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My Time As a Prisoner of the Taliban

by Jere Van Dyk

Hardcover, 269 pages, Henry Holt & Co, List Price: $25 |


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Book Summary

An American reporter offers an account of being kidnapped and imprisoned by the Taliban for forty-five days, during which time he spent most of his hours in a bare room as the spector of violent death loomed over him.

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Jere Van Dyk, A Taliban 'Captive' For 45 Days

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Captive

Author's Note

In the summer of 2007, I signed a contract to write a book about the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I had a long background in this area, which is now considered the headquarters of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

I first crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan in1973, when I drove an old Volkswagen through the tribal areas. I was a young man, exploring the world. Six years later I watched on television as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and knew I would return. In 1981, as a freelance reporter for the New York Times, I flew to Pakistan and took a train to Peshawar, the headquarters of the mujahideen, the Afghans fighting the Soviet Union. I had read that these fearless men shouted "God is great" and with old British rifles fought valiantly against a modern superpower. I met their leaders, traveled into the tribal areas, and hiked into Afghanistan, where I lived with the mujahideen along the border.

On Thanksgiving Day 1981, the Afghan army and Soviet forces attacked the mujahideen group I was with. I heard the bullets sing overhead, saw the faces of the young soldiers as they approached us, saw the teenager next to me get shot and the commander wave tome to get back, trying to protect me, his guest. Many men died that day. That night Soviet tanks surrounded our village, and the mujahideen sneaked me away in the night, to save me.

Upon my return to the United States I published several articles in the New York Times and wrote a book, In Afghanistan, about my time with the mujahideen. I gave speeches, wrote other articles, and worked the politics of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C. I eventually left the country and again traveled the world as a journalist. National Geographic sent me to faraway places. I traveled the length of the Brahmaputra River, into western Tibet, hiking alone, foolishly, up a glacier, when the snow gave way but then miraculously held, and I found the river's very source. I made a similar journey up the Amazon River and scaled a mountain to where the stream became a trickle. But still, no matter where I was in the world, I thought of Afghanistan.

In December 2001 I returned to Afghanistan, as a freelance radio reporter for CBS News and WABC television. It was two months after the U.S. invasion and three months following the 9/11attacks. Over the next six years I returned on several reporting trips for CBS to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Always I was drawn to the border region. I wanted to penetrate deep into the tribal areas, to return to where I had lived with the mujahideen as a young man, to find the leaders I had known from that time, to learn the true story of what was taking place there, in this new time of war.

I returned to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in early August 2007 and began my preparations to travel along the border and to cross into the tribal areas of Pakistan. No Western reporter had done this since the rise of the Taliban a decade earlier. It would be dangerous, but I felt that I could do it. I had contacts that no other journalist had. I knew this region. I knew its culture. There were countless reports that the Taliban had reconstituted itself in the tribal areas of Pakistan and that Osama bin Laden was hiding there. I would go to the men I knew from my recent reporting trips, and through them find the mujahideen I had known twenty-five years before, some of whom were now Taliban leaders.

I let my hair and beard grow. Ramadan, the month of fasting, began in late August, and I began to fast. My goal was to disappear as much as I could into Afghan culture, specifically the culture of the Pashtuns, the people who lived on both sides of the border, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. I maintained a social life in Kabul, but I kept my work hidden. I began to travel secretly along the border, sleeping in villages, meeting with tribal leaders, mullahs, and the Taliban. I began to cross the mountains into Pakistan. I knew that this was what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to be. I was determined to push it to the very end.

I kept in touch via e-mail with my editor in New York, my literary agent, a woman I was going out with, my family, and various editors and producers at CBS, but gradually I sent fewer and fewer e-mails. I ate in Afghan restaurants, wore Afghan clothes, and more and more avoided Westerners. I was increasingly on edge and nervous. On January 3, 2008, I wrote a letter to my editor. It would be my last correspondence with him.


Thursday, January 3

Dear Paul,

Happy New Year. I want to give you an update on the book and to let you know where I am on it at the moment. I am writing a letter because I don't trust e-mails. I am not completely paranoid, but close to it.

I began working on the book at the end of August. I have traveled through most, but not all, parts of eastern Afghanistan along the border. I have a few important places yet to go. I will go to them this winter or later in the spring. I have interviewed a great number of people: tribal leaders, local people, politicians, and mullahs. I have an interview scheduled with President Hamid Karzai on the 10th.

I live in Kabul, but when I am away I live like a Pashtun. I have sneaked four times into the tribal zones of Pakistan, our goal. I have been deep into Mohmand Agency, one of the zones. I went in with very religious drug traffickers. We sneaked past the border post where, a week before, the Taliban killed four policemen.

I have crossed with tribal leaders into Kurram Agency, also in the tribal zones. I have twice been into Chitral, in the north, where Gulbadeen Hekmatyar lives, and where many feel Osama bin Laden may be hiding. I know our goal is to cover the tribal zones, not just eastern Afghanistan.

I have been with the Taliban three times. Once in the mountains, about a six-hour hike south from Tora Bora. The Taliban there came from North Waziristan. They invited me to come with them, on another trip, to their training camps. We shall see. The day after I left, the government came and arrested some tribal people. I don't know if someone recognized me, or learned that a foreigner was there.

Before that I met with a Taliban commander in Kunar Province in the north of Afghanistan, along the border. This meeting represents the first time any journalist has been with the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan, so I am told. A member of al-Qaeda, along with other Taliban, was watching when I interviewed the Taliban commander in Kunar.

The next day the U.S. Army came and attacked them, from the air and on the ground. They did so because the Taliban attacked the army base that night. I was not with them when they attacked the base. I won't do that.

The Taliban leader has since called my translator, and my go- between, a number of times. He wants to take me to their training camps. I haven't agreed to go yet because I am not sure he doesn't want to kidnap me. My go-between is going up into the mountains to talk to him now.

I had one of my biggest scares thus far on New Year's Eve. It is still not over. I sneaked across the border from Kunar, with two guides, and went into Chitral, in the tribal areas. It took a month to arrange this. There I met with a Taliban commander. In every case, thus far, with the Taliban, I have taken a camera and taken their pictures. I take other pictures also.

After I finished my interview—and this man, unlike other Taliban I have been with, was not even remotely friendly— my guides and I took a different route, hiding behind rocks, evading a Pakistani military truck, and sneaked back across the border to Afghanistan. This all happened at night. Most of my trips are at night.

It was a two-part package deal. I was to meet at 3 a.m. the next morning with a Pakistani Military Intelligence officer who would come across the border to meet with me. I wanted confirmation from him of all that I am learning about the military's involvement with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The tribal chief, who arranged the Taliban meeting, would bring him. He promised that the officer would answer all my questions, including those about Osama bin Laden.

Everything went terribly wrong. I insisted that we meet at dawn, so I could take video of our meeting. I did this for a few reasons. The camera has the recording. I knew I would need proof of such a meeting. The tribal chief decided, because of this, to move us to a different location. At 4:00 a.m., the Taliban commander, and eight of his men, came to where we were originally, to capture or kill us.

The tribal chief was gone to meet with the MI man. My guide and I, and the chief 's younger brother, were at another, secret location. I didn't sleep that night. There was machine-gun fire coming from near the U.S. Army base a few miles away. There were helicopters coming and going.

At dawn the next morning, on the way to meet us, the tribal chief and the army man were captured by Afghan intelligence. His men had to get me out of there. We sneaked down the mountain and found another truck. The Afghans risked everything to get me far away from there. Above all a Pashtun will protect to the death a guest. It is part of Pashtunwali, their ancient tribal code, which often takes precedence over Islam. That is why Mullah Omar refused to give up Osama bin Laden. He destroyed his government, his country, and much else all to protect Osama bin Laden. So it was with the men and me.

The tribal chief had given one of his younger brothers to the Pakistanis as a guarantee that he would bring the army man back. He promised the MI officer that if anything happened he would take care of his family for life.

The area where we operated is filled with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Al-Qaeda had kidnapped a man who worked at the U.S. Army base a week or so before and beheaded him.

A tough nineteen-year- old Afghan, the youngest brother of the tribal chief, and who guided me down a mountain in Chitral and over a stream and back to Afghanistan, and who slept in a room with us to protect us, drove me and my guide fast on a rough track out of the area.

Afghans at a U.S. Army check post stopped us and this time I was discovered, and they took me to the army fire base. The sergeant was as nice as could be, even said he recognized my name and commented on my long experience in Afghanistan, and said he and others had been reading some things I had written. He asked if I wanted anything to eat or to see his commander. All I wanted to do was get out of there, which I did. I was afraid they would find out what had happened.

We rushed on. When we were near a paved road and relative safety, four hours later, I asked the driver to stop. I went down to the Kunar River and washed my face. I came back to see the young Afghan crying softly. He finally broke down. His two brothers were in prison, one being held by Afghan intelligence, the other by the Pakistanis. The full weight of everything hit me. I stood there filled with sadness and, yes, shame.

I was responsible for this trip. I demanded certain things and they followed my instructions. They did everything for me. In return I was going to pay them some money.

My guide is in touch with one of the men who took us to Chitral, part of the tribal chief 's family. I learned last night that the Taliban have now kidnapped the MI officer. I don't know what they are going to do with him. If anything happens to him, the Pakistanis may well execute the tribal chief 's brother. The local Afghan intelligence people are keeping this out of the media. Kabul doesn't even know.

