Jere Van Dyk

How to Survive Being Kidnapped by the Taliban

To embed this video, copy this code:

Several times during his 45 days in captivity, Van Dyk was sure his life was about to end. Exercise, studying, and prayer helped him keep his wits.

Jere Van Dyk

Jere Van Dyk is a journalist and author who has focused much of his writing on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the early 1980s, working as a correspondent for The New York Times, Van Dyk lived with the mujahideen in Afghanistan as they fought against the Soviet Army, an experience that was recapped in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated articles. 20 years later, he returned to Afghanistan to report on the U.S.-led war, only to be captured and held by the Taliban for 45 days in 2008. This harrowing experience, as well as his insights into this "pointless" war, are detailed in his new book "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban." He is currently a consultant on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and al-Qaeda for CBS News. 

Question: How were you captured by the Taliban?

Jere Van Dyke:  I was—at the time it was February 16th—I was hiking in the mountains of Mohmand Agency in the tribal areas of Pakistan.  My two bodyguards were in the lead.  We were going single file.  We were high in the mountains.  We came to a valley.  I was next.  My interpreter was behind me.  We'd been hiking about six hours.  I looked up.  I saw a movement of black behind a rock.  I knew immediately that it was not a sheep, it was not a goat—that it was a black turban.  The Taliban wear black turbans.

I froze.  A man jumped over a rock shouting, “Kena, kena, kena” (get down, get down).  He was carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.  He came running down the mountainside.  Twelve other men (about) came running with him, spreading out a... who I assumed was the Taliban commander—black turban—was in the lead holding a walkie-talkie .  All the men were armed with either Kalashnikovs or rocket-propelled grenade launchers.  Soon, I was surrounded.  I looked over, and I saw a man standing three feet away from me holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at my face.  His eyes were cold, and gleaming, and dark.  I looked over, and I saw that my two bodyguards were being disarmed.  They had rifle butts that were being directed at them.  My interpreter was surrounded.  I knew that I was dead.

Where were you taken after being captured?

Jere Van Dyk:  They took me up deeper into the mountains, up onto a ridge.  They sat me down, faced me West, and at that time I was still in shock so my back was straight and I just looked ahead, not sure what was going to happen.  And then very slowly they took a black turban and began to blindfold me.  So, when they finished blindfolding me they tied me, and we sat there very silently.  I heard a rifle movement on my left, and I waited for the rifle or the knife.  I thought of my family.  I thought of my past.

I was there about five minutes.  They picked me up, grabbed me by the shoulders, and they took us deeper into the mountains.  Eventually we made our way downward.  I fell a few times because I couldn't see; I was totally helpless.  They put me in a car and drove for a couple of hours, pulled me out of the car, separated me from others, threw me back in the car.  And then we began to climb in this car higher up in the mountains.  It was a warm, Mediterranean day when we started, and by that night time three or four hours later, it was cold.  I was very cold.  Dogs were barking.

They pulled me out of the car, put my hands together, took me into what turned out to be a baked mud room deep in the mountains of Pakistan.  It was a Taliban prison.  I looked around.  I was looking for blood on the walls to see if it was a torture chamber.  I saw chains on the floor.  It was about 12 feet by 12 feet.  The roof was made of straw.  But, initially, I was happy.  And the reason I was happy is because when they took my turban off, or my blindfold off, I saw that I was not alone. That my interpreter was there, my two bodyguards were there.  At the time, I still felt they were on my side.

At the very beginning, I was still trying to pretend that I was a foreigner.  And then as we sat there, the first question they asked me was, “What is your name?”  And then the second question was, “What is your father's name?”  For a split second I stopped.  I was almost... I wasn't happy, but I was pleasantly surprised.  And I said... I am very deep in Pashtun culture.  It shows that the most important question is, and always has been in Afghanistan, “Who is your grandfather?  Who is your father?”  Tribal lineage counts for everything.

