Muslim Wire

Inside the Islamic Emirate

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 20, 2009

DAVID ROHDE

A YOUNG Taliban driver with shoulder-length hair got behind the wheel of the car. Glancing at me suspiciously in the rearview mirror, he started the engine and began driving down the left-hand side of the road.

It was some sort of prank, I hoped, some jihadi version of chicken — the game where two drivers speed toward each other in the same lane until one loses his nerve.

Which lane he drove down showed what country we were in. If he continued driving on the left, we had crossed into Pakistan. If he drove on the right, we were still in Afghanistan.

A mile down the road, traffic signs appeared in Urdu.

We’re in Pakistan, I thought to myself. We’re dead.

Eight days earlier, a Taliban faction had kidnapped me along with an Afghan journalist, Tahir Luddin, and our driver, Asad Mangal, during a reporting trip just outside Kabul. The faction’s commander, a man who called himself Atiqullah, had lied to us. He had said we were being moved to southern Afghanistan and would be freed.

Instead, on Nov. 18, we arrived in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an isolated belt of Taliban-controlled territory. We were now in “the Islamic emirate” — the fundamentalist state that existed in Afghanistan before the 2001 American-led invasion. The loss of thousands of Afghan, Pakistani and American lives and billions in American aid had merely moved it a few miles east, not eliminated it.

Through seven years of reporting in the region, I had pitied captives imprisoned here. It was arguably the worst place on earth to be an American hostage. The United States government had virtually no influence and was utterly despised.

Since 2004, dozens of missiles fired by American drones had killed hundreds of militants and civilians. The Taliban had held Afghan, Pakistani and foreign hostages in the area for years, trading lives for ransom and executions for publicity.

“We’re in Pakistan,” I said out loud in the car, venting my anger.

Atiqullah laughed, and the driver appeared surprised.

“How does he know it’s Pakistan?” the driver asked.

“Because you’re driving down the left-hand side of the road,” I answered.

“How do you know that?” he asked. “When were you in Pakistan before?”

Atiqullah smiled and appeared amused by the conversation. He knew I had been to Pakistan many times on reporting trips.

I was one of dozens of journalists who had written articles detailing how Al Qaeda and the Taliban had turned the tribal areas into their new stronghold after being driven from Afghanistan in 2001. I had watched the Pakistani government, then led by President Pervez Musharraf, largely stand by as the Taliban murdered tribal elders and seized control of the area.

Now, an abstract foreign policy issue was deeply personal. When my wife and family learned that I was in the tribal areas, their distress would increase exponentially. They would expect that I would never return.

We arrived in a large town, and I spotted a sign that said “Wana” in English. Wana is the capital of South Waziristan, the most radical area of the seven administrative districts that make up the tribal areas. We stopped in the main bazaar, and I was left alone in the car with the young driver.

Desperate rationalizations swirled through my mind. Our captors wanted a ransom and prisoners. Killing us got them nothing. The three of us would survive. They were all delusions, of course. Simply getting us this far was an enormous victory for them. We would be held here for months or killed.

Outside the car, dozens of Pakistani tribesmen and Afghan and foreign militants milled around. Each carried a Kalashnikov assault rifle on his shoulder and had a long, thick beard.

A man with a large turban stopped, peered at me in the back seat and asked the driver a question in Pashto. The driver looked at me and said a sentence that I thought included the word for martyr. I told myself the driver had said I was on my way to heaven.

Atiqullah got back into the car, and I felt relief. He had kidnapped us, but more and more I desperately viewed Atiqullah as my protector, the man who would continue to treat us well as other militants called for our heads.

OUR first Pakistani home was in Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan. Two large sleeping rooms looked out on a small courtyard. One even had a small washroom, separate from the toilet, for showering.

On the first day there, I went to the bathroom and returned to find Tahir with a fresh cut on his calf. It looked as if someone had drawn a line across his leg in red ink. A local Waziri militant had taken out his knife and tried to cut off a chunk of Tahir’s calf, saying he wanted to eat the flesh of an Afghan who worked with Westerners. One of Atiqullah’s guards had stopped him.

All day, a parade of random Pakistani militants stopped by the house to stare at us. I felt like an animal in a zoo. Among them was a local Taliban commander who introduced himself as Badruddin. He was the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, who led the Haqqani network, one of the most powerful Taliban factions in the region. Miram Shah was its stronghold.

Their father was Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan mujahedeen leader whom the United States and Pakistan backed in the 1980s when he battled the Soviets. In the 1990s, the United States ended its relationship with the Haqqanis and many other hard-line Afghan fighters. With Pakistan’s help, the Taliban movement emerged and the Haqqanis joined them.

