The last word: Kidnapped by the Taliban

Held prisoner for seven months, The New York Times’ David Rohde discovered a movement unbroken by war.

THE GUNMAN BEHIND the wheel punched the accelerator and our car crossed into the open Afghan desert. From the passenger seat, a second gunman stared back at us as he gripped his Kalashnikov rifle. Already he had demanded and confiscated our cell phones. Outside, a bleak landscape flashed by—reddish soil and black boulders as far as the eye could see. I feared we would be dead within minutes.

It was last Nov. 10. That morning, I had been headed to an interview with a Taliban commander along with Tahir Luddin, a journalist with the London Times, and our driver, Asad Mangal. The commander had invited us to meet him at a village outside Kabul. On a road near the designated meeting point, the gunmen ran toward our car, shouting. When Asad pulled over, they swung open the front doors and ordered Asad and Tahir to climb in back with me. “Tell them we’re journalists,” I said to Tahir when we pulled away. “Tell them we’re here to interview Abu Tayyeb.” Tahir translated what I said, and the driver—a bearish, bearded figure—started laughing. “Who is Abu Tayyeb? I don’t know any Abu Tayyeb,” he said. “I am the commander here.”

We reached a dry riverbed and the car stopped. “They’re going to kill us,” Tahir whispered. An interview that seemed crucial hours earlier now seemed absurd and reckless. For a book, I had risked the lives of Tahir and Asad—as well as my own.

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Tahir and Asad were ordered out of the car. Gunmen from a second vehicle began beating them with their rifle butts and led them away. I was told to get out of the car and take a few steps up a sand-covered hillside. While one guard pointed his Kalashnikov at me, the other took my glasses, notebook, pen, and camera. I was blindfolded, my hands tied behind my back. My heart raced. Sweat poured from my skin. “Habarnigar,” I said, using a Dari word for journalist. “Salaam,” I said, using an Arabic expression for peace.

I waited for the sound of gunfire. It didn’t come.

Moments later, I felt a hand push me back toward the car, and I was forced to lie down on the back seat. Two gunmen got in and slammed the doors shut. The car lurched forward. Tahir and Asad were gone and, I thought, probably dead.

Hours later, I still did not know which Taliban faction had abducted us. The car I was in came to a halt after what seemed like a two-hour drive. Guards took off my blindfold and guided me into a crude mud-brick home, where I was put in a room the size of a closet. A few minutes later, the guards opened the door and pushed Tahir and Asad inside. We stared at one another in relief. Another 20 minutes probably passed before a guard opened the door again and motioned for us to walk into the hallway. “No shoot,” he said, “no shoot.” For the first time that day, I thought our lives might be spared.

The guard led us into a living room decorated with maroon carpets and red pillows. A half-dozen men sat along two walls of the room, Kalashnikov rifles at their sides. I sat down across from a heavyset man with a traditional Afghan scarf wrapped around his face. Sunglasses covered his eyes, and he wore a cheap black knit winter cap. Embroidered across the front of it was the word “Rock” in English.

“I’m a Taliban commander,” he announced. “My name is Mullah Atiqullah.”

FOR THE NEXT seven months and 10 days, the three of us were held hostage by this man. We were held in Afghanistan for a week, then spirited to the tribal areas of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding. Our captor worked with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of one of the most hard-line factions of the Taliban.

During our time as hostages, I tried to reason with the men who held us. I told them we were journalists who had come to hear the Taliban’s side of the story. I told them that I had recently married and that Tahir and Asad had nine young children between them. I wept, hoping it would create sympathy, and begged them to release us. All my efforts proved pointless.

Over those months, I came to a simple realization. After seven years of reporting in the region, I did not fully understand how extreme many of the Taliban had become. Before the kidnapping, I viewed the organization as a form of “al Qaida lite,” a movement primarily focused on controlling Afghanistan. Living side by side with Haqqani’s followers, I learned that the goal of the hard-line Taliban was far more ambitious. Contact with foreign militants appeared to have deeply affected many young Taliban fighters. They wanted to create a fundamentalist Islamic emirate with al Qaida that spanned the Muslim world. I long knew that Pakistan’s intelligence services turned a blind eye to many Taliban activities. But I was astonished by what I encountered firsthand: a Taliban mini-state that flourished openly and with impunity. The tribal areas—widely perceived as impoverished and isolated—even had superior roads, electricity, and infrastructure compared with what exists in much of Afghanistan. The Taliban government that had supposedly been eliminated by the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was alive and thriving.

At first, our guards also impressed me. They vowed to follow the tenets of Islam that mandate the good treatment of prisoners. In my case, they unquestionably did. They gave me bottled water, let me walk in a small yard each day, and never beat me. I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi, and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged. America, Europe, and Israel preached democracy, human rights, and impartial justice to the Muslim world, they said, but failed to follow those principles themselves. But as the months dragged on, I grew to detest our captors. I saw Haqqani’s men as a criminal gang masquerading as a pious religious movement. They described themselves as the true followers of Islam, but displayed an astounding capacity for dishonesty and greed.

