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Jere Van Dyk, A Taliban 'Captive' For 45 Days

Jul 1, 2010 (Talk of the Nation)

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In 2008, Jere Van Dyk set off from Kabul to write an authoritative book on the Taliban. Twenty-five years earlier he'd moved to the region to research a book about mujahedeen, the warriors who fought Soviet invaders during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He'd lived with Pashtun leaders then and knew the mujahedeen leaders.

Van Dyk tells NPR's Neal Conan that these days, half of those leaders "are an integral part of the Karzai government." The other half, he says, are leaders in the Taliban.

Van Dyk says he returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan to figure out how different the Taliban was from mujahedeen, who was backing them, and how close they were to the leadership of al-Qaida.

Van Dyk says he felt his contacts and knowledge of Pashtun tribal codes and Islam would help protect him on his return to the region. He'd visited the Taliban in the mountains four times in the 1980s, and he says, "each time, they kept their word. Each time, I survived."

But that February, he became the second American journalist to be captured by the Taliban. He tells that story in his new book, Captive.

Van Dyk says when he was captured, his jailer made it very clear that his life depended on his conversion to Islam. Faced with that ultimatum, Van Dyk says he walked a fine line between showing respect and not lying about his commitment.

"They could see through anything that I was doing wrong," he says. "I had to be very, very humble, but not be too cowardly. I had to show strength." At the same time, he knew if he said he was a Muslim when he wasn't, his captors would see through him and he would be punished.

Van Dyk, his two bodyguards and his interpreter were held in a 12-by-12-foot cell so dark they couldn't see across it. They were only allowed out for three minutes at night.

According to Van Dyk, his fourth night in captivity was the worst of all. His interpreter and bodyguards were taken from the cell and interrogated, then they returned in the company of 15 armed Taliban.

The Taliban commander sat facing Van Dyk and pulled out the writer's confiscated video camera.

"I knew what was going to happen next," he says. "I thought of Daniel Pearl" — the journalist who was captured almost six years to the day before Van Dyk's capture, and then killed — "I knew that I was next. And so I knew, also, that I had to save myself."

He looked the commander straight in the eye as he was being filmed and spoke to the family members he knew would be watching.

"I said my brother's name, my sister's name, their children," he says. A moment later, they pointed a rifle to Van Dyk's temple and continued filming.

"And the man put his hand in the vest to pull out the knife, and I was certain at that second that I would die," Van Dyk says.

But, of course, he didn't. Later, they told him the video would be used to exchange him for three of their brothers imprisoned in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. If that failed, they would hold him ransom for $1.5 million.

But no prisoners were exchanged for Van Dyk and, to this day, he does not know exactly how his release was secured or whether any ransom was paid. All he knows is he made it home.

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