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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

David Rhode: Held by the Taliban (4) A Drone Strike and Dwindling Hope

(Journalist David Rhode interviewing peasants in Southern Afghanistan, one year before he was kidnapped)

Journalist David Rhode was kidnapped by the Taliban inn November 2007 and succeeded to escape in June 2009. Here is his story published by NY Times:

Two deafening explosions shook the walls of the compound where the Taliban held us hostage. My guards and I dived to the floor as chunks of dirt hurtled through the window.

Dawood? one guard shouted, saying my name in Arabic. Dawood?

I’m O.K., I replied in Pashto. I’m O.K.

The plastic sheeting covering the window hung in tatters. Debris covered the floor. Somewhere outside, a woman wailed. I wondered if Tahir Luddin and Asad Mangal, the two Afghans who had been kidnapped with me, were alive. A guard grabbed his rifle and ordered me to follow him outside.

Go! he shouted, his voice shaking with fury. Go!

Our nightmare had come to pass. Powerful missiles fired by an American drone had obliterated their target a few hundred yards from our house in a remote village in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Dozens of people were probably dead. Militants would call for our heads in revenge.

Outside, shredded tree leaves littered the yard, but the house and its exterior walls remained intact. Tahir and Asad looked worried. No one was hurt, but I knew the three of us might not survive for long.

It was March 25, and for months the drones had been a terrifying presence. Remotely piloted, propeller-driven airplanes, they could easily be heard as they circled overhead for hours. To the naked eye, they were small dots in the sky. But their missiles had a range of several miles. We knew we could be immolated without warning.

Our guards believed the drones were targeting me. United States officials wanted to kill me, they said, because my death would eliminate the enormous leverage and credibility they believed a single American prisoner gave the Haqqanis, the Taliban faction that was holding us. Whenever a drone appeared, I was ordered to stay inside. The guards believed that its surveillance cameras could recognize my face from thousands of feet above.

In the courtyard after the missile strike, the guards clutched their weapons and anxiously watched the sky. Fearing a direct attack on our house, they ordered me to cover my face with a scarf and follow them outside the compound. I knew that enraged Arab militants or local tribesmen could spot me once I was outside, but I had no choice.

They hustled me down a hillside to where a station wagon was parked between rows of trees. Opening the rear door, they ordered me to lie inside and keep the scarf on so passers-by could not see my face.

I lay in the back of the car and silently recited the Lord’s Prayer. In the distance, I heard men shouting as they collected their dead. If many people had been killed, particularly women and children, we were sure to die. For months, I had promised myself that if they taped our execution I would remain calm for my family and declare our innocence until the end.

After about 15 minutes, the guards returned to the car and led me back to the house. The missiles had struck two cars, killing a total of seven Arab militants and local Taliban fighters. I felt a small measure of relief that no civilians had been killed. But I knew we were still in grave danger.

Two weeks earlier our captors had moved us from Miram Shah, the capital of the North Waziristan tribal agency, to a remote town in South Waziristan. I had seen on a receipt from a local shop that we were in Makeen, a stronghold of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud. The region teemed with Uzbek, Arab, Afghan and Pakistani militants.

For the next two hours, I did my best to placate the guards. I did not walk in the yard. I did not speak unless spoken to. I praised God for saving us.

Later, I learned that one guard called for me to be taken to the site of the attack and ritually beheaded as a video camera captured the moment. The chief guard overruled him.

The Taliban assailed the drone attacks, and my captors expressed more hatred for President Obama than for President Bush. They bitterly criticized the Obama administration for increasing the missile attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the number of American troops in Afghanistan.

A stalemate between the United States and the Taliban seemed to unfold before me. The drones killed many senior commanders and hindered their operations. Yet the Taliban were able to garner recruits in their aftermath by exaggerating the number of civilian casualties.

The strikes also created a paranoia among the Taliban. They believed that a network of local informants guided the missiles. Innocent civilians were rounded up, accused of working as American spies and then executed.

Several days after the drone strike near our house in Makeen, we heard that foreign militants had arrested a local man. He confessed to being a spy after they disemboweled him and chopped off his leg. Then they decapitated him and hung his body in the local bazaar as a warning.

The house in Makeen was the crudest we had inhabited in Pakistan. Perched on a hilltop, it had no running water, fleas and a courtyard littered with trash.

Makeen was colder than Miram Shah, and frequent rain and frigid temperatures created miserable conditions. Hailstorms were common and viewed as punishment from God by our captors.

I was given daily chores by guards who were half my age. The tasks were demeaning, since elders are treated with reverence in Pashtun culture, but I did not care. The chores helped me pass the time and appeared to give the guards the sense I was loyal.

Twice a day, I filled a barrel in the bathroom with water, which we used to flush the toilet, and methodically swept the dirt floors. It was a Sisyphean task, but cleaning gave me the illusion of control when in reality I had none.

