Veteran journalist and Afghanistan expert Jere Van Dyk thought he knew enough about Pashtun culture to go where no Western journalist had gone since the rise of the Taliban. In 2007, Van Dyk traveled to Kabul to begin research on a book about the tribal region on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But soon after crossing the mountains into Pakistan, he and three of his guides were captured by Taliban. Van Dyk’s new book, Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban, released this week, chronicles the harrowing 45 days he spent fearing for his life.
Shoshana Guy: You have a relationship with Afghanistan that spans many decades. Can you tell me about it?
Jere Van Dyk: I first went to Afghanistan as a very young man in 1973 when my younger brother and I drove an old Volkswagen from Frankford, Germany and to Afghanistan. We ran out of money. We were forced to stay there. What I discovered was a Wild West in the East, at the same time very gentle, peaceful country of absolutely no sense of what we called Islamic fundamentalist. School girls wore skirts and long socks. In the afternoon, you could hear the Rolling Stones as much you could hear the Muslim call to prayer. For me, it was romantic. Also there was certain gentleness there.
I returned in 1981 as a freelance reporter for the New York Times and this time I went to Peshawar. I met with various mujahideen and traveled into the tribal area. I lived with mujahideen along the border and later in the Kandahar area before I came back. I became involved with the Reagan administration as a consultant on Afghanistan to the National Security Council in the State Department. I had a political background as well as a physical background in Afghanistan.
Guy: So, you set out again in the winter of 2008. Where was the trip was initially supposed to take you and what were you trying to achieve by journeying into the heart Taliban country?
Van Dyk: What I was doing was to see how different the Taliban were from the mujahideen to try explaining to a Western audience, as I tried to explain what mujahideen was in 1980’s. I also wanted to find men I knew from before who were once allies and today are members of the Taliban and through them — drawing on my understanding of Pashtunwali, drawing on my understanding of the culture, the role of Islam on their lives — see to what degree they were tied to Pakistanis, what degree they were tied to Al-Qaeda and find out what it was really like in very dark world called the tribal areas.
Guy: Describe the feeling when your captors popped from these rocks. What goes on one’s mind at the moment like that?
Van Dyk: When I first saw was a pinch of black movement behind a rock and I knew instinctively that everything had changed, that the Taliban knew I was coming there. When they came screaming, get down, get down, I was dead. I felt weak, vulnerable, frightened and totally helpless at the same time. I thought, “I’m dead.”
Guy: Then you were blindfolded and transported to a cell in the mountains, where you were held captive for 45 days. How were you treated as prisoner?
Van Dyk: I was treated on one hand very well. They never laid a hand on me. They feed me. They provided me water. Various tribal codes require they provide food as well as shelter. At the same time, I was threatened. I was lead to believe very strongly that if I did not convert I would die. There was one specific case when I was lined up and put on the ground and the men behind me were ready to kill me. On hand I was treated very well but I was frightened to death that I would be killed at any moment.
Guy: There is one scene in your book that is absolutely harrowing where you basically have a near death experience. What were you thinking?
Van Dyk: Ultimately I thought of my family. I thought of my brother, my sister, my nieces and nephews. I thought of their names. I said their names silently. My mother has died. But I thought of my father. My father, a WWII marine who was 94 years old at the time, who in sense I always looked up to. I thought of him watching the video of me dying on the television. I thought of Daniel Pearl. I thought of Nicholas Berg, what it was like for them. I wanted to show my family that I was strong and that I wanted their respect. Ultimately that’s what I though of. It was only later, that over periods of time, that I thought of God. That did not intervene then. All I thought then was that I had to die in the right way.
Guy: Your captors insisted you immerse yourself in Islam. Did it help to pray?
Van Dyk: You get through the formal prayer, and at the end on your knees you can say what you want. In a way, I found a comfort in that.
Guy: You found comfort when you had the space to translate it for yourself?
