Featured, Maine Classics

The (Not So) Quiet American

December 2009

New York Times reporter David Rohde reveals his feelings about captivity in Afghanistan and inspiration from his Maine roots.

By Donna Stuart

davidrohde-tomas-munita-for-the-new-york-times-hiOn June 19, 2009, New York Times reporter David Rohde and Tahir Luddin, the Afghan journalist serving as  his translator, escaped from the Taliban in Pakistan. It was 7 months, 9 days after they, along with theirAfghan driver, Asad Mangal, had been kidnapped and just 9 months, 13 days after Rohde had married his wife, Kristen, at St. Brendan’s Chapel in Biddeford Pool.

During this interval, the Times and the international media had kept quiet about the kidnapping out of concern for the three men’s safety while the newspaper, the U.S. government, and the captives’ families tried to negotiate their release. No ransom was ever paid, no rescue mission mounted. While their captors slept after a mentally exhausting checkah (a Pakistani version of parcheesi)  marathon–shades of the Epic of Gilgamesh–with the captives, Rohde and Luddin simply slipped over a wall under cover of a rattling swamp cooler and walked to the safety of a nearby Pakistani military base, with only barking dogs taking note of their anticlimactic departure.

Rohde was part of the Times team that won a Pulitzer for its 2008 coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was his second Pulitzer–and his second kidnapping. The first was in Bosnia in 1995 when, working for the Christian Science Monitor, Rohde played a pivotal role in exposing the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. He was released after 10 days, thanks to the efforts of his family, his editors, and American diplomats, most notably Richard Holbrooke, now the Obama Administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the aftermath, Rohde published a book about the massacre, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II, which one reviewer called “journalism at its committed best–painstaking, compassionate, full of telling detail, and rigorous in its judgments.”

Rohde spent his formative years in Maine, graduating from Fryeburg Academy before attending Bates College for two years, then transferring to Brown University, where he graduated with a major in East Asian history. He tells us he’s loved Maine holidays in the past, so it’s easy to wonder if he’s up here with us now.

But what even he must still be wondering is, what elements of his psychological makeup inspired him to court acute journalistic and personal danger a second time around? And what has he learned about himself and our Starbucks culture that seems to demand such risks from him and his colleagues?

In “Casting the Inevitable David Rohde Movie,” BlackBook Magazine’s Ben Barna says the obvious choice to play you is George Clooney, but says that you’re “kinda nerdy,” so he’d cast Casey Affleck, 20 pounds thinner and wearing glasses. He sees the British actor who played the lead hijacker in United 93, Khalid Abdalla, as Tahir Luddin and Naomi Watts as your wife. Do you agree–or do you have other choices?

If there’s a movie that will thoughtfully teach people more about the Taliban, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and why 885 American soldiers have died there, that’s a movie worth making.

After returning home around Labor Day, there were signs put up along Route 1 [as part of the Ogunquit-to-Portland Run for the Fallen] with photographs of [59] soldiers with ties to Maine who’d all died fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s much more dangerous for soldiers and much more difficult for their families. So many American and Afghan soldiers are risking their lives right now in Afghanistan.

Some people turn away from war and devastation. You’ve walked towards it. What’s the draw?

I wouldn’t say I have an unusual desire to walk toward those kinds of things. I enjoy journalism and exposing the truth. That is, I think, a by-product of growing up in Maine as a teenager, where part of the culture is being a straight shooter and of [having] the focus on others, rather than on yourself.

Why expose the truths of Bosnia and Afghanistan rather than those of, say, rural Maine?

In Bosnia, I was a young journalist covering the leading international story at the time. There was media attention, but there didn’t seem to be much international will to stop the abuses and war crimes going on.

[As for Afghanistan,] I was in New York on September 11, went down to the Twin Towers after the planes hit, and ran after they collapsed. I was eager to follow that story after the attack.

What was it like to be the first outside reporter to come upon the Sre-brenica massacre scene?

The most gratifying stories I’ve ever done were about Bosnia and helping to expose the mass executions in Srebrenica. To see the Serbian leader, Radovan Karadžić, now before a war crimes tribunal is amazing.

