Danny Fenster kept spirits up in Myanmar prison waiting for secret notes from wife

The Detroit News

American journalist Danny Fenster found ways to survive and even get notes to his wife during his captivity in military-ruled Myanmar after he was arrested there last May at an airport on his way home to Michigan.

The managing editor of online magazine Frontier Myanmar said he read, ran figure eights in a small courtyard and relied on the food packages his wife, Juliana, sent every other week as he was held in his 9-by-7-foot cell at the infamous Insein Prison, he told Leslie Stahl for a "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday night.

American journalist Danny Fenster, who spent nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar and was facing a sentence of 11 years of hard labor, has been freed , talks to media at Doha, Qatar airport, Monday Nov 15, 2021. U.S. On the right is diplomat Bill Richardson, who helped negotiate the release.

He described the activity as the "little things" that got him through captivity, which began when he was arrested in Yangon International Airport on May 24.

"The cell was, I think it was about 9-by-7 feet, concrete. Concrete floor and walls," he told Stahl. "You know, there's a door on the front that is just bars, like you would imagine for a prison, and a little window in the back that's barred, and then there's a wooden pallet in the corner."

That pallet was his bed. A "slab of porcelain with a hole in the middle, that is your toilet," he told the television journalist.

He also had a "patio."  "That's your personal outdoor space, that's where you shower ..." he said. "Immediately outside of that, there's a sidewalk and a little area of grass."

During the day, he could walk in circles to occupy his time, which began to stretch out as weeks turned into months. He thought when he was detained in the airport as he headed home to Huntington Woods, Michigan, to visit his family that he would not be held long. Others, he said, had been held only weeks.

He wasn't tortured, he said. 

"They make you sleep with the light on," he said. "And this isn't your average bedroom light. This is like when you walk into a 7-Eleven at 2 a.m., dark outside, incredibly brightly lit, fluorescent lit."

He didn't sleep the first night, he told her. "But I started sleeping all right, I mean, pretty quickly you adapt ... ."

He can't say his captors fed him well either, he said. "The thing that really sustained me, the food that I was most excited about was these food parcels, these food packages, that Juliana would bring every two weeks ... my only connection with her, and I mean I wouldn't have gotten through it ... for the amount of time I did, have a positive attitude that wouldn't have been possible if I didn't know those packages were coming, which in themselves felt like a connection to her, and also the tiny little notes that she was writing and sneaking into boxes of granola bars, you know, bags of cereal ... telling me how much she loved me." 

He was able to sneak notes out to her, too.

"There were several different ways. It kind of became fun," he said, laughing. "A game to think of new ways, something to occupy your thoughts."

He had several pants with drawstrings, and he'd write a small note, wrap it around the drawstring, tie it with dental floss and "shimmy it back into the waistband," he said. He'd "fidget with my waistband" in court, pull it out and hand it surreptitiously to someone to give to Juliana.

When Stahl asked if he was frightened during his ordeal, he said "there must have been some fear early on, but I think the real fear set on later."

":.. Early on, my assumption was that this isn't going to last long," he said. "So as angry and as uncertain as everything is, I like, there's no way I'm gonna be here for very long. ... I thought they wanted to get us out of there. I didn't think they wanted to hang onto us."

He was held for almost six months and was one of more than 100 journalists, media officials or publishers detained since the Myanmar military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi last February.

He was sentenced in November to more than 11 years of hard labor in Myanmar, convicted of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulation. He was sent home after former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson helped negotiate his release.

He feels more connected than ever to Myanmar, he said. "I feel like Myanmar will be an important part of my life for the rest of my life."