On February 16th, 2008, former CBS news correspondent and Afghanistan expert Jere Van Dyk had been hiking through the remote and mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan when his interpreters and he were surrounded and captured by a gang of Taliban fighters. “I saw a man standing three feet away from me holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at my face,” recalls Van Dyk in his Big Think interview. “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.”
The Taliban leader led Van Dyk and his interpreters by gunpoint to a mountain ridge, instructed them to sit down, and blindfolded them with black turbans. What began as a well-intentioned trip back to the region where Van Dyk had tirelessly reported on the Afghan Soviet War in the 1980s, now seemed as though it would be the grim, final chapter of Van Dyk’s life. “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 though of my family. I thought of my past.” But neither the rifle nor the knife ever came.
Instead, the Taliban warriors took Van Dyk and his interpreters deeper into the mountains of Pakistan, first by foot and then by car. By nightfall, Van Dyk was placed in remote Taliban prison made of baked mud and straw and finally unblindfolded. “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 I 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.”
Van Dyk’s happiness was short-lived. His interpreters and he would spent the next 45 days in the darkened cell, enduring interrogations and the constant threat of execution.
“I don’t really know, ultimately, why I’m here today,” says Van Dyk, when asked why he was eventually let go. However, his ability to speak Pashtun seems to have aided in him exposing his humanity to his curious captors. “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,” says Van Dyk. “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.”
Throughout the time of his captivity, Van Dyk developed a routine of exercise, study, and prayer to keep his wits. Concerned about his ability to escape the prison on foot, he felt it was important to avoid allowing his muscles to atrophy. Van Dyk found exercise was not just a way to stay fit, but also a way to relax under the extraordinarily harrowing circumstances. Van Dyk’s captors also encouraged him to talk to God. “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.” says Van Dyk. “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.'”
Finally, Van Dyk attempted to use the time he had in a productive way. “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,” he explains. “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 Pashtun, which is very similar to Arabic. And so I would study as much as I could.”
Van Dyk’s story is the fourth and final installment of Big Think’s Ultimate Survivor Stories series. For more interviews that explore the limits of human endurance in life or death situations, please see Big Think’s interviews with Laurence Gonzales, author of the bestselling “Deep Survival,” Stephen Alpert, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney who was kidnapped off the streets of Manhattan, and Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa, who survived an attempted hit by the Gambino crime family.