Badruddin, a tall, talkative man who appeared to be in his early 30s, said he was preparing to make a video of us to release to the media. He smiled as he showed me a video on his camera of a French aid worker, Dany Egreteau, who had been kidnapped a week before us as he walked to his office in Kabul. He was in chains and appeared to have welts on his face. He implored his family and friends to save him.

“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “I really beg you to pay.”

I asked if Tahir and I could speak alone with Atiqullah, and I told him we should not make the video. The American and Afghan governments were more likely to agree to a secret prisoner exchange, I said, than a public one.

Trying to reduce their expectations, I told him it would be far easier to get prisoners from the main Afghan-run prison outside Kabul, known as Pul-i-Charkhi. If the Taliban demanded prisoners from the American-run detention centers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram, Afghanistan, they would never succeed.

I was not worth that much, I told him, and he should compromise. I did not say it, but I also wanted to spare my family the pain of seeing me in a video. To my surprise, Atiqullah agreed.

“I am one of those kinds of people,” he said at one point. “I am one of those people who like to meet in the middle.”

Tahir, Asad and I would be allowed to call our families that night to prove we were alive, he said. Atiqullah told me to emphasize during the call that he wanted to reach a deal quickly. He continued to cover his face with a scarf. To me, that meant he did not want to be identified because he planned to release us.

I spent the rest of the day nervously scribbling a list of things I wanted to say to my wife, Kristen, whom I had married just two months earlier. I added items and then crossed them out. I wanted to ease my family’s fears that I was being tortured, but I also wanted to do everything possible to free the three of us. I wasn’t sure I would have another chance to speak with her.

LATE that night, Atiqullah and Badruddin drove us out of town. Atiqullah stopped the car in a dry riverbed and turned off the engine. He left the headlights on, and we used them to see the number pad on a small satellite phone. Atiqullah and Badruddin ordered me to tell Kristen that we were being held in terrible conditions in the mountains of Afghanistan. I dialed my wife’s number.

“Hello?” she said.

“Kristen?” I said. “Kristen?”

“David,” she said, “it’s Kristen. I love you.”

She sounded calm.

“Kristen?” I asked.

“Yes?” she said.

“I love you, too,” I said. “Write these things down, O.K.?”

“O.K.,” she said.

She sounded remarkably composed.

“I’m, we are being treated well,” I said.

“Being treated well,” Kristen repeated.

“No. 1,” I said.

“Uh-huh, No. 1,” Kristen said.

“No. 2,” I said. “Deal for all three of us, all three of us, not just me. The driver and the translator also; it has to be a deal for all three of us.”

“Deal for all three of us,” she repeated. “The driver and the translator as well. O.K.”

“Do not use force to try to get us,” I said.

“Do not use force,” Kristen repeated.

“Four,” I said.

“Yes,” Kristen said.

“Make a deal now or they will make it public,” I said. “They want to put a video out to the media.”

Kristen repeated my words back to me.

“It will make it a big political problem,” I said.

Atiqullah told me to tell her that this was my last call.

“They said I can’t call you again,” I said. “They want a deal now and I can’t call you again.”

“You cannot call me again,” she repeated. “I love you. I love you, honey.”

“I love you, too,” I said. “Tell my family I’m sorry.”

“Your family is here, Lee’s here with me,” she said, referring to my older brother.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s going to be all right,” Kristen said calmly. “I love you. I am praying for you every day.”

Kristen said she wanted to make sure she understood what the Taliban wanted.

“What is the deal?” she asked.

Atiqullah told me to tell her that he would call The New York Times’s Kabul bureau with demands. “We are very concerned about you,” Kristen said. “And we love you, and we’re praying for you.”

The satellite phone beeped and abruptly went dead. Kristen was gone.

STANDING in the remote darkness of Waziristan at the mercy of Taliban militants, I felt at peace. I had spoken to my wife for the first time in nine days. I had expected panic or tears, but she sounded collected and confident. Her words “It’s going to be all right” would linger in my mind for months. Her composure would sustain me.

Atiqullah and Badruddin then told me to call The Times’s bureau in Kabul. But instead of ordering me to make specific demands, they instructed all three of us to exaggerate our suffering.

“We are in terrible conditions, Tahir is very sick,” I told Chris Chivers, a close friend and Times reporter, who answered the phone. I was ordered to tell Chris that Atiqullah was not with us — even though he was, in fact, standing beside me.

Tahir then spoke to Chris and asked him to tell his family he was alive and in good health.

