Taken by the Taliban
Held for 44 days on the Pakistani border, a journalist learns about fear and resilience but is left with the lingering question of why
They called him the Golden Goose, da srou zarou. The Taliban thought he was worth tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more, and after he was grabbed while researching a book and held in the wild and dangerous tribal borderlands of Pakistan in the winter of 2008, his captors regularly speculated how much Jere Van Dyk’s release might be worth.
Exhausted, terrified, above all mystified why, beyond remuneration and resentment, he was taken captive, Van Dyk was released 44 days later, his diary notes, and most of his perspective intact. He did what any normal journalist would do. He wrote a book — a good one, it turns out — to try to answer some of the questions that tormented him during captivity.
These questions linger even now, two years later: Why? How? How much? By book’s end we, and he, do not really know why he was taken, how he was released, and how much money his freedom required. He may never learn the answer to any of these questions, but he does now know his level of tolerance for fear (high), his ability to adapt (superb), his powers of memory (astonishing), and his skill in avoiding vomiting en route to freedom (not so great).
As the war in Afghanistan and the turmoil in Pakistan continue, we are witnessing the creation of a new literary genre, the captivity memoir, the 21st-century version of the disillusionment novel of World War I, the heroic but sardonic battle novel of World War II, and the hopeless Saigon-and-the-jungle novel of Vietnam. Van Dyk has made an ample contribution to this new tradition, and some of his passages inevitably will become part of the canon. Like this one:
“I heard a rustle behind me. Oh my God, they are going to pull out a knife and cut off my head right now. I looked around and saw the man right behind me put his hand in his jacket as I had seen men do in videos on television. He is pulling out the knife. I knew how long it would be. I had once seen a man use it to cut the throat of a sheep and a water buffalo. I turned and raised my hand to protect myself. He is going to come down on me and try to cut my throat . . .’’
Up in the Pakistani mountains in a Taliban prison, Van Dyk, who first attracted attention with his chronicle of travels with the mujahideen in an earlier Afghan struggle and who since has done stories for The New York Times, CNS News, and National Geographic, found himself in a stew of loneliness and mistrust. And in a cauldron of uncertainty growing out of the terrorist trash talk that surrounded him:
Maybe he would be traded for three Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo. Maybe he’d be ransomed for a seven-figure fee. Maybe his captors would take out his arteries and sell them on the black market in Islamabad, where they would fetch $80,000, or his kidneys, probably worth $30,000.
This was his life. Staring into space. Watching himself being watched by a guard with a gun. Listening for rats. Wondering whether the cries of dogs indicated that men were coming after him, perhaps to release him, more likely to kill him.
All this provided little occasion for reflection, but Van Dyk’s crisp little volume does provide some insights about what motivates the Taliban (religion, fear, petty rivalries, maybe not always in that order) and what kind of world they sought amid the mountain fastnesses and cave hideaways of some of the most remote, forbidding, and dangerous terrain on the globe:
“The Taliban wanted to create what Mohammad had created in Medina over a thousand years ago, a perfect isolated world. It was man’s search for purity, for God and for eternal life, and for the best way to live, while here on earth, in brotherhood. They would kill in order to reach their goal.’’
Above all this is a vivid portrait of a man under stress and pressure, producing the equivalent of war’s high tension and terror. Much of that is captured with great skill on Van Dyk’s 40th day of captivity. “I was relaxed, worn down, proud that I was still alive,’’ he says. “I hadn’t gone crazy, not yet. I was no longer frustrated. I was beyond that. This was my life. I might be here for a long time. I could hear a riot of birds chirping outside. It was springtime. It would be nice to see birds again.’’
In less than a week, he would see birds, and feel freedom, and experience the relief of release.
This is not the book Van Dyk expected to write when, in 2007, he set out to explore the tribal borderlands, perhaps to find Osama bin Laden, surely to go, as he put it, “where no American reporter had gone in years.’’ But life, as he knows perhaps better than anyone, is what happens when you are planning something else.
There was, however, one other goal he set for himself three years ago: “I wanted to find out what the Taliban were really like.’’ In that he more than exceeded expectations.
David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. He can be reached at email@example.com.