A Memoir of Captivity
Read the transcript of Peter's interview with Mellissa Fung
Peter Mansbridge: Well here is the book, "Under the Afghan Sky", and obviously I like it, or I wouldn't have written a blurb for it on the back, I find it fascinating, quite riveting really.
Mellissa Fung: I was worried when I gave it to you.
PM: I want to talk about a couple of things in it. First of all is the relationship with these people who took you, especially one, Khalid. Because it seems to me that while a couple of them were clearly people you had no time for - despised - there seemed to be a relationship there with him that bordered somewhere on respect that you had for him. Tell me about that.
MF: He said from the beginning he was the one who took me. So he felt responsible for me and he also promised me that first day that he would not kill me, so I had to believe…
PM: You believed that?
MF: I had to believe that.
PM: Did you believe it at the time, on that first day?
MF: No, not really, but I started to hold on that – right? I had to believe yeah he’s responsible and he said he’s not going to kill me. So I have to hang onto that. And maybe I can work with that. Maybe, you know, I can gain his trust. Maybe I can develop a rapport. Whatever I could do to sort of bring on him my side, make him work for me. But, I also found him fascinating as a person too.
PM: Now why is that?
MF: Where here is this Afghan man who, you know, young man, I think he was only 18 or 19 at the time, you know whose fundamentalist beliefs lead him to kidnap me because he thinks all foreigners should be out of the country and that the Taliban are good. And yet, he’s got all of there same qualities that a normal 18 or 19-year-old Canadian boy would have. He’s got a girlfriend he’s in love with, he wants to get married, you know…
PM: He’d bring you pictures of her.
MF: Exactly. Right. So you know, that was really interesting and I think that’s why when I wrote about it in the book I hope people see… I saw the humanity in him. He brought me french fries; he brought me a blanket when I said I was cold. He gave me his coat when we were hiking up the mountain, his scarf. I had to kind of hold onto that, that sort of decency that I saw in him. Because that was what I was hoping would save me.
PM: But he was also the guy who stuck you in a hole for 28 days. Took that part of your life away.
MF: Yeah, but I couldn’t dwell on that. I had to see him for the whole person he was.
PM: And who did you think he was initially? I mean he talked about his admiration for the Taliban. At what point did you realize that he wasn’t Taliban?
MF: Pretty early on. Don’t forget the timing of what happened. It was two days before a Federal election here. Afghanistan was on the agenda in that election. So, if it really was the Taliban they would have used me politically. They would have had a video camera right then and there and said, "You know what Prime Minister? We’ll kill her if you don’t leave now." Didn’t happen. These guys were just talking about money. That’s all they wanted was money and the Taliban are way more ideological than that. So I sort of had a suspicion from the beginning that they were maybe Taliban sympathizers, but more than likely just a gang of thugs. Not to say that they may not have had Taliban connections, but I really didn’t feel like it was really the Taliban I was with.
PM: But he obviously had political thoughts. As you say.
PM: He didn’t think foreigners should be in his country. Did he make that argument convincingly? I mean you found yourself in an awkward position of...
MF: …having to defend why we were there.
PM: Having to defend…
MF: I know, and I just kept saying we’re trying to help. Right? We want to help your country stand your own two feet, you know, that’s why we’re here. And he said no you’re here killing our people - and I said no, the Taliban - and we want back and forth and we’d have these arguments and I think I wrote at some point that I got tired of these same conversations because he really, really believed that all foreigners should leave.
PM: Now was he the only one who you talked to on that level?
MF: He was the only one…he had better English that most people, most of the other people, so he was the only one I could really talk to at that kind of level. There was Abdulrahman, but he was only there for that one day and his brother Zahir for the first day.
PM: What was the worst moment for you during those 28 days?
