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An exclusive interview with family of American contractor held hostage in Afghanistan

Relatives of Mark Frerichs, an American being held hostage in Afghanistan, are urging the Trump administration to pause negotiations over ending the nearly two-decade-long conflict with the Taliban until Frerichs is released.

Charlene Cakora, Frerichs’ sister, and her husband, Chris, told the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz on Wednesday that they fear the United States might lose its motivation to recover Frerichs if it successfully brokers a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban before the 57-year-old contractor is freed.

I think every day that I’m going to wake up some morning and this is all going to be signed and clear, and Mark’s not home safely,” Cakora said. “And what are we going to do then?”

In late February, the U.S. agreed to a deal in which the American and NATO troop presence would draw down, as long as the Taliban held up its side of the bargain, including not allowing terrorist networks like al-Qaida to use Afghanistan as a base for attacks.

The U.S., whose efforts are led by chief envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, also committed to help facilitate a prisoner swap — of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 Afghan security forces — before the Afghan government and Taliban would begin direct talks. The prisoner exchange had begun, albeit in fits and starts, starting in March, but a recent spate of violence has threatened to derail diplomatic attempts entirely.

Frerichs, a former Navy diver who had worked for 10 years in conflict zones as a civil engineer, is believed to have been kidnapped by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network some time before Feb. 2, which was when the Cakoras learned of his disappearance.

I cry every now and then at night. And I just think about it, about what he’s going through right now. Is he being bathed? Is he being fed? Is he clothed? I mean, is he warm? Does he have a pillow?” Charlene Cakora said.

The Cakoras said they were grateful for the help provided by the FBI, State Department and Khalilzad himself in searching for Frerichs and bringing up his case in meetings with Afghan officials. But they fear that Khalilzad is willing to subordinate Frerichs’ return, in order to achieve a wider peace deal.

“It sounds like Zal’s still more worried about doing a prisoner exchange of great numbers rather than looking at the importance of one person, and that’s Mark, and getting Mark home,” Chris Cakora said.

Frerichs’ relatives also said they remained hopeful that President Donald Trump, who has previously shown himself willing to intervene personally on the behalf of American hostages, would be able to secure his release.

“He’s shown he’s a pretty powerful guy who’s gonna go toe to toe against the strongest leaders in the world and come out OK,” Chris Cakora said.

Charlene Cakora grew emotional when asked what message she would share with her brother.

“I want you home safe. And I’m doing everything I can to get you home safe. So just hang in there,” she said.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump today reiterated that U.S. must leave Afghanistan, saying American troops are not a police force.

    But the horrors of that war were again brought into sharp focus with yesterday's cruel strike on a maternity hospital.

    And now, as the U.S. is withdrawing, the fate of one American held hostage lies in the balance.

    Here's Amna Nawaz.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A solemn prayer for the lives brutally taken in yesterday's attack on a maternity ward in Kabul.

    Crews today hastily worked to dig fresh graves for the victims, including expectant mothers and newborns.

  • Abdul Hadi (through translator):

    I saw eight dead bodies of women in this ward. And seven other dead bodies were in the other ward on the beds, and they were hit in their heads or faces.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As authorities were responding to yesterday's assault in Kabul, scores more were killed in the Eastern province of Nangarhar. There, a suicide bomber attacked a funeral for a local police commander.

    The Taliban denied involvement in either of yesterday's attacks, but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ordered his military to ramp up.

  • President Ashraf Ghani (through translator):

    I order all the Afghan security and defense forces to come out of defensive mode, back to offensive, and start their operations against the enemy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yesterday's violence is just the latest crack in the already fracturing U.S. deal with the Taliban.

    In late February, the two parties entered into an agreement, led by President Trump's appointed negotiator, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The U.S. would begin a troop withdrawal to end America's longest war, and, in exchange, the Taliban would stop attacks on U.S. forces, and deny other militant groups safe haven.

    The Afghan government was not part of that initial agreement. But the deal set the ground for further direct negotiations between Afghanistan and the Taliban. Those negotiations have been stalled in part by disagreements over prisoner exchanges and continued Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces.

    And the chaos and calamity raise questions about the fate of American Mark Frerichs. The 57-year-old U.S. Navy veteran was working as a commercial contractor in Afghanistan when he was kidnapped at the end of January. U.S. officials believe he is held by the Haqqani Network, a faction of the Taliban.

    Earlier, I spoke with Frerichs' family from their home in Lombard, Illinois. His sister Charlene Cakora is a retired gas company supervisor. Her husband, Chris, is a truck driver working overnight shifts.

    It's the family's first interview, exclusive to the "NewsHour."

    So, a lot of people will hear this story, and they're going to wonder, what was he doing in Afghanistan?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    He's been there over 10 years, and he was doing construction work. He just enjoyed it and stayed out there and…

  • Chris Cakora:

    He probably knew he could make very good money, tax-free money. And they let him do the kind of work that he liked to do that he really couldn't find here.

    So, he enjoyed the environment. And he kept going back and eventually stayed. So we were kind of amazed at it, but it's something that he wanted to do, so we supported him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell us how you came to know that he had been kidnapped.

  • Charlene Cakora:

    We found out Sunday morning, Groundhog Day.