Our ultimate betrayal would come from Atiqullah himself, whose nom de guerre means “gift from God.” During our long captivity, I made numerous mistakes. In an effort to save our lives in the early days, I exaggerated to Atiqullah what the Taliban could receive for us in ransom. In response, our captors made irrational demands, at one point asking for $25 million and the release of Afghan prisoners from the American detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But when Atiqullah first promised not to kill any of the three of us, I concluded that he embodied the Taliban’s reasonable faction—people who would compromise on our release and, perhaps, even on peace in Afghanistan. In November, after accompanying us into Pakistan, he disappeared for several weeks. We were soon told, though, that he had arranged a deal for our release that was nearly complete. One day just before Christmas, he returned, saying, “We are here to free you,” only to turn menacing that night, insisting that I was a spy rather than a journalist. When he spoke again the next morning about having a deal done within “days,” I began to doubt everything he said.

Then I learned that he had lied to us from the beginning. In conversation when our guards left the room, Tahir and Asad each whispered separately to me that Atiqullah was, in fact, Taliban leader Abu Tayyeb. He had invited us to an interview, betrayed us, and then pretended that he was someone else. Tahir and Asad had known since the day we were kidnapped, they said, but dared not tell me. Abu Tayyeb had vowed to behead them if they revealed his true identity. Clearly, we had no savior among the Taliban.

WE WERE HELD for much of the winter in a building the Pakistani government had constructed to serve as a health clinic. Our guards spent their days there listening to radio broadcasts and shouting “God is great!” at reports of deaths of Afghan or American soldiers. They slept beneath bedspreads manufactured in Pakistan and emblazoned with characters from the American TV show Hannah Montana and the movie Spider-Man. My blanket was a pink Barbie comforter.

I tried to get to know one of the young guards, who was preparing to be a suicide bomber. He was better educated than the other fighters. He even spoke a smattering of English, and my beliefs seemed to interest and amaze him. Was it true, he asked, that a necktie was a secret symbol of Christianity. Was it true that Christians wanted to live 1,000 years?

When certain commanders visited, the atmosphere was tense. When we were alone with the guards who lived with us, moments of levity emerged. After dinner on many winter nights, my guards sang Pashto songs for hours. My voice and Pashto pronunciation were terrible, but our guards urged me to sing along. On some evenings, I found myself reluctantly singing Taliban songs that declared that “you have atomic bombs, but we have suicide bombers.” On other nights, at the guards’ urging, I switched to American tunes, singing an off-key version of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The guards’ favorite song was the Beatles’ “She Loves You.”

In March, we were moved to a remote town in South Waziristan, and conditions worsened. One day, a guard arrived with a DVD player, and after that, watching jihadist videos became the guards’ favorite pastime. They were little more than grimly repetitive snuff films. The Taliban executed local men who had been declared American spies. Taliban roadside bombs blew up Afghan government trucks and American Humvees. The most popular videos documented the final days of suicide bombers.

The atmosphere wasn’t improved by occasional missile strikes from the American drones circling overhead. The drones killed many senior Taliban commanders, increasing Taliban paranoia. Several days after one drone struck near our house, we heard that foreign militants had arrested a local man. He confessed to being a spy after they disemboweled him and chopped off his leg. Then they decapitated him and hung his body in the local bazaar as a warning.

BY JUNE, I wasn’t sure if Tahir and I remained capable of making rational choices when we finally decided to make an escape attempt without Asad. During the spring, Asad had begun cooperating with the guards, apparently sharing secrets and even carrying an assault rifle they had given him. Tahir and I thought of our escape attempt as a last-ditch, foolhardy act that had little chance of success. Yet still we wanted to try. And to our eternal surprise, it worked. (Eventually, Asad escaped, too.)

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Saturday, June 20, Tahir and I stood with our hands raised in the middle of the dimly illuminated main road in Miram Shah, the largest town in North Waziristan. Some 10 minutes earlier, we had escaped our captors by climbing the 15-foot wall that surrounded a nearby compound where we recently had been held. Separately, Tahir and I had each headed to the compound’s bathroom without seeking permission from our sleeping guards. We lowered ourselves to the street using a rope I had found two weeks earlier.

Now we were standing in front of one of the gates to a Pakistani military base, hoping we wouldn’t be shot by a nervous guard or by one of the unseen militiamen outside who were said to watch the gates 24 hours a day. Two or three guards standing on the roof above us had aimed their gun barrels at us. One of them spoke in Pashto to Tahir. “He is asking if you are American,” Tahir said. I addressed the guard myself: “I am an American journalist. Please help us.”

The guard spoke again to Tahir. “They are radioing their commander,” Tahir said. “They are asking permission to bring us inside.”

©2009 by The New York Times Co.

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