My Time As A Prisoner Of The Taliban
By Jere Van Dyk
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2010 Jere Van Dyk
All rights reserved.
The Way of the Pashtuns
Tuesday, February 12
It was midmorning in Kabul, cold and cloudy. Daoud, my translator and guide, called to say that he was waiting outside. I looked out the window at the hills to the west, covered with snow, took my backpack, locked the door to my room, and went quietly downstairs. I wrote a note to the guest house manager saying I would be back in a few days. I left the keys on the counter.
I could be gone a few days longer, but it didn't matter. I always left notes like this. I didn't tell anyone else I was leaving. After the attack on the Serena Hotel, in January, the Taliban said that they would now target restaurants and guest houses where foreigners stayed. I didn't know who was watching.
The taxi was waiting outside the steel gate, thirty yards away, its exhaust spewing in the cold. I had told Daoud never to let the taxi park near the door. We drove through gray, crowded streets with snow and ice on both sides piled up. The driver didn't seem to notice that I was a foreigner. We reached the Jalalabad taxi station, a strip of dirt with a few cars and men standing around. Daoud told me, in English, ruining my cover, to stay in the car. I paid the driver. Daoud found another car, and soon we headed east on the high, cold, windy, dusty, polluted plains of Kabul toward the warmth of Jalalabad.
Once this plain was calm and beautiful; now it was part of an expanding, ever larger, uglier, overcrowded, nervous city, and the Taliban slowly were beginning to tighten the noose around it. We stopped at a police checkpoint, where the driver handed over a small bribe, and began our descent. For a moment I was happy. How I loved this road. Every time I drove it, my mind flashed back, if only for a second, to how happy I was as a young man driving my Volkswagen here. The sun was out, and Afghanistan was romantic. I wasn't afraid then.
In 1973, I bought an old Volkswagen in Frankfurt, a city I knew from when I had been in the army nearby a few years before, and with my nineteen-year-old younger brother drove across Asia to Afghanistan. Kabul was smaller, friendly, and exotic then, the bazaar dark, deep, and mysterious, and long camel caravans came slowly through the empty streets, silent in the afternoon sun. There was the smell of hashish, sewage, and wood-burning stoves. Schoolgirls wore miniskirts with long socks and laughed in the streets. Not once did a child put out his hand to beg, as children did in other poor countries. There was pride here, born of a hard life, I felt, and a wildness and a warmth that drew me in. One evening I watched a bearded old man in a turban with a rifle on his shoulder walk slowly, his back straight, across a street and into the bazaar. To me he was Afghanistan.
We shot down now through the deep, narrow, dark, winding gorge, the layers of rock in some places folded over, rippling like a bodybuilder's stomach. I thought back to that sunny, quiet day so long ago, when I pushed the sunroof back and drove with a smile past the never-ending line of Kuchi caravans, making their way down to their warm, winter pastures in Pakistan, as Afghan kings had once made their way on this same road to their winter palaces in Jalalabad, and before that in Peshawar.
That was before war came again to this land, through which for centuries ambitious men with armies had come and gone. I had seen the mujahideen begin their rise to fight the godless Soviet invader, before the rise of the Taliban and their foreign allies, al-Qaeda, and before Afghanistan lost its soul, at least the one that I knew. The taxi left the gorge and raced down now past wide, brown, empty rolling hills. Men and boys stood by the road holding strings of fish for sale. There were blankets of snow in the shadows. The wide green Kabul River was on our left, its water running east to Pakistan, and beyond it were baked-mud villages in the hills.
Rows of brightly colored pinstriped Pakistani trucks, laden with matériel for the United States and its allies, geared down as they climbed upward, spewing their thick black fumes. We threaded our way through another canyon, and on our left in the east appeared the craggy, snow-covered Tangay Mir Kamon and to the right the Tor Ghar, beyond which lay Pakistan.
I was on my way to cross the border.
I would be going where no Western reporter had gone in years, into the tribal areas of Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban were said to be regrouping, and where there was no law except that of Pashtunwali, the ancient, tribal law of the Pashtuns. I would go to Bajaur and Swat and then down into Waziristan. No one else was doing this; no one, to my knowledge, had done this in twenty years. I still had a long way to go. It was so different now from what I had experienced in the 1980s, when I lived with the mujahideen as they fought for their country, and their faith, against the Soviet Union.
I had felt safe with the mujahideen, and I had written a book that brought their story to the people of America. This time I would be traveling with the Taliban and living with them. My life would be in their hands every minute, in Pakistan, where there were no American soldiers. I had to go, and I wanted to do this. I was scared.