Then, after they finished that initial interrogation, I said I just couldn't take it anymore.  My language ability wasn't good enough, and I said, “I'm an American.”  And so I felt free.  I felt happy.  I also knew that I was dead because as an American I would be considered a spy, and under Sharia, Islamic law, you kill a spy.  Then, what happened was later that night they took out one of my bodyguards and brought him back, took out another bodyguard and brought him back.  They were interrogating them, and then they took out my interpreter and brought him back.

And then when the Taliban finished, they went into another room where I think, I don't know, they were having dinner.  We could hear them talking on the other side of the mud walls.  And then our two jailers, the men who became our jailers, came in, both armed with Kalashnikov rifles.  And they said to sit still, do not move, we'll take care of you.  I didn't understand this at first because the dialect was so hard; it was a very deep mountain Pashtun dialect.  And then my two bodyguards said, “If they start to torture us or kill us, we have to kill them.”  And my first bodyguard said, “I'll take that one.”  And the next bodyguard said, “I'll take him.”

And then I realized that not only was I a prisoner deep in the mountains of Pakistan, that I would have to kill or be killed.  So it gradually became darker, and darker, and darker.  So for the 45 days that we were in this dark cell, across which I could not see—it was 12 feet across, but I really couldn't see more than eight or nine feet—we were not allowed out unless about three minutes every night to go to a makeshift bathroom on the dirt floor outside.  It became... it was a constant roller coaster.

What was the scariest moment of your captivity?

Jere Van Dyk: The hardest point was the fourth night when they had the major interrogation.  And the Taliban commander was smart, he was quick, he was extremely capable, I felt, ruthless.  He sat across from me, sat on the floor... eyes like cat's eyes.  The questions kept coming.  “Why are you here?  What was your goal?  If you're a journalist, why do you have cameras?  Who do you really represent?” On and on and on: bang, bang, bang, bang.  After about two hours of this, he left.  Then he walked back in, and this time when he walked back in, his back was straight.  And behind him were three men in sunglasses, black turbans, army fatigue jackets, bandoliers of bullets, carrying rifles.  And they stood behind me.  I knew what was coming.

Then he took my camera, the small video camera that I had.  With angry eyes, he thrust it at me.  And he said, “How do I turn this on?”  And I said to him in English, which he couldn't understand, “So, I'm going to help you film my own execution?”  And at the beginning when I was first kidnapped, four days before in the mountains, I was in such shock that I didn't know really what was going to happen, so I sat up straight.  This time, I was afraid and wanted to protect my neck.  And so I kept looking down.  It was so hard, so hard, to lift my back up.  It was like lifting lead.

Finally, slowly, because I was thinking of my family, my father... and I wanted to not be a coward when I died—I wanted to die with dignity—and I knew that people around the world, and especially my family, would see this video on television, of me being beheaded.  And it was—I learned later; I didn't think of it at the moment—exactly, almost to the day six years after Daniel Pearl had been kidnapped in Karachi.  So I thought of Daniel Pearl.  I thought of Nicholas Berg, and I was certain it would happen.  I watched him out of the corner of my eye move the rifle barrel closer and touch my temple.  And then I saw him put his hand in his vest.  I knew what the knife was like.  I had seen them butcher, other men butcher sheep and goats.  I know what the knife would look like, and I waited for it to come in... kill me.

What skills or internal resources did you rely on to survive?

Jere Van Dyk:  What I realized was that the longer I was there, the more my muscles would atrophy.  And I was constantly thinking how I could escape.  It was so dark that I didn't know which way was Afghanistan, which way was Pakistan, or how to—if I were to sneak somehow get out the door—which way I would run.  So I was trying to figure out, according to the vague light that I would see, if the sun was going this way or if the sun was setting that way, and I finally figured out that we were praying—because I either had to convert or die—that when we prayed, we would pray toward Mecca, toward Saudi Arabia.  Therefore, I would have to go the opposite way.

