Few people captured by the Taliban live to tell the tale.
David Rohde ’90, a New York Times journalist who four months ago escaped from the Taliban in a tribal area of Pakistan, spoke to a packed List 120 Monday about his experience.
Rohde gave his first major presentation since his return to the United States at his alma mater, speaking to members of the Brown community about his seven months and 10 days in captivity and sharing his thoughts on the future of journalism.
“I hope to spark a discussion about the United States’ really complex decisions and issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Rohde said at the beginning of his lecture, adding that he previously had “not talked very much about all this.”
Rohde has already authored a five-part series about his kidnapping, life in captivity and ultimate escape that ran in the Times in October.
“Any good story has to be about a character that people identify with,” Rohde said of his writing about his experience. “It’s just odd that it’s me.”
The lecture, which was organized by Brown’s Nonfiction Writing Program, lasted for about a half-hour. For another hour, Rohde answered questions, which spanned a variety of topics including his experience in Pakistan, his thoughts on journalism and the state of international affairs in South Asia and the Middle East.
Rohde began his lecture discussing his kidnapping in Afghanistan by Taliban Commander Abu Tayyeb, a man Rohde was scheduled to interview for a book he was writing on the region. Rohde, a local Afghan reporter and their driver were held at gunpoint and driven for 48 hours from Afghanistan to Pakistan, he said.
Once in Pakistan, Rohde said he was amazed to find a “Taliban mini-state,” a place where his guards took bomb-making classes from foreign militants, Arabs and Uzbeks “strolled through local markets” and Taliban construction crews worked on the roads.
The tribal areas in Pakistan have become far more fundamentalist than anyone previously thought, Rohde said. “What was troubling was my guards expressed a burning desire to carry out suicide attacks in the United States,” he said.
The “hardline” men living in the tribal areas of Pakistan exist in an “alternative reality,” Rohde said, adding that the people with whom he interacted while in captivity believed that Islam was under a “world-wide assault by America, Europe and Israel.”
But instead of being part of a pious religious movement, his captors “operated more like a criminal organization,” Rohde said.
Many of the guards had extreme misconceptions regarding American culture and the Christian faith, he said. A Pakistani suicide bomber with whom Rohde lived for six weeks believed that a necktie was a secret symbol of Christianity.
The guards were also very poorly educated. None of his guards had “seen the world beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan” and “suicide bombers were like local celebrities,” Rohde said.
The guards were initially friendly to Rohde, who said they called him the “golden hen.” But when his capture did not lead to millions of dollars in ransom money, the guards complained that he was “worthless” and “physically dirty” because he was not a Muslim.
Emphasizing that he did not want to make political statements during his talk, Rohde said the Predator drones — remotely piloted aircrafts — used by the U.S. military in Pakistan are “not the solution” to the growing fundamentalist threat in the region.
Predator air-strikes, some of which fell close to Rohde’s location in Pakistan, led the Taliban to blame a local farmer in the area for being an American spy and torture him until he confessed. The drones, Rohde said, are “creating a stalemate.”
After seven months, Rohde said he grew to believe the Taliban would never reach an agreement for his release. He and Tahir Ludin, the local reporter who was captured along with him, decided to try to escape to a nearby Pakistani government militia base.
Rohde and Ludin used a cow towrope to lower themselves over the wall ringing the compound in which they were held.
“It was very dangerous,” Rohde said. “If we had been caught, they might kill me, but they definitely would kill Tahir.”
The two journalists were able to call their families from the base.
“I’m so lucky to be home,” Rohde said.
Accompanied by both his mother and his wife Kristen Mulvihill ’91, Rohde said his family “kept him going” throughout his captivity.
Despite his harrowing experience in Pakistan, Rohde said he was hopeful about the future of the region, because there are moderate Afghans and Pakistanis who disagree with the Taliban and with militancy in general.
“Since I’ve been home I’ve gotten many calls and apologies from moderate Pakistanis and Afghans,” Rohde said.
While his hardline captors “hated Barack Obama more than George W. Bush” for sending more troops and drones into Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rohde said many moderate Pakistanis were encouraged by Obama’s election and his widely watched address in Cairo this summer.
In addition to discussing his time in captivity, Rohde addressed the new opportunities and challenges of modern journalism as many print newspapers downsize or fold.
He said there is an even greater need for objective, on-the-ground reporters, especially in regions that would otherwise remain uncovered.
“You are the generation that will re-invent and save journalism,” Rohde said, citing creative use of print publication, Web sites, blogs and podcasts as potential ways to revitalize media.
Despite the danger he faced, Rohde recommended that Brown students consider journalism as a potential career.
“Go interact with the world,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary place filled with extraordinary people.”