I wanted to find out what the Taliban were really like, to see how different they were from the mujahideen. I wanted to learn what they thought and what their goals were. I wanted to go to their training camps. I wanted to explain the Taliban to the outside world. I wanted to go deep into the heart of Taliban country, to get to their leaders, men I knew from the 1980s, and through them perhaps even to find Osama bin Laden himself. I felt that with my contacts, my history with the mujahideen, and my knowledge of Pashtun culture, I could do what no one else could do. I knew these people. We had once been friends.
I wanted, as well, to do something harder and more dangerous than anything I had ever done before. I wanted to really test myself, one last time. Though I was past sixty, I was in pretty good shape, and I still thought of myself as the runner I had been as a young man. I had set a national high school record and had traveled the world on U.S. track and field teams. In college I was a contender for the U.S. Olympic team, and four years later I was a finalist in the Olympic trials. In the U.S. Army I had won my race in the main international military meet in Viareggio, Italy, and I had carried the American flag in the closing ceremonies of a U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. meet in Leningrad at the height of the Cold War. I still ran, even in Kabul, and I did exercises.
The Kabul River rushed over rocks, was calm, and rushed again through canyons with pine trees on either side. The wind was hot and dry now, and we made a rest stop by the road. The driver said there were no mines here. I walked out into the desert and felt the hot, dry wind in my face.
We stopped by a row of small ramshackle shops by the road to have lunch. There were rows of boxes of big red pomegranates, from Kandahar in the south, and oranges from Pakistan. "We will have fresh fish," said Daoud.
A boy brought four ten-inch fish to us. "These are not Pakistani fish, are they?" asked our driver.
"No," said the boy. "Pakistani fish will make a man sick. These are Afghan fish."
Once this land, from western Iran across into India, was ruled by the Pashtuns. Then the British, in their turn, came to conquer. Afghanistan grew weak from two Anglo-Afghan wars (1839–42 and 1879–80) and was forced to accept two treaties that took away the fertile Afghan land of what would become known as Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province of India, today parts of Pakistan.
In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of British India, and Emir Abdur Rahman of Afghanistan negotiated, in Persian (the French of Asia), the Durand Line, the border today between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This line, like a sword, cut through the heart and soul of the Pashtun nation, and through some of the most rugged, starkly beautiful land on Earth. Pashtun nationalists today call the region Pashtunistan or Pakhtunkhwa, the land of the Pashtuns, of which Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the Afghan nation in 1747, used to sing, this nation of proud men who worship honor, the Koran, and the gun.
The British wanted this artificial frontier, 1,610 miles long, to extend the formal reach of their empire and to create Afghanistan as a landlocked buffer state to protect British India from the expanding tsarist Russian Empire. In the years following Abdur Rahman's acquiescence, no Afghan government has accepted the Durand Line as a border. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against the admission of Pakistan to the United Nations in 1947, because to do so would have implied recognition of the Durand Line. There are about 14 million Pashtuns in Afghanistan, 42 percent of the country, and about 26 million in Pakistan, 15 percent of the country, mostly living in the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The Pashtuns are the largest tribal society in the world without their own country.
The three of us sat by the river eating grilled fish, bread, and salad. Afterward, we drove on through a tunnel, and the road kept descending. Boys now appeared selling cellophane bags of chopped sugarcane. We stopped at another police checkpoint, where a man holding a long stick waved us on. We were in Jalalabad. It was warm and sunny and people walked slowly. The streets were filled with men and motorized rickshaws.
Daoud and I checked into the Khalid Guest House and went to our room, on the fourth and highest floor, in the back, away from people. From the concrete walkway outside our door I looked down at the barbershop, the parked cars, and the large rusting boiler and listened to men shouting. Inside our room there were two cots and a thin mattress on the floor. Daoud found the synthetic prayer mat rolled up under a cot. It is called a jahnamaz. Jah means "place," namaz means "prayer": a place to pray. A jahnamaz in Afghanistan is like a Gideon Bible in America. There is one in every room in every hotel and every guest room in every village. After he prayed, Daoud turned on the small television, which sat on a shelf in the corner. An American movie played, this Western intrusion, the women in it half naked, it seemed, but their bodies were blurred by the censor, as they and the men fired their guns and cars piled up on the streets.
I went for a walk and watched a slim young woman, in a blue silk pants suit and high heels, her ankles showing, her face covered in a chadari, walk down the street. She walked with another woman, also hidden. How elegant she looked, how mysterious and so much more enticing than the Western women with their guns on television. A weary young woman about seventeen, with her chadari back over her head, stood, holding a baby, begging as cars stopped at a traffic light.
I bought some oranges and returned to the room. Daoud went to get his hair cut and his beard trimmed. He returned wearing a white qwalie, or prayer cap. He looked like a serious madrassa student and made me slightly nervous. He went into the bathroom, performing his ablutions, and prayed. Twice he had prayed now. He too was nervous.