Rarely allowed outside the house, I saw my world shrink to a few dozen square feet. My daily focus simply became survival.

Tahir struggled as well, telling me at times that he could no longer remember the faces of his seven children.

This is not life, he said. I want to die.

With each passing month, we felt increasingly forgotten and at the mercy of the young guards who lived with us. The chief guard was the younger brother of Abu Tayyeb, the Taliban commander who had abducted Tahir, Asad and me in November after inviting us to interview him outside Kabul, Afghanistan.

He began pocketing some of the money given to him to buy our food and supplies. He dared us to try to escape so he could end our captivity with one bullet. He complained that mujahedeen were dying in the drone strikes yet enormous attention was being wasted on one American prisoner.

When I showed him several dozen flea bites on my stomach and arms, he bought a pesticide and suggested that I put it on my sleeping bag. Fearing it would make me sick, I declined. When the bites continued, I showed another guard. His response was to show me his own stomach, which had no bites on it.

I never get sick while I’m on jihad, he said.

After long conversations between Tahir and me prompted the guards to accuse us of planning an escape, we spoke less. Some days, we talked only a few minutes. Increasingly, I became lost in my own thoughts, and my memories of the world I had known began to fade.

Trying to stay connected, I listened to the BBC’s shortwave radio broadcasts for hours at a time. The news broadcasts raised my spirits, but they also gave me the sensation of being in a coma. I could hear how the world was progressing but could not communicate with anyone in it.

The video image was grainy but I immediately recognized the hostage’s face. Hello, Peter, an off-camera questioner said. How are you?

Fine, answered Piotr Stanczak, a soft-spoken 42-year-old Polish geologist kidnapped by the Taliban in September 2008. Two masked militants holding assault rifles stood on either side of him. A black sheet with jihadi slogans hung on the mud-brick wall behind him.

In mid-March, one of our guards arrived with a DVD player. After that, watching jihadi videos became the guards’ favorite pastime. Playing along with his captors in the video, Stanczak called for the Polish government to stop sending troops to Muslim countries and to break relations with the Pakistani government.

I had never met Stanczak but had read about his ordeal in Pakistani newspapers. When I realized the video would end in his beheading, I stood up to leave. I did not want to watch it — or give the guards the satisfaction of seeing me watch it.

I would say people of Pakistan is very good, people is very good, I heard Stanczak say as I walked out of the room.

The videos were impossible to avoid at night, when I was confined to the room the guards were in. They were little more than grimly repetitive snuff films. The Taliban executed local men who had been declared American spies. Taliban roadside bombs blew up Afghan government trucks and American Humvees. The most popular videos documented the final days of suicide bombers.
As I silently watched, the guards repeatedly asked me what I thought of seeing American soldiers killed on the screen in front of us.

All killing is wrong, I said.

The guards would watch for hours at a time. Over all, the videos created an alternate, pro-Taliban narrative of the war in Afghanistan. A recurring theme was that the United States and NATO underreported the number of foreign troops dying in Afghanistan.

The videos were not limited to the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Images of dead Palestinian, Kashmiri and Iraqi civilians delivered the message that vast numbers of Muslims were being slaughtered across the globe.

The constant images of death seemed to be cynical efforts by Taliban commanders to numb their young foot soldiers to the prospect of sacrificing their lives. Death, the message went, was not a distant fate. Instead, it was a friendly companion and a goal.

The guards knew little of the outside world and had limited education. They shared a book that glorified martyrdom, promising saccharine fruit juices, sumptuous food and 70 virgins in heaven. One of the guards read haltingly, pronouncing each word out loud as if he were an elementary school student.

I feared that the videos were brainwashing our driver, Asad. After we moved to Makeen, he seemed more friendly toward the guards and began carrying a Kalashnikov they had given him. He also stopped smoking, which the guards said was forbidden under Islam. He was only doing what he needed to do to stay alive, I told myself.

In late April, a surprise visit by Abu Tayyeb, the commander who had kidnapped us, raised our hopes that our freedom was being negotiated. Dressed in an expensive white tunic, he strode into our compound just before dinner.

Dawood, he asked, what would you say if I told you that you could start your journey back to New York tomorrow?

That would make me incredibly happy, I said.

He told me to get a notebook and pen and ordered everyone to leave the room except for his deputy commander, Tahir and me.

Your family has been very slow, he said. Write this down.

This is my proof-of-life video, he dictated. Maybe another video will come that will be very bad.

He paused and tried to think of his next line.

If this message does not help, he said. I cannot say what will happen to me.

I quickly realized that Abu Tayyeb had not shown up to complete a deal. His visit was another effort to extort money from my family. Five months into our captivity, he had refused to lower his demands below a $5 million ransom as well as an exchange of prisoners.

