, which Seoul has consistently denied.
"There was no such deal," Kim, the intelligence chief, reiterated Sunday.
Despite all the concerns for the families, who endured weeks of uncertainty, the return of their loved ones was almost like a dream.
"I still can't believe my wife really came back home alive," said Rhu Haeng-sik, husband of hostage Kim Yoon-young. He said their two children were "really happy to be embraced by their mother."