I had first met Daoud last September. It was Ramadan, the month when the Koran was first revealed to Muhammad, now when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. I was fasting, too, to understand Islam better, to draw closer to the Afghans than I ever had before, to enter deeper into their world, to be more acceptable to them, to make them more comfortable, especially the Taliban. I needed to do whatever I could. I was going for broke.
I had previously been working with an experienced interpreter, called Sami, along the border. We had started in January 2007, when we had gone up into the mountains to where Pat Tillman, the U.S. soldier and football star, was killed near Khost, near the border. In early September, when I began my book research, we had crossed the mountains into Pakistan into Mohmand Agency, in an old car on a dusty track with drug traffickers, my first trip across, for one day, from dawn until after dark, avoiding the Taliban, and we met with a tribal leader. A month later we met at midnight with the Taliban high up in the mountains, with a Predator buzzing overhead, where Pakistan fell off to one side and Afghanistan to the other, and again Sami was courageous, but he was scared as well. His close friend Ajmal Naqshbandi, a fellow fixer, had been beheaded by the Taliban in April.
Sami's wife didn't want him to go on any more trips across the border with me. I understood. I tried for weeks but couldn't find anyone else to cross over. If I wanted this to work, I had to avoid Afghan, Pakistani, and all foreign intelligence agencies, and all military organizations, including those of the Americans. I had to disappear into Pashtun culture.
I went one hot, dusty afternoon to see Professor Rasul Amin, a former minister of education and the head of the Afghanistan Study Center in Kabul. He was a friend of an old Afghan hand I knew in New York and thus a tie to the past, someone I felt that I could trust. We sat on a sofa in his office waiting for iftar, the Evening meal to break the day's fast.
I told him a little about my project. One of his assistants, Zarmina, a young Afghan in jeans, came in smiling, shaking my hand, and she sat in an easy chair, her two cell phones ringing constantly. "Don't cross the border again," said Amin. "It's too dangerous for you."
We shared iftar. I said I needed a fixer. Amin asked me to come again and to bring him a copy of my book on Afghanistan, which I had promised him the last time we had met, in 2002. Zarmina and her driver took me back to my guest house, talking as if we were old friends. She called a few days later, being friendly, and I wondered why. I saw her again on my next trip to see Professor Amin. I was curious about her. She had grown up in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Her father had died and she was the breadwinner for her family. I admired her. She called again and said there was someone that she wanted me to meet. I was wary. "Please," she said. "He speaks good English. He will be good for you." I sensed that he would be the one. I said okay, grateful to her. She would send him over.
He came the next day. The guard opened the steel door and he entered the compound, smiling brightly, and introduced himself. His name was Daoud. He wore a brown suit, had a short beard, and looked to be about thirty-five years old. We sat at an outside table, where there was no one around. "I want an education," he said, "but I have no facilities. I am looking for help. I can be your assistant." Professor Amin was his uncle. He had worked in the center's library, but he was now a schoolteacher. "I have seen your book. Afghans must see this book. I will translate it into Pashto." I liked his energy and that he wanted to better himself. "I thirst for education. I want to go to Peshawar University, but I need five thousand dollars. The Americans have so much money, and they are giving it away."
I wasn't the U.S. Embassy. Why didn't he go to Kabul University? It was cheap, and it was in Afghanistan. He said that his wife and five children lived in Peshawar. His parents lived in Kunar, the Afghan province along the northeast border. He supported all of them. "I can introduce you to many people in Kunar," he said. This piqued my interest. I asked if he could take me from Kunar over the mountains and across the border to Bajaur Agency, part of the tribal areas, and to Chitral, just north of them. "Yes," he said, smiling again, easily. "No problem. Will you help me get an education?"
One step at a time.
That Evening, I asked a friend, Fazul Rahim, the CBS manager in Afghanistan, to run a check on him. I was a consultant to CBS News on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Fazul knew the owner of the school where Daoud taught English. A few days later Fazul called back to report that Daoud seemed okay.
I met with Daoud again. "We'll try it once," I said. "I want to leave as soon as possible." I wondered if he knew how dangerous it was.
"Thank you, sir," Daoud said. "We can cross the border easily." He was too nonchalant about the whole enterprise; what did he know that I didn't know? He leaned forward and looked at me closely. "Can we have an agreement, that my neck is your neck? If anything happens to my children, you will take care of them?" He was serious. He did know. I paused, then said yes. "Thank you, sir. We can do all the things you want."
I smiled to myself. Things always work out.
Three times since then we had met with the Taliban, for a few hours each time, twice in the mountains of Kunar and once across the border in Chitral. Each time Daoud had been scared, even shaking, but each time he had translated patiently. No one else would do what he was doing. He lied to me, always trying to impress me and tell me things he could do when he couldn't. I understood this and overlooked his lies because he was risking his life for me. Now we were going much deeper, to live with the Taliban. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Captive by Jere Van Dyk. Copyright © 2010 Jere Van Dyk. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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