On November 10, 2008, in the Afghan desert, a car carrying a foreign reporter, a local journalist and their driver was blockaded by a group of armed men. David Rohde from the New York Times along with Afghan journalist Tahir Luddin and their local driver Asad Mangal were on their mission to interview Taliban commander Mullah Atiqulla when they were taken hostage by Taliban fighters. After being held captive in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than seven months, Rohde and Luddin escaped.
A five-part series in the New York Times offered a first-person account by David Rohde of his seven months as a captive of the Taliban in Pakistan. On November 12, Rohde was the keynote speaker at the International Center for Journalists' (ICFJ) annual awards dinner in Washington, D.C.
Last week, Rohde spoke to IJNet about the ordeal and his upcoming book on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Tell us what happened when you were kidnapped.
We were invited to do an interview by a Taliban commander that had given interviews with foreign journalists in the past without any incident. And unfortunately in our case they immediately kidnapped us and moved us to a tribal area in Pakistan and we were held in tribal areas for seven months and ten days.
Did it occur to you that you were going to be taken hostage?
We had no warning whatsoever. We had reached the meeting point for the interview with this commander. We trusted this commander -- he had given interviews to French and Greek journalists in the past. We felt we’d be safe once we reached the meeting point. Instead we were kidnapped by his men before we arrived at the meeting point
Why did you seek to interview that particular Taliban commander?
I was researching a book I was writing on Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001. I had been reporting in Southern Afghanistan before agreeing to this interview and had been surprised by the rising public support of the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan. I felt that for the book to be as thorough as possible, you know, I needed the Taliban perspective. The goal was actually to use him as a character in the book, to explain why the Taliban had gained strength and how the group had re-emerged since 2001.
Based on your experiences, what have you learned?
Clearly going to the interview was a mistake, I regret that. I was surprised to see how hard line the Taliban had become, particularly in tribal areas. Taliban in other parts of Afghanistan are focused primarily on getting foreign troops out of Afghanistan, but the hard line Taliban, that held me, was much more focused on the broader goal of establishing a hard line Islamic emirate across the Muslim world. Particularly in Waziristan, they're training suicide bombers and bomb makers. They pose enormous danger to the Afghan, Pakistani and American people.
Before this kidnapping, in the 1990s, you were also detained by the Bosnian authorities when reporting on Srebrenica Massacre. Is it really worth it, risking oneself for a profession?
I think it always depends on the specific situation. For a journalist, it depends on a specific story. It is a case by case. It is very personal decision, so I want to let individual journalists make the decision.
When reporting in a conflict zone, who should you trust?
I think all foreign journalists are only as good as the local journalist who works with them. There is a steady and impressive increase in quality of local journalists around the world. You trust your Afghan colleague. You trust your Pakistani colleague. My colleagues are the reasons I am alive today, I don’t blame them at all. Vast local journalists are completely trustworthy and professional. They are always the ones who understand the country and security situation much better than the foreign journalists.
While you were held captive, why do you think the New York Times did not make it public? Did you feel forgotten?
I made it clear that I don’t want my kidnapping to be publicized. Honestly, it was the correct move. I support the paper's current policy -- if there is a request of a family member, they won’t publicize the story. I had never felt forgotten, I always felt that my family, my editor and colleagues were doing everything they could to help us.
You have been reporting in the region for seven years, what is your perspective on the situation of Afghan journalists?
I think they feel increasingly embattled. I think they feel targeted by the Taliban and Afghan government. They face much larger risks. It is an enormous issue to support local journalists. They have less protection than we do.
What can we do to improve the quality of Afghan journalism?
I think training programs are incredibly valuable. Independent media has evolved in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hasn't gotten coverage. But its one of positive force and its generally popular. The Afghan and Pakistani people like to hold leaders accountable. They love calling television and radio shows where they can express their own opinion. I think its vital to keep supporting them.
Tell us more about the program that you are going to collaborate on with the Dart Centre at Columbia University?
I am going to work with various journalists groups on how to help journalists, how to prevent abduction and, when it does happen, how to help journalists and their families after their release.
What is your advice for journalists on how to prevent abduction?
I would just say to be more cautious than ever. Journalists are not viewed as a neutral party. They’re viewed as spies and criminals. It is frustating because it limits journalists' access to getting out and talking with average people. But more and more journalists need to be extremely cautious.
What would you say to a journalist who is kidnapped?
Be patient. You are innocent and in the right. The people who kidnapped you will eventually be shown to be in the wrong.
How can reporters deal with post traumatic stress?
I think particularly for foreign journalists, not so much for western journalists, there’s not enough support in that area, they face much greater risks much greater trauma, but they don’t get the supports they deserve.
Journalists have the privilege to witness reality. Should they have other roles in policy making?
I think all journalists can do just print what they find on the ground and just put the information out there in public. What the readers, experts and policy makers decide to do with the information, it is completely up to them. It is very important for us to just present the facts and situation as impartially as we can. We shouldn’t have other goal.
How’s the book writing progress? Will your abduction effect your upcoming book?
Now that the series has run, I am just starting again on the book. It’s a slow process but I am determined to finish it. By telling our stories in the series, we seem to inform readers about the Taliban, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I hope to achieve that same goal and have the same tone as the series in the book. It seemed that it informed many people and that is the most important thing.