Pulitzer-winner David Rohde’s hostage experience
David Rohde, the two-time Pulitzer-Prize winning foreign correspondent, is the newest member of the Reuters digital family. He and his wife Kristen Mulvihill sat down with Chrystia at the Aspen Ideas Festival to discuss A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides, their book about the seven months David spent in captivity Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here’s a transcript of some of the highlights of their conversation:
On the interview he did with a Taliban commander that led to his kidnapping:
DAVID ROHDE: This young commander, he had done two interviews with other journalists. They were Europeans; he didn’t kidnap them. In hindsight–
CHRYSTIA FREELAND: So an American guy is better?
DAVID ROHDE: Yes. I think he was gaining the trust, a good reputation among journalists that he didn’t kidnap journalists. And then I came along and he grabbed me. I did the interview just outside of Kabul, the Afghan capital. I thought it would be safer there. Again, I thought there was a safe track record. I met with a journalist who had done two interviews with him the night before I went to my interview. She said, “You’re in more danger as an American, but I don’t think he’ll kidnap you.” And what this young guy did was grab me and take me over the border to Pakistan to this very powerful group, the Haqqani network. And he wanted to get money but also wanted to boost his reputation among other Taliban.
On whether the interview with the commander was worth it:
CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Did you feel guilty for letting this happen and for what it meant for Kristen?
DAVID ROHDE: Absolutely. The moment the kidnapping happened, waves of guilt washed over me. I was with two Afghan colleagues: an Afghan journalist, Tahir Ludin, and an Afghan driver, Asadullah Mangal. And this interview which seemed so crucial sort of felt really foolish in that moment. I got kind of carried away. It was frankly competition. I wasn’t based in the region anymore. Dozens of journalists have safely interviewed the Taliban. I was working on this book and I wanted it to be the best book possible, and I lost my perspective. It’s a danger in journalism. In a sense in terms of taking risks, it can be a race to the bottom. Other big stories were worth it. I took risks in Bosnia, helped expose executions there, and was detained.
CHRYSTIA FREELAND: Right, exactly. Had you not done that, the world would be a different and maybe less good place.
DAVID ROHDE: Well, I stand by taking the risk in Bosnia. In hindsight, getting an interview with a Taliban commander — it wasn’t worth the risk and played out disastrously.
On his treatment in captivity and the great escape:
DAVID ROHDE: We were held in this large town in Pakistan. I was treated very well. The tribal areas of Pakistan aren’t this sort of wild place with no infrastructure. I was given bottled water everyday I was in captivity. I was given copies of English-language Pakistani newspapers to read. And we were held in the end very close to a Pakistani military base. And throughout the seven months I never saw the Pakistani military come off that base and challenge the Taliban. The Taliban had complete control of the town. They taught bomb-making classes. Huge explosions went off and nothing happened.
And essentially we decided to escape at night while our guards were asleep. I had found a car tow-rope, and we used it to lower ourselves down a wall. And we made it to a Pakistani army base. And this very brave and moderate Pakistani army captain let us inside and apologized to me and Tahir for what had happened and let me call home. And all of the months of meetings in Washington paid off because Kristen reached out to all these American officials, including Holbrooke. The Pakistani military then flew us out of this base.