“They keep telling me that if things go wrong they will repeat the story of Helmand,” Tahir said, “so I am just afraid they are going to kill me.”

Tahir was referring to the 2007 kidnapping of an Italian journalist in Helmand Province that ended in the beheadings of an Afghan journalist and a driver working with him.

Asad then spoke with an Afghan reporter in the bureau.

“I am fine, I am O.K.,” he said. “Tell my family that we are in the mountains but we are O.K.”

The conversation dragged on, with Atiqullah continuing to direct me about what to say. When he ordered me to tell Chris that they would kill the driver and translator first, I refused.

“Kill me first,” I told Atiqullah, “Kill me first.”

Chris overheard me and interrupted. “Nobody needs that, David,” he said. “Nobody needs to die.”

“They are threatening to kill the driver and the translator,” I explained to Chris. “I have to tell you, I have to tell you. I don’t want to tell you.”

“We understand that they are making those threats,” Chris said, “but that will not make our job easier.”

Chris said that if the Taliban killed anyone it would make government officials angry and make any deal even more difficult.

“Please don’t let them kill the driver and the translator,” I said. “Please don’t let them kill the driver and translator.”

“I am sorry about this,” I added. “I apologize to everyone.”

“David, this is not your fault,” Chris said. He urged me to tell Atiqullah to keep calling.

“O.K., all three of us, Chris,” I said as Badruddin and Atiqullah ordered me to end the call. “It’s gotta be all three of us. I gotta go.”

AS Atiqullah drove us back into Miram Shah, I felt relief. Kristen had sounded calm. Chris had said The Times was doing all it could. I felt I had fought for Tahir and Asad.

We arrived at a new house, and I was again surprised by the good conditions. It had regular electricity, and we could wash ourselves with buckets of warm water. I received a new set of clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste and shampoo. Guards allowed us to walk in a yard, and the weather was surprisingly warm. We received pomegranates and other fresh food and Nestlé Pure Life water bottled in Pakistan.

The tribal areas were more developed and the Taliban more sophisticated than I expected. They browsed the Internet and listened to hourly news updates on Azadi Radio, a station run by the American government. But then they dismissed whatever information did not meet their preconceptions.

Atiqullah said he needed to return to Afghanistan, but two of his men stayed behind to guard us. “I will return in 7 to 10 days,” he promised, then disappeared.

That week, to help us pass the time, we received a shortwave radio and a board game called checkah, a Pakistani variation of Parcheesi. To my amazement, the guards even brought me English-language Pakistani newspapers. Delivered to a shop in Miram Shah, the newspapers were only a day or two old. Instead of beating us as I expected, our captors were at least trying to meet some of our needs.

But as in so much of our seven months in captivity, reasons for optimism would be overtaken by harsh realities.

For the next several nights, a stream of Haqqani commanders overflowing with hatred for the United States and Israel visited us, unleashing blistering critiques that would continue throughout our captivity.

Some of their comments were factual. They said large numbers of civilians had been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories in aerial bombings. Muslim prisoners had been physically abused and sexually humiliated in Iraq. Scores of men had been detained in Cuba and Afghanistan for up to seven years without charges.

To Americans, these episodes were aberrations. To my captors, they were proof that the United States was a hypocritical and duplicitous power that flouted international law.

When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?

Other accusations were paranoid and delusional. Seven years after 9/11, they continued to insist that the attacks were hatched by American and Israeli intelligence agencies to create a pretext for the United States to enslave the Muslim world. They said the United States was forcibly converting vast numbers of Muslims to Christianity. American and NATO soldiers, they believed, were making Afghan women work as prostitutes on military bases.

Their hatred for the United States seemed boundless.

TEN days passed, but Atiqullah did not return as promised. Badruddin now seemed to be in charge.

He moved us to a far smaller, dirtier house. The space we were allowed to walk in was the width of a city sidewalk and ringed by high walls. The food was unclean and made me sick.

Our first night there, the Taliban commander who owned the house promised to update us every three days on negotiations for our release. But we would not see him again for months. The guards stopped taking Tahir to a local doctor for digestive and skin ailments.

And it was increasingly clear that Tahir and Asad would be separated from their families for Id al-Adha — a major Muslim holiday that marks Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to show his devotion to God.

Alarmed by the worsening treatment, Tahir and I began a hunger strike in early December. At first, the guards panicked and begged us to eat. We refused.

After two days, the guards said Atiqullah had called and told them that a deal for our release was nearly complete. He said he was waiting for approval from President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, who was on a foreign trip. The French aid worker in the video I was shown had been released, they said. We would be next.

