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Jere Van Dyk

Captured by the Taliban

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Jere Van Dyk had been to Afghanistan many times since the 1970s. In 2008, the veteran reporter returned to Afghanistan to find some of the former Mujahideen "freedom fighters" against the Soviets with whom he had lived in the 1980s. (Van Dyk's series of articles on the Mujahideen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.) He also wanted to possibly discover where Osama bin Laden was. Shortly after he arrived, he was kidnapped by the Taliban and held for 45 days.

Van Dyk, author of the 2010 bestseller Captive, appears on the Thursday, April 28, edition of Idaho Public Television's Dialogue. He says he always knew the risks but always wanted the story.

You went to Afghanistan in the 1980s as a reporter and lived with the Mujahideen. When you returned to the United States, you carried their message, that they needed more help fighting the Soviets. Why?

It became a bit of a, if I dare use the word, brotherhood. They were so good to me. I was always the one who received food first. We had nothing to eat except rice and bread, but ... one of the most important tenets of their tribal laws, which go back over 5,000 years, is to protect a guest, as well as to be a good host.

There were three particular times that I can recall with them where they saved my life. And I admired the fact that these men had nothing but were willing to die for what they believed. I thought of their plea to me: We need something with which to shoot down the helicopters.

What do you think has changed and made these men who were so protective of you to be such enemies of our country?

If you think that they are operating solely on their own, then that has some credence to it. [But] if you look at it that the Taliban are an extension of Pakistani military intelligence, or geopolitical goals, then it's not just the Taliban fighting against the West. They're being orchestrated by others.

Some say we shouldn't be there.

We have a moral obligation to be there. There was no war when I was there in 1973. There was nothing whatsoever that we could call a militant society. We armed and we helped create, with Pakistan, this extremely militant society.

There is an old CIA phrase; it's called "blowback." Be careful what you do, that it may not blow back and hit you. And in some ways, we are paying the price of what we did so many years ago. I believe that we are partially responsible for the destruction of that culture, because the soul of Afghanistan that I knew as a young man is gone.

When you were captured, what were some of the things that helped you?

You are always trying to think of how to escape. And I knew I had to be fit.

I found myself doing the same type of warm-ups that I did before a track meet as a boy in high school, and it made me think of my family. And then it gave me a certain amount of comfort and a feeling of home.

You were afraid?

Yes. I didn't trust anybody. They would talk about my becoming a suicide bomber. I thought they were going to cut out my kidneys.

I was constantly afraid. And there is nothing to me as frightening as when that cell door opened, and a man in a black turban is standing in the shadows holding a rifle, and you know that he can take you out in a second and cut off your head.

What was the hardest thing for you?

Holding my back straight. Looking into a camera and trying to die with dignity, afraid that I would be killed. That was the hardest.

Why were you released?

To this day, I don't know the truth, and I am haunted by that. I don't know the truth.

The experience must never leave your mind.

No, it doesn't. There was something where you were so alive, because I knew that I could be killed at any minute. And here, we have to go through office politics and everything in normal society; it's so cumbersome and not straight. So, there is, unfortunately, oddly, this desire to return to the purity of that cell, where life or death was on your mind every second.

Can you go back to Afghanistan, and do you want to go back?

Everyone tells me I can't go back. Of course, I'm haunted. Part of my life and part of my soul and part of my heart lies in Afghanistan. I'd like to know what happened, and I don't want to always think about, "Could I have gone back?" I don't want to ever be afraid.

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