A husband captured by Taliban, a wife gripped by fear

By David Shribman
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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It began with fear. Not the sort of fear he would experience later as a Taliban prisoner, but the kind of fear a reporter feels when he’s been office-bound too long. David Rohde worried that somehow he’d grown stale and lazy, even after writing a book and seven years reporting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The cure, he was sure, was to interview a Taliban commander.

That was not such a great idea. He sought the interview, did all the usual things that reporters who get captured do — took some precautions but not enough, told some people what he was up to but not everyone, ascertained the danger and minimized it. In his case Rohde, who had been captured earlier in Bosnia, figured that lightning wouldn’t — couldn’t — strike twice. Instead he found himself as “a two-time kidnap victim with a judgment problem.’’

“A Rope and a Prayer’’ is his story but, like all kidnapping stories, it is not his alone. This volume is cowritten with his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, who, two weeks after beginning her new job as photography director at Cosmopolitan and a few weeks after her wedding, found herself in the position of trying to win the release of her new husband.

In alternating chapters — his and her perspectives, you might say — the two show both sides of a kidnapping drama, and the result is a gripping tale, even though alert readers of The New York Times, where Rohde works, know it has a happy ending. It took, however, seven months and countless phone calls, negotiations, heartbreaks, bouts of hopelessness alternating with bursts of hope, and rivers of tears to work itself out. It also took a rope, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Like most accounts of these sorts of episodes, this is really about fear — his that he might miscalculate his captors’ intentions, that he might inadvertently insult or provoke them, that he was caught in a political drama too big for his life to matter, and hers that she might miss a phone call, that she’d make a mistake by going to Afghanistan, that she might make a bigger one by not going, that her husband would be killed by friendly fire.

And it is about the tug of war between optimism and pessimism that peppers every story about this swath of Central Asia, where so many hopes have come undone and so many good intentions have turned bad. This is endemic to a land where a captive’s account can include sentences that begin this way: “One morning, two of our guards leave for bomb-making class.’’

Some of this story is grimly familiar — the ride along horrid roads to even more horrid settlements, the shuttling among wretched places of captivity, the banter — part torture, part conversation — among captors and captives, the horror and hope that alternate cruelly, the desperate search for a friendly face, friendly gesture, friendly intent. Then there is the endless debate, particularly difficult in a newsroom dedicated to telling stories and not suppressing them, about whether to keep this secret, followed by swift efforts to alter the Wikipedia page of the captive, adding elements that deliberately suggest that the prisoner is no enemy to his captors.

Sandwiched between all of this are a few moments of comedy and absurdity, like the time Rohde and his captors sing the Beatles hit song “She Loves You’’ together and the time Mulvihill arranges for a photo shoot for a story called “How Yoga Can Help Your Sex Life.’’

But mostly this is the story of negotiation and introspection.

She: “I am stuck in a seamlessly never-ending season of waiting. I feel I am in the middle of a complex game in which time and silence are my opponent’s greatest weapons. I have no control over the situation. Despite the collective efforts made on David’s behalf, only the captors have the power to release him.’’

He: “I tell myself it is my job to wait as long as it takes for our release. I am sure that Kristen and my family are doing all they can to free us. My part of the bargain is to be patient and strong and do nothing rash.’’

That is precisely what Rhode, wracked with guilt at his rash conduct, does. He is patient and mostly strong and does nothing rash. Then he threads a rope through a drainage hole in a parapet wall, slides down and, as he puts it, “for the first time in seven months, I walk freely down a street.’’ He makes his way to a Pakistani army base and then is transported home, to real freedom and real safety.

In the end, no ransom was paid, no prisoners were exchanged, and The New York Times got a boffo story.

But before all that, Rhode, who holds two Pulitzer Prizes, was forced to confront his own ambition and his own recklessness and the hurt it extracted. More than once he contemplated his own death.

“As the months pass, though, that prospect is gradually becoming less frightening,’’ he writes. “I tell myself that I will simply go to sleep. On a few days, I accept my death, relish the life I’ve had, and silently relish the idea that our greedy captors will get nothing for me. On most days, I am heartbroken at the thought of never seeing Kristen, my family, and my friends again.’’ Smart, deep thoughts, won at very high cost.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at

A ROPE AND A PRAYER: A Kidnapping from Two Sides
By David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill
Viking, 362 pp., $26.95