    We had a knock on our door at 9:00 in the morning. And it was Lombard police. And the FBI came to our door, and basically told us that they wanted to talk to us. And they explained to us that my brother Mark has been kidnapped by the Taliban, the Haqqani group.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And what did you think in that moment?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    I was shocked. I thought it was that — I couldn't — didn't believe it. I just basically couldn't — say over again, are you sure, are you sure?

    And they were very sure.

    I really didn't come in the reality of it until they came to my house the following Tuesday, and I talked to Washington, D.C., and the whole big group. And then the reality set.

    And I just — I just still can't believe it. And I cry every now and then at night. And — and I just think about what he's going through right now. Is he being bathed? Is he being fed? Is he clothed? Is he warm? Does he have a pillow?

    I mean, I just can't imagine what he's going through right now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Have you been able to get any kind of update on his well-being?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    They're letting us know, the FBI and when we talk to Zalmay.

    They basically are saying he is alive. They're not saying he's well, because they don't know, I mean, but they are saying that they don't have any reason to think that he's — he's dead. But — so, they feel that he is still out there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And when you say Zal, I should clarify you mean Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who's the chief U.S. negotiator dealing directly with the Taliban.

    Just last week, the FBI released a poster seeking information about the release of your brother. There was even a reported U.S. Special Forces raid looking for information on him and his whereabouts.

    Do you believe, Charlene, that the U.S. is doing everything they can to get Mark released?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    Sometimes, I think yes, and, sometimes, I think no.

    I think I know this COVID thing has taken over. And I feel that the FBI and the U.S. government is doing all that they can do. But I really don't feel comfortable that Zal is doing anything. And he's the one that has got the power to do all — to get Mark home safely.

  • Chris Cakora:

    It sounds like Zal is more worried about doing a prisoner exchange of great numbers, rather than looking at the importance of one person. And that's Mark and getting Mark home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about what it is you would like to see, because now you have the U.S. chief negotiator who is dealing with the Taliban saying, I have asked them to do everything they can.

    Clearly, he's working under the direction of President Trump. So, what else specifically do you want to see the U.S. government do to make sure that Mark is released?

  • Chris Cakora:

    That no negotiations go on about trading prisoners or anything in that regards until Mark is brought home.

    Then, you know, whatever they need to do, they need to do, but they need to put — put Mark first.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You would like to see the entire negotiation process stop until there's a precondition that Mark is released; is that right?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    Yes.

  • Chris Cakora:

    I believe — I believe that would be right, yes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And if the process moves forward without that precondition, what are you worried would happen?

  • Chris Cakora:

    That he would be forgotten, that — we all need to understand, too, that Zal is professional and an ambassador, and that's what he's going to do with or without certain accomplishments.

    But our concern is only for Mark.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me make this clear, though, because we are talking about America's longest war, right?

    Three presidents have tried to end this now. And President Trump believes that we could be closer than ever to having some kind of a deal and getting U.S. troops home.

    Are you worried that the commitment to that goal could mean that Mark gets left behind?

  • Chris Cakora:

    Very much so.

  • Charlene Cakora:

    Yes.

  • Chris Cakora:

    Very much so.

  • Charlene Cakora:

    I just have the biggest — I have a very — fear I think of every day that I am going to wake up some morning, and this is all going to be signed and clear, and Mark's not home safely, and the peace deal has been signed and done, a done deal, with — and Mark still is out there.

    And what are we going to do then?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have seen President Trump get very directly involved to try to negotiate prisoners' release in the past from different countries.

    Do you think it would help Mark's case if he were to do the same in this situation?

  • Chris Cakora:

    I think it would do more help than harm at this point.

    And he's shown he's a pretty powerful guy. He's gone toe to toe against the strongest leaders in the world and come out OK.

  • Charlene Cakora:

    Yes, I really support Donald — President Trump, that he will bring my brother home safely. He's done it in the past with other prisoners, other — so, I believe he will get my brother home.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    If you could deliver a message right now to President Trump, what would you say to him?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    I would say, please bring my brother Mark home safely, and please don't do any more signing, any more deals until my brother is included in that deal and getting my brother home safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Charlene, let me ask you, because this is the very first interview anyone in your family has given, why are you talking to us today?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    It's been long enough that I feel that we have to be a little stronger and move more forward and more aggressive.

    I have to get more out there, more to get the word out, and maybe get President Trump a little bit more mentioning my brother Mark's name.

  • Chris Cakora:

    More motivated maybe.

  • Charlene Cakora:

    And more motivated.

    And I think the more my brother Mark's name is put out there, I think the more — you know, the power up there will do what they have got to do, because we are very concerned.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    If you had a way of getting a message straight to Mark, what would you want to say to him right now?

  • Charlene Cakora:

    I just want to tell him that we're doing everything we can to get you home, I miss you, and I just want you home safely.

    And I have worried about you over a decade with this. And I — we have felt so comfortable that you were doing OK and you were safe out there. I guess we just let our guard down.

    But I want you home safe. And we're — I'm doing everything I can to get you home safe. So, just hang in here.

    He's my brother, and I love him, my only brother. And we are only two years apart, so we were always goes as kids and hung out. And he was always my bodyguard in high school when I got picked on.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Charlene Cakora:

    And he's always been there for me. So, I got to be here for him.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Charlene and Chris Cakora, talking to us today from Lombard, Illinois, thank you so much for your time.

    We wish your family all the very best.

  • Charlene Cakora:

    Thank you.

  • Chris Cakora:

    Thank you for your time.

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