Fearing that our continued defiance would anger our captors and scuttle the deal, we began eating again.

Instead of releasing us, Badruddin moved us to yet another house. It was larger than the previous one but felt more like a prison. Twenty-foot-high concrete walls surrounded a small courtyard where I spent my days walking in circles. For the first time in my life, I began praying several times a day, and I found that it centered me.

We started preparing our own meals. The food was cleaner and fresher, but cooking for ourselves gave a worrying sense of permanence to our imprisonment.

Badruddin visited us several days later and promised that negotiations were continuing. But he was increasingly casual. Any sense of urgency about our release seemed to be fading. Before leaving, he told me the Taliban would not kill me.

“You are the golden hen,” he said, clearly expecting me to lay a golden egg.

I asked him to promise not to kill Tahir and Asad. Speaking directly to me in broken English, he said the Taliban had decided to kill Asad if their demands were not met in a week. After he left, Tahir and I decided not to tell Asad.

I panicked over the next two days, frantically trying to think of ways to save our young driver. Since the three of us had arrived in Pakistan on Nov. 18, I had spent hours each day talking politics, religion and survival with Tahir, but I could barely communicate with Asad.

I spoke little Pashto, he spoke little English. I came up with a routine when a newspaper arrived. I showed Asad photos and tried to explain what they were about. He laughed, but I felt like a monster. Asad was an impoverished, hard-working father of two — and I was going to get him killed.

On the third day after Badruddin’s visit, I told one of our guards that I was willing to make a video — or do anything they wanted — to save Asad. The guard said he would check with Badruddin. The following day, the guard announced that it had all been a misunderstanding. There was no deadline to kill Asad. I didn’t know what the truth was but felt enormous relief.

Several days later, Badruddin arrived to make the video. He promised us that it would go only to our families, but what he instructed us to say made me think it would be released publicly. As guards pointed assault rifles at our heads, I called for President Bush and President-elect Obama to meet the Taliban’s demands.

“If you don’t meet their demands,” I said, “they will kill all of us.”

Tahir and Asad then made similar statements. Badruddin departed, and I told myself that our families would at least know we were alive.

As December dragged on, tensions in the house steadily grew. Qari, the guard who had nearly shot Tahir, tore the checkah board to shreds after he repeatedly lost. Then, Tahir and Asad ripped up two other checkah boards out of frustration as well. Qari began spending hours alone reciting the Koran and seemed increasingly distant and unstable. I worried that the situation was slowly spinning out of control.

SEVERAL days before Christmas, Atiqullah finally returned. He announced that he had spectacular news. “We are here to free you,” he said, wearing no scarf over his face for the first time. “We have come here to release you.”

At first, I was euphoric. My confidence in Atiqullah had not been misplaced. Here was a more moderate and reasonable Taliban leader who would persevere and release us.

Then, later that night, the conversation turned menacing.

The American military had mounted an operation to arrest Abu Tayyeb on the morning that we were to interview him, Atiqullah said, referring to the Taliban leader we had been traveling to meet when we were kidnapped.

Shocked, I told Atiqullah I knew nothing about a military operation.

I had sent text messages from my cellphone to Saudi Arabia before the interview, Atiqullah claimed, to tip off the American military about Abu Tayyeb’s location. Again, I told him I had no idea what he was talking about.

Finally, he announced that I was a spy, along with other employees of The Times in Afghanistan. His men had prepared a suicide attack on the paper’s Kabul bureau, he said, which he could set off with a single phone call. His men had nearly kidnapped Carlotta Gall, our bureau chief, but she had left an interview just before they arrived.

“She was probably given information,” he said, seemingly convinced that all journalists were intelligence operatives.

Our imprisonment, I thought, had reached a low point. My colleagues in Kabul were now in danger. Atiqullah’s talk of our imminent release seemed farcical.

The following morning, Atiqullah insisted that there was, in fact, a deal. At one point, he said we would be exchanged within “days.” He toyed with me, asking which flights I would take back to the United States and how many television cameras would be at the airport. He asked me what I would say to my wife when I saw her.

By this point, I began to doubt everything he said. Then I learned that he had lied to us from the beginning.

In conversations when our guards left the room, Tahir and Asad each separately whispered to me that Atiqullah was, in fact, Abu Tayyeb. They had known since the day we were kidnapped, they said, but dared not tell me. They asked me to stay silent as well. Abu Tayyeb had vowed to behead them if they revealed his true identity.

Abu Tayyeb had invited us to an interview, betrayed us and then pretended that he was a commander named Atiqullah.

I was despondent and left with only one certainty: We had no savior among the Taliban.

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