Book Review: Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban by Jere Van Dyk

“I’m alive.”

As much incantation as statement of fact, that simple phrase had plenty of meaning for American journalist Jere Van Dyk when he was taken captive by the Taliban in February 2008 and held for 45 days. In Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban, it represents affirmation, a touch of surprise and hope.

Van Dyk was no stranger to Afghanistan. He first went there driving a Volkswagen in 1973. He returned in the 1980s, spending time with the mujahideen who battled against the Soviet Union following its invasion of the country in late 1979. Not only did he win their trust, he wrote some Pulitzer Prize-nominated articles about them for The New York Times‘ Sunday magazine and a book and also became director of a nonprofit organization which pushed for U.S. support for the mujahideen.

Van Dyk returned to Afghanistan in 2007, hoping his prior contacts and experience would help gain him access to places other Western journalists hadn’t been, particularly the remote tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. His goal was to “find out what the Taliban were really like,” to “learn what they thought and what their goals were” and to “explain the Taliban to the outside world.” As part of the effort, he attempted to disguise himself as a Pashtun and assimilate himself into their Pashtun culture. The Pashtun are the largest ethic group in the region and predominate the areas he wanted to go. Particuarly by making contact with his old mujahedin friends, he hoped Pashtunwali, the ancient unwritten code of the Pashtuns, would help protect him.

When Van Dyk finally manages to sneak across the border into Pakistan to meet up with a Taliban group he thinks will take him to Taliban strongholds in the tribal areas, he is captured by another Taliban group. He and his three companions would be held in a 12 foot by 12 foot room in the mountains of Pakistan. Among the more compelling parts of his tale is when his captors use his video recorder to document what he believes is going to be his execution. Van Dyk’s mind races, careening between fear and a desire to appear calm, all the while wondering if he will be shot or if the captor who just put his hand in his pocket will be pulling out a knife to slit his throat.

Written in a diary format using an unvarnished journalistic style, Captive is insightful from both a political and a human standpoint. It shows perhaps as much as any book about Afghanistan and Pakistan the muddled alliances and alignments. There is conflict and competition between Taliban groups. There is conflict between Pashtunwali and principles of Sharia law or the Islam preached by some of the Talilban. According to his captors, the Pakistan government, or at least portions of it, are supporting and working with the Taliban as much, if not more, than the United States. All in all, it reveals the labyrinthine dilemma the governments and peoples of these countries face.

On the personal side, Van Dyk’s story reveals an aspect of the fear and stress of his situation by showing the mercurial nature of his relationships with his captors and fellow captives. While Van Dyk may occasionally feel a kinship with or affinity for the others, it takes a single sentence or look to immediately make him suspicious or to view them, albeit not conspicuously, as an enemy. Similarly, for example, when he hears sounds outside where he is held captive, he can’t decide if someone is chopping wood or building a gallows from which to hang him.

Also intriguing is Van Dyk’s dealings with religion. Raised in a devout Christian family, Van Dyk had lost his faith over the years. Even before his capture, Van Dyk expresses an interest in learning more about Islam (although it does raise the question of why he didn’t do so while with the mujahideen some 20 years before). That interest becomes more acute when his captors tell him the only way he will survive is by converting to Islam. The innate compulsion to survive by converting collides with him almost naturally falling back on his religious upbringing for solace and comfort, presenting another struggle for Van Dyk.

The true purpose of taking Van Dyk captive is never clear or explained to him. At points he is told he is being held to exchange him for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. At other points, his captors talk of ransom and, in fact, have him write letters to friends to raise $1.5 million ransom. There are also suggestions that once he converts to Islam and is sufficiently familiar with it, they want him to return to America to spread the religion and the tenets advocated by the Taliban. The circumstances surrounding Van Dyk’s are likewise unclear. In an endnote, he observes that he’s never received any definitive answers about who or what brought about his release or even whether any ransom was paid.

Sadly, there seems to be a growing genre of nonfiction dealing with journalists and others being held captive by warring or hostile political factions. Perhaps more than other such works, Captive sheds some light on the deep-rooted dilemma that is Afghanistan and Pakistan. Thanks to his note-taking during his captivity and his willingness to discuss and reveal even his internal struggles, Van Dyk also immerses us in the human aspect of his experience.

It was morning. I was happy. I was alive. I was still alive. I hadn’t woken up happy in years.

Jere Van Dyk, Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban

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