MF: I think probably the day that I was chained up. It was going to the last week, I thought I was going to be released - I really did - because they all kept saying "Sunday, Sunday, Sunday." Sunday came and in fact when I heard the digging from the hole I thought they were going to dig me out. Instead they came in and chained me up to myself and left me. And the moment they left and covered the hole again - I really - that was the darkest moment. Because I was, it was almost like I had all this hope and in an instant it was just gone.
PM: So what happens to you at that moment, what do you start thinking?
MF: I was angry. I was angry. I thought I really might not come out of this. What if they’ve left me? I’m by myself. I’m in a hole. I don’t know where the hole is. They could be killed by an air strike, they could be arrested, they could just decide to take off, what if any of that happened? Who would have found me? I’d still be there, dead and buried.
PM: So what do you latch onto for strength at a moment like that?
MF: Well I really could feel myself spiraling that week, that last week, because I was alone with my thoughts. I didn’t even have a kidnapper to talk to and as you know, you can really get carried away thinking about all the worst-case scenarios, right? I would really have to catch myself and, you know, sort of slap yourself and say, "Stop this." "Stop it. You know, there are people out there looking for you, there are people out there who love you and they’re not going to give up looking for you." Right? "The CBC has got to be looking for me you know, maybe the military knows, maybe they’re looking for me. Somebody’s got to be looking. Stop feeling sorry for yourself."
PM: And would that work?
MF: Yes. It did. It did. And then I would think of all the people who would have it worse, you know? Other people in those same situations who were probably never found - people who - Daniel Pearl. Like, so many people had it worse. I was there, I was alive, I still had hope of getting out. So snap out of it, Fung.
PM: Back to Khalid, do you remember your last conversation with him?
MF: Yeah, it was when he was walking me to be released. And he kept saying, "I’m sorry, I’m sorry I took you. I’m sorry it took so long. Please don’t hate me. Please, please don’t hate me." And I said of course I don’t hate you. And it was true. I couldn’t…there was no… it’s was a wasted energy by then if I was going to hate. And I said I forgive you, it’s ok. And he said, "Please, you must mean it."
PM: And did you mean it?
MF: Yeah. And in fact I think I wrote that I still as I’d forgiven them, him, a long time ago, I had to to survive. Otherwise you hold onto that anger and that hatred in that small space, it can’t be healthy.
PM: Have you made any effort to try to reach him?
MF: He gave me his email address and I did try it. But it didn’t work.
PM; Do you have any idea what’s happened to him?
MF: No. No but Pakman, I’m told - Pakman was the guy in Pakistan calling the shots - was arrested a few months after I was released. And then for the last year and a half I couldn’t find anything else about him. And knowing that I was going to be asked this, you know, I have a good friend right now working in Kabul at the embassy. And I got a note from him the other day and he said unfortunately the guy is out, he’s back in Afghanistan and he’s back in business.
PM: Doing the same kind of thing.
PM: What does that tell you about the big picture of the Pakistan-Afghanistan story?
MF: It makes me angry. They had this guy in jail. Obviously he wasn’t held there, he wasn’t charged, there was probably no trial and he got out. It tells me that there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done there in terms of helping their society, their country sort of stand on its own two feet again. Sort of become a real functioning society.
PM: But we’ve been saying that for almost ten years.
MF: We have to keep saying it because we’re still there. As long as Canadian soldiers are there and they’re dying, and they’re putting their lives at risk, we have to keep saying it.
PM: What’s the lesson of "Under an Afghan Sky"?
MF: That the world is not about good and evil. I mean sure these kidnappers did something horrible, but that doesn’t mean they’re evil people. There is still humanity in them. They still…
PM: And you saw it.
MF: Yes. And you know, it’s not black and white. It’s all grey and that’s why I love being a journalist. It’s exploring those areas of grey. And I really hope people will take away the fact that these guys really had their own problems, had their own issues in a country where there is not much of a future for most young men. And if readers can get a sense that they’re just humans too. That would make me feel a lot better for having gone through what I did.
PM: We’ll leave it at that. Thanks so much. Good luck with the book.
MF: Thanks Peter.