While you were held captive, first in Afghanistan and then in remote Pakistan, you weren’t locked in a cell. Instead, you were with your captors constantly, even when they watched hours of what were essentially snuff videos. Did that situation, between the threats and “boundless hatred of the U.S.” voiced by the commanders on one hand and the occasional moments of levity with your guards on the other, seem like a form of psychological torture?

I was treated well physically but frustrated by the kidnapping and the irrational demands [our captors] made [for example, a $25 million ransom from the New York Times]. My two Afghan friends and colleagues were in much more danger than I was. Most disturbing was how much more hostility the Taliban [directed] toward Afghans who work with Americans than toward myself as an American. Since 2001,  roughly five times as many Afghans and Pakistanis have died fighting the Taliban as Americans. The Taliban see any moderate Afghans and Pakistanis helping Americans as traitors. There was a sense throughout that our translator and driver would be killed before I would be, so they were under much more strain.

So, was it worth it in the pursuit of journalistic excellence?

Dangerous situations don’t necessarily make better stories. I regret this kidnapping. I’ve tried to take calculated risks, and this kidnapping was a disaster. I did research on [the Taliban commander I was going to interview]; he’d given interviews to two other foreign journalists. After seeing the published reports of rising support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, I was trying to get perspective to better understand how the American effort had gone so wrong [from a source] I thought was a moderate Afghan who’d turned against the U.S.-backed government created in 2001.

While you were captive, did you think about Maine?

I thought about high school in Fryeburg…about hiking in Baxter State Park with my father…about getting married in Biddeford Pool. I thought about watching Maine Mariners and Portland Pirates games with my dad in Cumberland County Civic Center. Maine was the place I thought of most while in captivity.

Did Maine ever come up in discussions with your captors?

I told them I was from a small village in America, a town that doesn’t sell alcohol, to explain there were religious people in America. [The Taliban has] a very warped perception of people in the U.S. as all amoral, rich hedonists. I talked about how the people love their families, are hardworking, and respect God. I wasn’t exaggerating or trying to lie about what Maine is like; I was telling them…that their stereotypes about the U.S. aren’t true.

You escaped June 19. Why did the Times wait until recent weeks to publish your account of what happened?

I didn’t do anything until Asad was released–five weeks after I escaped, on July 27. That was my main focus.

Do you think that direct, immediate reporting cuts into aesthetic distance?

I’m a reporter, not an artist. I’m just trying to lay out, as much as possible, facts and balanced descriptions of events, so I’m trying to keep it as precise as I can. It’s not a question of crafting a work of art; I saw it and still see it as writing news stories and just trying to convey information.

I might have remembered more detail [if I’d been able to keep notes while I was kidnapped], but I don’t think there’s a difference in how I wrote the story because of the delay. There were some incidents I remembered vividly, and some things that were less clear–those I left out.

You were in Afghanistan because you were working on a book. Had you begun to write it?

I’d written the first couple of chapters. I’m only now beginning to look at the book [again] and figuring out how I’ll write it and how the kidnapping will change it.

Your teacher at Fryeburg Academy, John Atwood, says you don’t like to be the center of the story. Has all of this been difficult for you?

Nobody from Maine likes to be the center of the story!

Tell us about those fast times at Fryeburg.

It was one of the happiest times of my life. Fryeburg is a very special town with very special, warm, and welcoming people. I think the diversity of the student body sparked my interest in travel.

What do you like to do when you come back to Maine?

Walk on a beach with my wife. Go to Pirates and Sea Dogs games with my father. Visit aunts and uncles around the state.

What’s next for you?

My days as a war correspondent are over. I hope to do some other form of journalism–I don’t know what. I do want to work to set up guidelines and training for reporters and editors on how to avoid the mistakes I made, how to prevent a kidnapping from happening, and then if it does happen, how to handle it, both for the journalist and for the family. [I’ll be working with] the Dart Center [for Journalism & Trauma] at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Committee to Protect Journalists. It would be me, my wife, and members of my family trying to help them. It would not just be from my experience, but talking to other journalists who’ve been kidnapped.

…What’s happening in Afghanistan is serious, and I’m very lucky to have survived. It’s not a movie opportunity. I hope my story [doesn’t] read that way.

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