Calmly sitting across the room from me, he dictated more lines.

If you don’t help me, I will die, he said. Now the key is in your hand.

He paused again for a moment.

Please save me, I want to go home, he said. Don’t you want me to stay alive with you? Hurry up. Hurry up.

Then he told me I would need to cry for the video. I stared at Tahir. If I refused, the Taliban might kill him or Asad to drive up a potential ransom payment. I hated the thought of my wife, Kristen, and my family seeing such a video, but Tahir was the father of seven children, and Asad the father of two. I agreed to make it.

The deputy commander, a man in his 50s, placed a scarf over his face and picked up a .50-caliber machine gun. He pointed it at my head, and one of the guards turned on a camera.

During the filming, I tried to convey that I was reading a prepared statement by intentionally looking down at the pad of paper. I sobbed intermittently but no tears flowed from my eyes.

After the first take, Abu Tayyeb announced that I hadn’t cried enough. He ordered me to read the message a second time. Standing behind the guard holding the camera, Abu Tayyeb waved his hands in the air, as if he were a film director, motioning for me to sob louder.

I tried to cry in an exaggerated fashion so that my family would recognize that none of it was real.

Later that night, Abu Tayyeb announced that the Afghan government had agreed to free 20 prisoners in exchange for our release. The problem, he said, was that my family would not agree to pay the $5 million ransom.

My family does not have $5 million, I told him angrily. Why do you think we have been here for so long? Do you think they’re sitting on $5 million and just playing a game? If they had the money, they would offer it.

Abu Tayyeb continued. He smiled and told me I was a big fish. He said my brother was the president of a company that manufactured jumbo jets. If my brother would sell one plane, he explained, my family could pay the ransom.

He had clearly looked up my family on the Internet. My brother was, in fact, the president of a small aviation consulting company, but it consisted of six people and manufactured nothing.

Abu Tayyeb claimed that the American government paid $10 million for the release of John Solecki, a United Nations worker kidnapped in Pakistan in February. As I had for months, I told him that the American government didn’t pay ransom.

Ignoring me, he said that the head of the F.B.I.’s office in New York had traveled to Afghanistan to secure my release. He vowed to force the United States government to pay the $5 million.

You know where the money will come from, he said. And I know where the money will come from.

I told him that he was delusional and that he should just kill me. Tahir refused to translate my words. Don’t provoke him, he said.

I told Abu Tayyeb we would be here forever if he did not reduce his demands.

You are a spy, Abu Tayyeb declared. You know that you are a spy.

I told him that he was absolutely wrong and that I was a journalist. Then, I tried to shame him in front of his men.

God knows the truth, I said. And God will judge us all.

Abu Tayeb disappeared the following morning. We spent the next six weeks in a new house in a remote village in North Waziristan.

Each week, we received bits of information about the negotiations. First, our captors informed us that an agreement had been reached on the 20 Taliban prisoners who would be exchanged for our release. Then they said that not enough money was being offered along with the prisoners. Finally, they told us that only 16 of the 20 prisoners had been agreed upon.

In late May, we were taken back to Miram Shah, where we were informed of a final deal. All that was needed, they said, was for the two sides to agree to where the prisoner exchange would take place. The next day, they announced that there actually was no agreement.

In early June, Abu Tayyeb reappeared and announced that the American government was offering to trade the seven remaining Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for us. I told him that was ridiculous.

For months, Abu Tayyeb had been vastly exaggerating my value. He falsely claimed that the American diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke had freed Serbian prisoners in 1995 to win my release in Bosnia, where I was arrested while reporting on war crimes against Muslims.

He insisted that I was best friends with Mr. Holbrooke, now the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Then why I am still sitting here after seven months? I asked him.

He smiled. If I made one more video, he said, we would be released. Ashamed of my previous video and convinced that Abu Tayyeb was lying yet again, I refused.

This is all about you, I said, raising my voice. You are demanding millions of dollars so you can make yourself look good to the other commanders. You are the problem.

He declared that he was doing everything for the jihad. Visibly angry, he again told me to make the video and then left the room.

Thirty minutes later, he returned and said that making the video was not a choice but an order. The half-dozen guards in the room stared at me.

Once again, Abu Tayyeb repeated his order, and I said no. I knew it was reckless, but standing up to him felt enormously liberating after months of acquiescing.

Sensing that Abu Tayyeb and his men were about to beat me, Tahir and Asad told me to make the video. Just do it, Tahir said.

I finally relented, but I was determined to turn it into an opportunity to console our families, not worry them. No guns were pointed at my head. I refused to cry. I spoke to the camera calmly and said the three of us were well.

At the end of the video, I included a message I had wanted to relay since the day we were kidnapped.

However this ends, Kristen and all my family and friends should live in peace with yourselves, I said. I know you have all done absolutely everything you can to help us.

(Zoon Politikon)



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