The leader of my group is the tribal chief along the border. He was released two days ago by Afghan intelligence. I learned yesterday that a Pakistani MI officer, a friend of the officer with whom I was to meet, had secretly alerted Afghan intelligence that his fellow officer was coming over. It gets even more complicated. It is a very murky world here, a place of ancient tribal ties, betrayal, warfare, double- crossing, and where a man's honor and tribal codes count for everything.

The Afghans I was with are doing everything to keep my name out of it. They promised they would protect me. They have kept their word. This trip is not a game.

I do not have the full answers yet. I am still not out of this. I have to go back to Kunar. I have not yet told you the full story. I am too sick to my stomach. I met with my guide this morning. We do not know what is going to happen to the MI man, and the young man in prison in Pakistan. We worry.

My guide and Taliban go-between are now planning a long trip. It is almost set. I sent trusted men to talk to people to arrange it. The trip will take three weeks to a month, I am told, through many parts of the tribal areas. I am going to go to all the places that you and I discussed. I will go with our enemies. I will leave after my interview with Karzai. A blue suit one day and Afghan clothes the next.

I sent my men back to double- check with the others yesterday. After what happened on New Year's Eve (I forgot that was the date) in Chitral, I am scared.

Everything I am doing costs money. I have about twelve people on my payroll at different times. I use different men for different tribal areas. A man must belong to the area, and to the right tribe, to do anything. The Pakistanis are using the Taliban, I believe, to try to destroy the tribal structure. They are deeply involved in backing the Taliban. They are, I believe, using U.S. taxpayer money to kill U.S. soldiers. The Taliban get money for what they do. A suicide bomber gets the most, although it goes to his family.

I stay away from journalists here, as much as possible, although I know many people here, because I don't want to talk. I can't tell people what I am doing. I don't really trust anybody. It is too dangerous.

By the way, all the Taliban in the north thought I was a journalist from Nepal. If they found out I was American they would kill me, or so my guides said. I said I didn't look Nepali, but my guides said the Taliban wouldn't know. They are that isolated from the world. I can't believe that the al- Qaeda fighter, who watched me interview his commander in American English, thought I was Nepali.

I have been talking with the U.S. Army about going on an embed along the border, but I have postponed that for now. I was at a dinner the other night, with the deputy commander of ISAF, a three-star British general, who invited me to go with him on a trip whenever I wanted. Maybe, but only after I finish my own work on the ground. I am staying away from the CIA. I do not trust the CIA. I can't afford to let it know what I am doing. I have heard they are along the border. I don't know exactly what is going on between the CIA and the ISI, the main Pakistani intelligence agency, although I have heard that MI is more ruthless. Who knows? I had hoped the Pakistani military intelligence man would have enlightened me about a number of things, but now he is in prison, somewhere, if he is still alive, in part because of me.

I, like every Afghan I have met, am not sure what U.S. goals are here. I will see about talking to U.S. officials after I have completed my work on the ground. I am talking to Karzai now because he will see me, and because I want to use that as leverage with the Pakistanis, including President Pervez Musharraf.

I have a great deal to do, a great number of places to go. I will hopefully still get an official visa for Pakistan, but right now it doesn't matter. I will continue to cross the mountains. Our goal is to understand what is going on, on both sides of the border, which is the center of al- Qaeda, the Taliban, and the "War on Terror."

There is not a tribal chief along the border who believes one word that Musharraf utters. Journalists have written that Afghans and Pakistanis call him "Busharraf," a combination of "Bush" and "Musharraf," meaning that they are both the same, outsiders fighting the Pashtuns, but what they are really saying is "Besharraf," meaning, in Pashto, "a man of no dignity." It is a play on words and, to them, the truth. They all believe that Bush and Musharraf are deceiving the world. One malik (tribal leader) called it "a drama." Others agree. I don't have the answers yet. As one malik in Pakistan said, "I have money, men, weapons, and ammunition, but I don't have the ability to make a suicide jacket."

Strange, is it not, that as Pakistan burns, Musharraf can throw lawyers in jail, and judges and politicians, and yet the government has yet to find anyone responsible for one single suicide attack, as they rage across the tribal zones, in Pakistan proper, and here in Kabul.

I know you are concerned about Osama bin Laden. He and al-Qaeda are a big part of this story. I bring him up, whenever I can, in interviews.

I know the manuscript is due in August. I went to see the Pakistanis again last week about a visa. Still nothing. Everyone says they don't trust me. I don't know. I'll get the information

one way or another, even if I have to go to Peshawar and Islamabad disguised as an Afghan. I will continue to stay in touch.

Best wishes,