© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Book Recounts Terror Inside And Outside Captivity

Kristen Mulvihill was married to the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent David Rohde for two months when she received a call in 2008 from David's brother, Lee.

Lee told Mulvihill that David never returned from his last interview in Kabul -- a meeting he had arranged with a Taliban commander. It was a meeting Mulvihill knew nothing about.

Rohde was abducted -- and for seven months, he and his translator and driver were prisoners of a hard-line Taliban faction that operated out of Pakistan's ungoverned tribal areas.

And in June 2009, Rohde and his translator mounted a daring escape.

Now, he and Mulvihill have written A Rope and a Prayer, an account of their separate experiences when Rohde was a prisoner of the Taliban.

Rohde says he realizes now that not telling his wife about the interview he arranged with a Taliban leader an hour outside of Kabul was an "ethical lapse."

"To be honest, I was sure she would tell me to not go to the interview," Rohde says. "And we had just gotten married, and if she had said, 'Don't go to the interview,' I would have abided by her orders. I was in the final stages of this book -- I think I lost perspective. I was trying to write something that I hoped would be the culmination of seven years of reporting in the region since 2001. But she was my new wife, and I made a mistake. I should have told her."

Mulvihill says she was a little angry Rohde didn't tell her.

"But I quickly realized that, you know, the blame for the kidnapping is on the kidnappers," she says. "No one suffered more from David's decision to go to the interview than David himself."

The Abduction

Rohde says that on his way to the interview with the Taliban commander, a car suddenly blocked the middle of the road.

"And the driver of our car stops our vehicle, and two men with Kalashnikov assault rifles come rushing up to our vehicle," he says. "They're screaming commands in a local language and pointing the weapons at the driver and translator in the front seats of our car. They order them to get in the back seat with me. One of the Taliban jumped in the front seat behind the steering wheel, another one jumped in the passenger seat, and he was sort of pointing his Kalashnikov at us and, with them at the wheel, we sped off down the road."

I thought they would capture us and that would be it, and we would be punished. The actual moment, the realization that they were actually going to let us on the base, was an extraordinary thing. It was just magical.

They eventually ended up in Miran Shah, Pakistan, which is effectively run by the Taliban.

"I thought we were doomed. I'll never forget," Rohde says. "We were loaded into a car and driving down a highway, and the driver started driving on the left-hand side of the road. And then I saw a road sign in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. Foreigners and many more Afghans and Pakistanis have been brought to the tribal areas of Pakistan. And it's a complete safe haven for the Taliban. And I knew we could be held for years or killed there."

During that time, Mulvihill was in New York City, working with New York Times lawyers, investigators and experts on abductions, and the FBI. According to Mulvihill, the family requested to keep the abduction a secret -- and The Times honored that.

"I absolutely felt that was the right decision, and would be the right decision in future cases," Rohde says. "My captors were absolutely delusional about what they could get for a Western hostage. The initial demand for our release was $25 million in ransom and the release of 15 prisoners from U.S. detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram air base in Afghanistan. When you're dealing with insurgents and militants that want to defy Western public opinion, publicity just raises their expectations, it doesn't shame them, and it is better to keep the cases quiet."

In order to keep the abduction quiet, Times correspondents even went so far as to constantly remove references to it from Rohde's Wikipedia entry, Mulvihill says.

"There was amazing camaraderie among his colleagues," she says.

"I would add that my captors -- you know -- people think about the Taliban as people who sort of live in caves. They actually Googled me all the time. They Googled my brother, Lee. He is the president of a tiny aviation consulting company. It has four full-time employees. But my captors found him on Google and announced to me, 'Your brother is the president of an aviation firm that manufactures jumbo jets -- and if your brother would just sell one jumbo jet, they could pay the millions of dollars in ransom we want,' " Rohde says.

Rohde says he was surprised at how radical the Taliban were that he faced.

"I think there arguably are some moderate Taliban," he says. "I was in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the most hard-line Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are based there. They worked hand-in-hand with foreign militants and al-Qaida members. I was held in the same place where Faisal Shahzad, the young man who failed to set off a bomb in Times Square, was trained. It's North Waziristan. The U.S. has asked the Pakistani army to go in there, and they have not to date."

The Escape

In the last couple of months, Rohde concluded that escape was the only way out. So he and Tahir Ludin, an Afghan journalist and translator, devised a plan. He says it was a simple plan because they were sure it would go wrong.

"Our guards got lax and our captors moved us to a house that was only roughly three-tenths of a mile from the one Pakistani military base in Miran Shah," he says. "Myself and the Afghan journalist basically agreed that I would get up first and pretend I was going to the bathroom, and see if our guards woke up. We tried to keep the guards up late, actually, playing a board game. And then I sort of got up, and as I crept out of the room, I tugged on Tahir's foot to try to wake him up. And then we went and grabbed a rope that I had found when we moved into the house. We lowered ourselves down the wall that surrounded the house and then walked to this Pakistani military base."

Rohde says he had a beard that was 4-5 inches long, and he and Ludin were nearly shot by the Pakistani guards on the base.

"They thought we were suicide bombers," he says. "They made us take off our shirts. They made us lie on the ground and then finally, after about 15 or 20 minutes, they allowed us into the base."

That's when a young moderate Pakistani captain let Rohde make a phone call to New York.

"And I called, and the answering machine picked up, and I said, 'Kristen, Kristen, it's David, please pick up.' And someone picked up, and this unfamiliar voice said, 'Hello,' and I realized it was actually my mother-in-law. She did an extraordinary job of taking down the name of the base, exactly where we were. And then Kristen did an incredible job of then making sure we actually got off that base to safety."

Rohde says he didn't think the escape plan would actually work.

"I guess we had just gotten so angry with them and disgusted with them that we were ready to take that risk," he says. "I thought they would capture us and that would be it, and we would be punished. The actual moment, the realization that they were actually going to let us on the base, was an extraordinary thing. It was just magical."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.