Van Dyk: It was not alien. It was deeply personal. In the Koran, Mohammad said there is no compulsion in religion. But there it was, “you will convert or you will die.” There was something in me that rejected that. It was been forced upon me. It was distant. But I found comfort when I would sit on my knees and pray to the God, who became in my mind the God I knew as a boy, it was comforting.
Guy: At certain points you had deep suspicions about your interpreter and your body guards. Looking back, do you think they betrayed you?
Van Dyk: I haven’t figured it out. I have received phone calls from the interpreter; some are threatening. I don’t know if it’s out of fear or that he is so changed himself. I don’t have an answer to that. I do know that one of my bodyguards changed completely after they took him away for a while and he was no longer chained to his bed. The allegiance in the room changed. At the same time other bodyguard if you well was always good to me. It was a good cop-bad cop routine. I do know when we are coming out, I was afraid of all of them. Even today I don’t know the truth.
Guy: You had an interesting relationship with your main jailer who both protected you and threatened you. In the end, do you think he was friend or foe?
Van Dyk: In the end, he kept his word. He didn’t kill me. He said I will protect you. I do think he was a foe. He said, if you come back again, we will kill you. He threatened me constantly to convert. There were times when he was pleasant. Then he was like, I will cut out your kidney. He was like an animal and I was frightened to death of him. At the same time, he ultimately kept his word. He didn’t kill me.
Guy: Did it ever become clear to you which faction of the Taliban kidnapped you?
Van Dyk: No. They would explain in detail the Taliban hierarchy, but I don’t know how much of that they were making up in order to convince me that I was in one area, not another area. They were so sophisticated in that way. The whole idea was to confuse me.
Guy: Did you learn anything about the Taliban culture that you didn’t know before?
Van Dyk: No. I felt there are very few differences between the mujahideen and the Taliban. There is a sense of Pashtun nationalism and a sense of religion. There is a fine line where Islam and tribal codes come together and where they part. I don’t think I learned that much that was that was new about the Taliban except I do know that just like their fathers and elder brothers beforehand, they won’t give in. I don’t believe for a minute there are an Afghani Taliban and a Pakistani Taliban. To me, based on my experiences over the years, they are the same.
Guy: To this day you still don’t know the details of how your release was negotiated.
Van Dyk: And no one will tell me. I asked the FBI about this and they said that they brought all assets into the play. Apparently my disappearance was first discovered by a NATO spy? Who was that spy? What do they mean by NATO? Nobody will tell me anything. All I do know, because I have asked them, is my brother and sister did not mortgage their houses. There are a lot of things behind the scene I can’t talk about. I do know I don’t have those answers and I’m haunted by them.
Guy: How did you re-adjust to life in New York City? What is it like to manage that kind of fear in the aftermath?
Van Dyk: When I came to my apartment, I felt, this is my home, but I’m different now. It’s all different. There is a sense of fear and isolation. I would watch my friends and television and movies, and I would see this happy culture, which I didn’t feel and still don’t feel a part. It’s been two years now and as I have started to talk to people publicly, I have a hard time.
Guy: So you are still in process?
Van Dyk: It’s the isolation and there is a certain wariness, the sense that no one understands and no one can understand.
Guy: Have the Taliban contacted you?
Van Dyk: Initially a few times but then it stopped. Then the interpreter about forty times.
Guy: Forty times?
Van Dyk: Just a phone hangs up. I can see 92 country code on my cell phone.
Guy: Are you ever going to be free of this?
Van Dyk: What I worry about is the book coming out. I did a C-Span interview and the interviewer asked me, are you wary or afraid that people are going to see this over there? A part of me, yes. I have gone to the FBI and asked, am I OK? They said you are fine.
Guy: Will you ever be able to return to Afghanistan?
Van Dyk: I am haunted by not knowing everything and I may have, by going with the group I went with, betrayed one of my oldest and dearest friends in Afghanistan. I got caught – I have been told – in a tribal feud in clan warfare. I do have to talk to him. I have to resolve this in some way. At the same time, I was told I could never go back to Afghanistan. I don’t know yet. I have to see how it plays out with the book and the months ahead.