A New York Times reporter who had spent months in Taliban captivity spoke Wednesday evening to an overflowing auditorium in the McCormick Tribune Center. Investigative journalist David Rohde recounted his captivity to an audience of students, professors and visitors.
Rohde fell into Taliban hands in November 2008 while researching for a book on the United States involvement in Afghanistan.
After seven months, Rohde grew accustomed to life with the Taliban. By day he performed household chores, like sweeping, and by night he sang Pashto songs with his captors. The Taliban kept vigilant care of him, providing him bottled water so that he wouldn’t get sick.
As time went on, his bail — initially set at $25 million — dropped to $7 million. But Rohde knew his family didn’t have the means to succumb to the Taliban’s financial pressure. After discovering his proximity to a Pakistani Army base, he and Afghan reporter Tahir Ludin decided to take a shot at escaping while their guards were asleep.
After jumping the fence of the house where they’d been held captive, the two journalists wandered cautiously through the rural Afghan town.
Rohde had no idea that his Afghan counterpart had led him to their destination, the Pakistani Army base. That meant he’d reached freedom.
North by Northwestern sat down with Rohde to talk military journalism, his life in captivity and returning home to the U.S.
What was the first thing you did when you came back to the United States?
I don’t know about the very first thing, but I had breakfast with my wife. And it was simple, but it’s those small simple things that you miss the most.
You were also imprisoned in Bosnia several years ago. Did that prepare you in any way for what you experienced with the Taliban?
The neutrality that journalists used to have where you could argue with a side that you were there just to be a neutral observer doesn’t seem to exist as much now. And the Taliban just clearly saw me as an American they could try to use to get ransom and prisoners. I felt some kind of treatment as a neutral observer in Bosnia, but that didn’t seem to exist anymore when this happened in 2008. The Iranian government, as you saw with Roxana Saberi, or the North Korean government, they just assume that journalists are enemies and an arm of the American government.
Is that a function of the governments or a function of the journalists?
I think it’s both. I think that the governments have become more belligerent and warfare has changed in general and intentions have changed in general where there really isn’t much protection anymore for civilians. And then I do think journalism has changed in that opinion journalism is a lot stronger and there’s a lot more overt American journalism that’s pro-government and anti-government and I think that that leads foreigners to see them as taking sides and not be seen as neutral.
Does your experience make it difficult for you to remain unbiased when covering war zones?
I can’t write ever again about any aspect of the War on Terror. I’ve talked to my editors about it and their feelings are that I can write about it broadly, but not about individuals who played a role in my case on either side.
What elements of the war do you think have not gotten enough coverage?
I would say that the vast majority of Afghans and Pakistanis don’t support the Taliban. When I talk to Americans about it they don’t realize that. And the United States is also not popular and what Afghans and Pakistanis tell me is they don’t want Arab jihadists dictating they should live under Sharia and they also don’t want Americans dictating to them to live under an exact western democracy.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a story about the Gulf oil spill and I just flew in from Louisiana. So I won’t be covering wars anymore. That’s just a personal decision in terms of my family. And there are plenty of investigative stories to do in the U.S. and across the world.
Additional reporting by Nick Castele and Zoe Fox.