I Will Come at You Like a Dog

Journalist Jere Van Dyk after a nighttime interview of Taliban, December 2007. Two months later, the Taliban kidnapped him and held him captive. Photograph courtesy Jere Van Dyk

In 2008 Jere Van Dyk '68 crossed into the dangerous tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, penetrating a no man's land where Western journalists hadn't ventured for years. Then things went very wrong. In Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban he tells the story of his forty-five day captivity, along with three guides, mostly confined in a one-room cell, where the following excerpt takes place. His captors hoped to exchange Van Dyk for money and prisoners held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay. Gulob is the jailer; a maulavi is an Islamic religious leader. Van Dyk has been a reporter for The New York Times, CBS News, and National Geographic. At the UO, he ran track for Bill Bowerman '34; he will return to campus to deliver the School of Journalism and Communication's 2011 Ruhl Lecture on Wednesday, April 20, in the EMU Ballroom.

Gulob turned on the cassette player. The sound of a young man, with a high, lilting voice, singing a cappella, filled the room. It was a Taliban recruiting cassette.

“It begins with women taunting men,” he said.

“Give us your turbans/give us your swords/we will give you our shawls if you do not go on jihad.” A young male chorus sang, the voices melodic and lilting, of women imploring men to fight. In Pashtunwali [the ethical code of the local people], if a man is a coward in war, his wife or mother will reject him when he comes home. A man has to be strong. “We must think of the orphans and the widows.”

On and on they chanted. It was hypnotic. After a while, Gulob turned the tape off and turned to Samad. “Can one person’s kidney work in another person?” he asked. Samad said yes. “I don’t think so,” Gulob responded, “because another maulavi’s son had bad kidneys, and he went to Islamabad to exchange them, and they haven’t worked. The news reported that a German in Herat had been kidnapped, and they’re demanding fifty thousand dollars. Why so little?”

Gulob answered his own question. “Maybe they have taken his kidneys.”

I didn’t like where I sensed this conversation was going. “Do you know that the artery that goes from a man’s leg to his heart sells for eighty thousand dollars in Islamabad? We will sell your arteries,” Gulob said. I looked down and ran my hands over my knees. I felt myself shivering, and my stomach tightened. “Razi Gul and I are old,” I said. “Young people’s arteries are better.” Everyone laughed, but I was scared. Gulob wouldn’t have brought this up if he or others weren’t thinking about it. A maulavi’s son needed kidneys.

The men talked about the price of body parts in Pakistan. I had read too many stories about boys being kidnapped in Afghanistan for their kidneys and being left for dead.

“Pakistan has some good doctors, but some of them are very cruel,” said Gulob. He gathered up our tea cups and the teapot. “If we have trouble getting the money, maybe we will sell your body parts.” He walked out the door.

The room was silent. I could feel the energy welling up in me. “If this is true, I am leaving tonight,” I said. They needed a hospital for this, Samad said. I said they didn’t. They could come here. They probably had doctors who supported their cause. I imagined a small, middle-aged man walking in the room carrying a satchel and the Taliban holding me down while he injected me with a sedative. He would wash my skin, cut me open and take out my kidney, and sew me up. I would lie in the cot bleeding to death, slowly, painfully. No. I couldn’t die in this dark, dirty cell. I had to get out of here. I got up and walked around the cell.

“We have to escape. I can’t die here,” I said. I kept repeating this. We would use the cord. I pointed to the clothesline over the pit and explained how we had to tie Gulob up or strangle him with it. “We may have to kill Rahman. We can do it at sundown. We have to get through the compound, get a rifle, and head west and try to escape over the mountains,” I said.

I laid out the plan. I had been thinking of it, and others, for weeks. None of them involved killing Gulob or Rahman, unless we had to. This was different. Gulob had crossed the line. I was afraid, but for the first time in weeks I felt alive and strong. I was no longer depressed. I was no longer a victim. I thought of the passengers on United Flight 93. They didn’t sit there. They acted. They had died feeling strong. That was the best way to go. They were the best of men.

* * *

“Don’t try to escape,” Gulob said. His face was six inches from mine, his voice low and growling. He was hunched over. He looked like a bear ready to pounce. “If you do, I will come at you like a dog. You won’t get anywhere. There are Taliban throughout this village.”

How did he know I had been talking about escaping? Daoud looked at me knowingly. There was a spy among us. That was why Samad was outside for at least ten minutes. He was talking with Gulob. That was why they no longer chained him to his bed. He had cut a deal with them [previously]. They had flipped him. Or he had been in on this all along.

I felt alone. I couldn’t trust anyone. I had no friends. I hated Samad. “If you try anything, it will be difficult for you,” said Gulob, his voice low and deep. “I want to resolve this as quickly as possible. God willing, the Taliban will allow you to be released soon. But don’t try to escape. Don’t try anything.”

Samad was boiling water on the bokhari. He asked to wash my clothes. Why would this man, who had just betrayed me, want to wash my clothes, as if he were my servant? Did he feel bad, or was he trying to lure me in so I would talk more? I didn’t care about my clothes. I was beyond caring. In fact, I preferred them dirty. Why wear clean clothes in this pit? I wanted them dirty when I fought Samad.

I didn’t want him to touch them. I had to admit, he was good. I was a fool to have trusted him. I had an excuse. I was afraid that Gulob would sell my kidneys, for starters. No, that was no excuse. I was afraid.

That night I lay in my cot, staring at Samad. I couldn’t see him; it was too dark. But when I closed my eyes I could see his face covered with blood. I lay there seething. He had betrayed me. I wanted to cross the room and beat him senseless. I was afraid I might kill him. I had never wanted to kill anyone before.