So I was trying to figure out constantly how to escape.  In order to stay mentally alert and to keep my muscles from atrophying so that when the time came and I had to run, and because as a younger man in high school and college and after college for a number of years I had run track—and run it very seriously—that I, which is why at my age I could hike in the mountains and keep up with men and do this because I was still fit.  It was not just a way to keep my muscles from atrophying and to keep fit so that I could escape, it was also a way for me to meditate, also a way for me to calm down.  And I found it was a tie to home.  It was a tie to my youth.  For me, very early in the morning after morning prayers, when men went back to bed and it was dark, and it was cold, I would do exercises.  It kept me fit, it relaxed me, and then at the end I always made a point of—we had this small place in the corner where we could pour water to for ablutions for prayer, and I would pour cold water over myself to keep me tough and to try and keep clean.

Secondly, I found that in prison, unlike anywhere else in the world, there is nothing that you can escape to.  There is no place you can go.  You cannot escape into entertainment, to work, to a family, to anything.  You are stuck with yourself, and you must confront yourself and your life constantly.  And so what I would do is in order to escape from this, I would work with my interpreter on my language.  And I would try to learn to write Pashto, which is very similar to Arabic.  And so I would study as much as I could.  I would become very tired at first because I didn't have reading glasses, it was very cold, and you're constantly afraid, and you can't see very well in the darkness.  So it was like going to school for an hour... that's all I could do at a time.  That helped.  

Ultimately, what helped me, what gave me solace was because I was with Wahhabi, and Wahhabis are the strictest of Muslims, the vanguard if you will of Muslim warriors—Bin Laden is Wahhabi—I had to, as I mentioned, convert or die.  But what they said was, “Once you have finished the formal prayer,” which we would do in Arabic, “and go through the motions of praying, when you're on your knees you can pray on your own.  You can talk to God in your own way.”  And so what I found was comfort in being able to pray for me, which is the God out of my youth.  I grew up in a deeply separatist, quietist, today we call them fundamentalist.  We were not political, so we were not fundamentalist Christian environment, which gave me—and gives me today—a psychological understanding of fundamentalism, which enabled me to talk with them on a certain level, which is one reason why I've been able to spend time with the Taliban, as with the Mujahadeen before.  So I found a certain comfort in prayer, and I was praying to a god of light.  I wasn't sure what the "god of light" meant, but that gave me peace.  So it was those things that I went to:  exercise, studying, and prayer.  We hold onto hope, but in the absence of all of that, those are the three things I had.

Why did the Taliban let you go?

Jere Van Dyk:  I don't really know, ultimately, why I'm here today.  When we were... the last day we were there, when the Taliban commander came in, sat down on the ground two feet away from me, stared at me, he said, “Congratulations on escaping death.”  He said it too many times.  I felt that someone above him had made the decision to release me.  He said, “I made the decision.”  But I didn't believe him because it was a constant roller-coaster.  At times, they were very nice to me.  We engaged in political discussions, we talked about what to do to young people who elope, he asked if in America we have water buffalo, if we have rivers, how do we bury people... numerous questions.  We'd go on and on at night.  They would tell me how they made opium or how heroin is made.  We would talk about any number of things, about Al Qaeda, about the Taliban.

At the same time, they once threatened to cut out my kidneys and sell my body parts.  And once when they did that, and I talked about—as I did often, but this time there was no way that I was going to stand there and allow that—I said, “We have to escape, and we have to do it tonight.  And if we have to kill them, we do that.  We have no choice.  I cannot take this any more.”  And it was that night when we went outside, one by one, to go to the bathroom that one of my bodyguards didn't stay three minutes, but about ten minutes.  And then later the main jailer came to me and said... he told me what he would do to me if I tried to escape, which told me that I was alone... that my bodyguard had betrayed me.  And increasingly, as time passed, my interpreter grew closer to my bodyguards and refused to interpret for me, and I realized... and I began to realize that maybe he was part of what became a betrayal, and that he was not with me, and that I was completely alone. 

And this was harder, and even though I didn't feel at that moment that I would be killed, or every moment that I would be killed, every time that that door unbolted... they unbolted the door, and a man with a black turban stood there silhouetted in the shadows holding a Kalashnikov, I knew that he could take me outside just like that and kill me.

Recorded on June 29, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller