Transcript: Mellissa Fung interview
A partial transcript of the interview with CBC reporter Mellissa Fung, who was kidnapped and held captive for 28 days in Afghanistan. The interviewer is Anna Maria Tremonti, host of The Current.
Anna Maria Tremonti: I don't know what to say, whether I say welcome back, welcome out. It's just very great to see you.
Mellissa Fung: It's really great to be back or out, both.
Back to that day, the 12th of October. What were you doing?
I arrived in Kabul the day before, and I was going off to a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city to do a story on the refugee situation inside Afghanistan. The fighting in the south had been particularly violent this summer, and the UN estimates that there are about 15,000 to 20,000 refugees from the south who had come up north to escape the violence.
And so I was visiting, I was going to visit one of these refugee camps and talk to some of the families who had escaped from Panjwai and Zhari where, as you know, the Canadians in the south have been operating. So that was my plan. … We had a fixer here who has worked with the CBC for a number of years and I have worked with before. He was going to pick me up at my hotel around 9 o'clock, 9:30, and we would head out to the camp, which was about 45 minutes to an hour on the outskirts of Kabul. So that was the plan.
And you went to that camp, right?
We went to that camp. The driver and the fixer were a little bit late. Traffic was bad that Sunday morning inside the city. So, we maybe left the hotel quarter to 10. I think we got to the camp around 10:30, quarter to 11, spent about an hour and a half talking to people, news gathering, and then we were going to leave, and we had actually another story planned to be shot in the afternoon.
And as you went to leave, what happened?
A car drove up. It happened so quickly, Anna Maria. A car just drove up. We were leaving sort of.
There's a road leading into the camp that is wide enough for cars, and so we were leaving on that road, and a car drove up, and next thing I knew, two guys with big guns came out of the car.
One of them grabbed me; the other pointed a gun at our fixer. There was a bit of a struggle. I know they were trying to get me in the car, but as it happened, I think I hit one, and then he stabbed me in the shoulder. And then next thing I knew, I was inside the car on the floor of the back seat, and they were driving off.
They stabbed you?
They stabbed me as I was getting in the car because I hit one of them.
And so tell us as much as you can then about those first moments. You're in the car on the floor, and what are you thinking? What are they saying?
They spoke Pashto, so I didn't understand what they were saying. They got on the phone.
They tried to cover me up as much as possible with my scarf, with the two bags that I had. I had my knapsack and our camera bag with me. So they tried to put that on top of me, because they were afraid that maybe police or other people would drive by and know that they had me.
They wouldn't let me raise my hand. They wouldn't let me raise my head. One of the guys had his foot on my leg, so I couldn't move. I think that was one of the scariest moments because I didn't know what was happening.
I realized that something probably pretty bad was happening, and I didn't know where I was going.
Were you yelling? Were you quiet?
I kept asking, what are you doing? Where are you taking me? Where are we going? But one thing they said is 'We're not going to kill you.' They said that in English: 'I'm not going to kill you,' the guy who grabbed me.
And all this time, you're bleeding from this stab wound. What are you thinking?
I don't know what I was thinking. I just was thinking, how am I going to get out of here? Where am I going? Who are these people? He said he was Talib. The guy who grabbed me who said, 'I'm not going to kill you,' he said, I'm Talib.
So immediately, I thought, this can't be good, right? They're Taliban, and I don't know, we've all heard enough stories about how Taliban work when they take hostages to know that I thought it was not going to be good.
But they did say, 'We're not going to kill you.' So, I had to sort of believe them.
And as they were taking you away, your fixer was there. Were you yelling to him? Was he yelling? Were you able to say anything to him as you went away?
It happened so quickly. I remember yelling his name, and then I said, 'Don't call the police; call Paul,' my colleague in Kandahar at CTV, because he'd know what to do. I just thought if police got involved, I knew that they wanted money. Because that's usually how they operate when they kidnap somebody, right?
You knew that instinctively?
And you had a cellphone with you.
I had two cellphones with me. One was in the knapsack, and the other I had in my pocket. They took the one in my knapsack.
They didn't know I had the one in my pocket. So while I was in the car, I slipped it down the front of my pants. It was the only way I could think of to maybe keep it for a while.
So you're thinking already about what you may be able to do to get out of this in the midst of being terrified?
I don't think I was terrified. I was frightened, but I was thinking about how I'm going to get out of this, right? Like what's the best possible thing I can do.
What are things I can do to try to convince them to let me go or get help right away. I think it's just instinctive when you're in a situation like that. I think anybody would have probably done the same thing.
And so they were driving you. How long did you drive for? What happened?
It felt like a very long drive, about 20 minutes at least, and they were always looking behind them to see if they were being followed by police or anybody else. They were very nervous. I felt that they were nervous during that whole drive.
So you could actually see them from where you were?
Yeah, I was sort of, you know, on the floor of the passenger... the backseat of the car, and I could see them.
They weren't masked or anything like that?
No, they weren't masked.
Were they young, older? What did they look like?
Young. Since then, I had asked them their ages, and they say they're 18, 19, 20, around there. They always say, you know, I think I'm about 18, 19 or 20, 21.
So, they could speak that much English but not a lot?
One, I call him Khaled, he spoke better English and was able to at least communicate.
So, they drove you for about 20 minutes, they stopped and got out, then what?
They stopped at the sort of real outskirts of town, I felt, and we got out, and I saw just mountains, hills. So, we had actually stopped at sort of the base of a hill or a mountain. We got out, and they took me on a two, three-hour hike through the mountains.
They just started walking?
They just started walking, and they said, go, come.
And you could see everything. They hadn't blindfolded you?
They hadn't blindfolded me. I had lost a contact lens when they put me into the car, so I was kind of half-blind as we were walking through the mountains.
What's your eyesight like without a lens in one eye?
Not very good, limited, but at least I had the lens in the other eye still.
So, as you're walking, what kinds of things... Are you numb? Are you thinking things? What's going through your head?
I was bleeding. I didn't know where I was. I thought maybe I could run, but they had guns, so probably I didn't think that would be a great idea. And I kept asking them, 'Where are we going? Where are you taking me?' They said, you know, 'We're going somewhere; we're taking you somewhere.'
What time of day was this by this time?
By this time, it was sort of mid-afternoon. I would guess 1 or 2 o'clock.
So, we're still in broad daylight.
Still in broad daylight, and it's interesting. Every time they heard an airplane, we had to stop and sit down on the ground and not move because they were very afraid that I had a GPS. They kept saying, 'You have a GPS. You have a GPS.' I said, 'No, I don't.'
You have my phone, there's no GPS. They took everything out of my knapsack, and they found my Nike watch, which they thought was a GPS. And they smashed it with a rock thinking it was a GPS.
And they still didn't know about the cellphone at this point.
No, they didn't know about the cellphone until it beeped, and then they were very angry when that happened.
Why did it beep?
I got a message.
You said they were angry.
They said I lied to them that I only had one phone, and I said, 'I just forgot that I had this one in my pocket.' And then they took that, too. They took the sim card out of it and took the battery out, put it in their pocket.
So you never got to make a phone call with that phone?
I did. About an hour, an hour and a half later, we stopped the walk. We were sort of at the top of a hill, and I convinced them to let me call Paul because I said, you know, he's going to be worried. I need to let my family know where I am. Everyone is going to be worried, let me make a phone call, and they did.
Very short phone call. I just said, 'I'm OK. They want money.'
They said they want money. They said, 'We're not going to kill you. We just want money.'
And then what happened?
And then we waited sort of at the top of this hill for what seemed like half an hour, no sense of time at this point. The sun was going down.
We waited at the top of this hill, and then another person drove up in a motorcycle, and he had Afghan garb that men wear —huge, I mean, four times as big as me. They put it on me, put me in the back of the motorcycle and drove into town. It was about a half hour drive into town.
Oh, so you went right through a town?
Right through a town. I don't know where I was.
And where did they take you in that town?
They took me sort of to the edge of town, again. We stopped. By the time we stopped, it was dark out, so I'm guessing it would have been … 5:30, 6 o'clock.
It was dark, and they took me into this old sort of bombed out house where we waited for about an hour, and I said, 'Is this where you're going to keep me?' And they said, 'No, no, no. We're going somewhere, going somewhere better.' So we waited for about an hour, and then they led me sort of up a little hill, and that's when I saw the hole in the ground.
What did it look like?
It was literally a hole in the ground, maybe about — not much bigger than this chair, the seat of this chair, and they said, 'That's where you're going.' I said, 'I'm not going in there. There's no way I'm going in that hole.'
And they said, 'No, that's where you'll stay.' I said, 'I'm not going. I'll just sleep out here.' One of the guys just picked me up and threw me in the hole, and that's when I realized there was a tunnel in the hole, and then it led to sort of a small hole, a room, small room, no bigger than … anybody's closet, really, … about five feet high.
Three feet wide, maybe five feet long, five and a half feet long.
Was there anything in there?
They put blankets on the ground, and they had a light bulb with a battery.
And was there like a vent or just that hole that you went [in]?
No, there were two vents. Two vents, two pipes on either side that they built in to let air in, which they covered on the outside with rocks so that nobody could tell.
So what were you thinking? To see this hole and get thrown in, what was going through your mind?
I don't know. I don't know. I remember I wasn't scared. For some reason, I wasn't. I didn't feel scared, but I just thought, nobody's ever going to find me here.
That's the first thing that went through my mind. Nobody's ever going to find me here. I'm in a hole in the middle of nowhere where, I don't even know where I am, right. But, you know, it's funny how your mind and body can adapt.
You just sort of accept that, you know, I'm going to be here for a while, and hopefully, help's going to come.
Is that what you told yourself?
So, you went in there, and did they follow you down?
They had one person stay with me the whole time. They said because I was a woman, somebody had to stay with me 24/7. If I was a man, they would have chained me up, left me alone for days. So in that way, you know, I was lucky that I wasn't in chains and left alone.
And the person with you, was it the same person?
The brother, it was the older brother of my kidnapper.
And how did you know that?
He told me.
So, he spoke some English?
He spoke English. Again, you know, the first thing we all think about, too, is you've been taken by these guys, you're a woman, you are in the middle of nowhere.
What about your safety? Did they hurt you?
Other than the stabbing. They were really concerned about my stab wounds. He brought water in to clean the blood off, but it was still bleeding through the night, and they were very concerned about it.
Generally, they didn't hit me; they didn't beat me. They always brought juice and cookies into the hole and wanted to make sure that I was eating.
But that's all they gave you?
That's all they gave me.
You've lost weight, huh?
Yeah, I have, and I think I have two cavities in my mouth from eating juice and cookies for four weeks and not being able to brush my teeth.
Were you in the same place the whole time in this hole in the ground?
I was in the same place except for one day last week that I wasn't there.
Every night, they changed. A new guard comes in. Around 8 o'clock, they dig up the hole. Whoever was staying with me the night before leaves, and somebody else comes. They do 24-hour shifts to stay with me.
So, the last week, I think it might have been the Tuesday night, they dug up the hole, and they blindfolded me and took me out of the hole.
That's the other time I was scared because I didn't know where I was going. Anytime you're blindfolded, I think you become afraid because you don't know what's happened. You can't see. You don't know where you're going. So, they led me on a walk, into the edge of town, took the blindfold off, and I said, 'Where are we going?'
And they said, 'We're going somewhere safer. We're afraid of police.' So, they took me on a four-hour hike up to the top of this mountain. It was really hard.
After three weeks of sitting there, not getting any exercise, you know, and I'm pretty fit, right. I'm a runner, but three weeks of sitting there and not getting any exercise, they took me on this four-hour hike up the mountain. I was exhausted.
You weren't really eating properly. And they took you up there for how long?
We spent the night. By the time we got up there, they found a small hole between rocks, and they said, 'We're staying here tonight.' They brought blankets, more juice and more cookies. We spent the night.
We got there about midnight and slept and stayed the whole next day. There was something in place for my release the next day, and they had thought that, you know, from that spot, we would walk back to Kabul.
And this was how far into your captivity?
This was the last week.
The last week. Before that, you had been put in the hole. They had covered it over? Tell me a little more about that.
When they took me out, they blindfolded me, so I couldn't see, but I thought they covered the wood. There was a bit of a door, and they would cover it with dirt. So every night when they came, they would cause a huge dust storm in the hole by digging up the top.
Are you claustrophobic? The very idea that they covered it over and uncovered it...
I couldn't let myself think about that.
Tell me more about that space. What were the walls like?
Walls, yeah, hard walls. On one side, there were some bricks on top. There was a ceramic ceiling, two beams. Those two vents I told you about. It was dark, no daylight.
No daylight except for some of the beams let in a little speck of light. That's how I knew it was day. I also had a small clock there, so it told me what time it was.
They gave you a clock?
Because they smashed your watch by this point.
Were there things crawling around in there?
No, surprisingly. And anybody who knows me knows I hate bugs, but there were no bugs. The last week, there were a few flies, but other than that...
If you needed to use the toilet, what happened?
They had a bucket there that they put at the entrance of the room, and they would turn around or put their scarf on and turn around if I had to use the bathroom to give me some privacy.
So there was always somebody with you those times, too?
The first three weeks.
And so did you develop any kind of a rapport with them? Tell us a little more about how you dealt with that person in that little room with you.
Only one person spoke enough English that I could develop a relationship, and that was my kidnapper, Khaled.
He was about 18, 19, and he really was worried about my stab wound. He was worried that I was sick. He was worried that — he was worried that I would cry out, right, which is why they stayed with me a little bit.
I found out, he told me, it was his family, this kidnapping business is what his family does. His older brother was the one that stayed with me the first night.
When he left, he took all my identification and phone numbers to, he said, their father in Pakistan, who is going to, you know, 'deal with what it's going to cost to get you out.' And so Khaled only does the kidnapping, doesn't negotiate. He says, 'I leave that all to my father in Pakistan.'
So, he talked a bit about his father. I asked him a lot of questions. I was interviewing him, right, because really, there's not much else you can do when you're stuck in a hole together for 24 hours.
I found out a bit about [his family]. There's five brothers, one sister, father and mother in Pakistan. He had an uncle with him, and the other people sort of in that group where I was staying were all his friends.
So, it's a family business?
And why did they pick you? Did he tell you?
I asked him that, why he picked me, and he said, 'I saw you. I wasn't sure at first if you were [a] foreigner, but we were in a hurry. We really, you know, needed to get out of there, so we grabbed you.' He said, 'I would have preferred to take a man. Not so much trouble. We don't have to stay with a man.'
So your kidnapping was random? Like if they hadn't driven by at that moment and seen you...
That's what he tells me. I don't know. I don't know.
That's incredible, huh?
It seems, yeah, it seems incredible.
And as you got all of this information from him, what were you thinking?
Just thinking how best to use it in terms of how best to ensure my own safety. I made him promise that he wouldn't kill me, made him swear to Allah and on the Qur'an that he would not.
I said, 'You promised you wouldn't kill me, so you swear.' And he said, 'I swear, I'm not going to kill you. My father's asking for money. Once the money comes, I will take you back to the camp where I found you.' So I made him swear to that enough times, but I think he really started to worry about me because about the third week, I was being sick.
I wasn't really sick, but I told him that I had pains, and I wasn't feeling well, and he became very, very concerned to the point that he brought me — he called doctors to ask what, you know, what it could possibly be. He brought medicine for me. I don't know what it was, I didn't take it because it looked expired, but…
And you weren't feeling sick?
I wasn't feeling sick, no. I thought that they would worry and try to expedite the process to get me out of there if they thought that I was very sick.
Where did you come up with these ideas? Was this just your idea? Did you take a training course that suggested these kinds of things might help you?
I don't know. I think it's just instinct. By the time you've spent 24/7 with your kidnappers for two, two and a half weeks, you kind of get a sense of, you know... I think they were quite anxious to get me out of there, too, because I don't think they liked going into the hole every night to stay with me.
So, I kind of picked up on the fact that they wanted to, as he called it, finish my case as soon as possible.
So, I thought, if they think I'm sick, maybe, you know, they'll get the father in Pakistan moving along and then see what happens. But, no, we take a course when we go to places like this, a hostile-environment course. They don't teach you how to be a hostage. If somebody's pointing a gun at you, you don't really have much of a choice.
So, you went on your own instincts? You knew they were negotiating for you, and he talked to you about that. Did he tell you how much money they wanted?
He said he didn't know how much money they wanted. That was not his work. That was his father's work.
Did he tell you how many other people they kidnapped in the past?
Funny, they told me when I arrived, the first week, they had two other people at least there. He said they were Europeans, and then a week later, he said, 'The money came for them, and they just left today. So, once money comes for you, you can leave, too.'
And so in that time you were there with mostly Khaled, but others, did they let you read? Did they give you anything to do to occupy your time? Did you literally just have to sit there and look at them?
I mostly had to sit there and look at them. They brought a couple of, they said English books, but really it was books they had from school, teaching Afghans how to speak English.
There was a lot of textbooks that they brought that weren't very entertaining.
Did they let you write anything?
Yes, they let me keep my notebook so I kept a diary and wrote letters.
Who did you write letters to?
Why did you do that?
To keep myself occupied. I wanted to keep a record of everything. This happened today, this person stayed with me today, and some of it was pretty mundane.
You know, I woke up at 6 a.m. I can't sleep. Ate two cookies. Drank some pomegranate juice. I just wanted to keep as much of a record as I could. I also wanted to know where I was, and one day, one of my guards told me the Taliban shot down a helicopter close by.
So, I made a note on that. On this day, maybe I could go back and if that was true, maybe I could get to where they were keeping me. So I tried to keep as many details in my notebook as possible.
Were you also writing letters to say goodbye?
You didn't —
It was not an option for me. I couldn't let myself go there.
Was that a conscious thing that you said, I'm not going to do that?
No, it was: 'I'm not dying here.'
Tell me more about what you said to yourself to get through that.
I'm getting out of here. I'm not dying here. Dying is not an option. Help is coming. I will get out of here one way or another.
I just had to keep telling myself that, and that's not to say there weren't some really awful days, right. Like the kidnappers were — they tried to make me feel better.
They'd come in and say, 'Two or three more days, and then you'll leave.' 'Two or three more days, and then you'll leave.' Three weeks later, four weeks later, you know, I was still there. So there were some days I thought, 'OK, when am I ever going to get the hell out of here?' But I couldn't let myself really go there because I would spiral into the last thing I wanted to happen at that point. You can't.
Are you religious?
Yes. Funny, they let me keep a small pocket rosary in my pocket, which they took out the first day and kind of threw on the ground. I said, can I have that? They gave it back to me, so I prayed with that.
What else did they take from you?
Everything. My notebooks. In the end, when I was released, they wouldn't let me keep them. They took my knapsack, which had makeup. It had a bunch of cords for my Marantz [audio recorder]. It had the charger for the video camera that my fixer had. They took that bag. They took the camera bag, everything. They let me keep my passport. I kept my passport in my pocket, which they never searched. So, I kept that. They let me keep my credit cards. They went through everything, right, and I kept saying, 'This is no good to you. It only works in Canada.' So, they let me keep all of that stuff. And when I left, they gave me my wallet and my cards, and that was —
Were you able to sleep down there? Were you able to actually get rest?
No, not comfortable. It was very damp and cold the last couple of weeks, so I wasn't sleeping, and that was the hardest thing. I thought, you know, if I could sleep, I could at least kill time. My guards slept. They would come in at 8, sleep at 9 until noon the next day. I could never. I would maybe sleep a couple of hours at a time, if that, and never during the day.
I'm still trying to picture you in this small place with somebody who is either talking to you or sleeping, and you can't move and… What other kinds of things would you say to yourself just to get yourself through that?
Really, just one consistent thing: I'm getting out of here. I made plans. Before all this happened, I was supposed to move back to Toronto. I drew a calendar, and I said if I get out today, I can still get home by this day and still be able to move to Toronto. I just made plans. I planned to have a Christmas party. I planned my vacation. I planned — I just made plans. This is the stuff I'm going to do when I get out.
So, you were in a head space that said, I have a future. This is not going to be it.
Absolutely, and I think that was vital.
Did you ever get emotional with them? Did you get angry with them?
Yes, I got angry a lot with them, [saying] 'I've got to get out of here,' especially when I started faking my pain. 'I'm going to be very sick if you don't let me go.' I cried once, and I don't remember what instigated it, but Khaled was very, very upset when I was crying. He held my hand, he said, 'Please don't cry. You're leaving. It will be soon. Don't cry, don't cry.' So, I always knew, I had to believe that I was getting out. I think even they wanted me to get out.
That was the message they were giving?
Now, so you knew that their father was negotiating, but did you have any idea the kind of negotiations that were going on, who might be where trying to get you out?
None. I thought they would have brought an AKE, or somebody to help out with the negotiations.
The security firm, right?
Yes, the one we take the hostile-training course with, but I really didn't know what was going on. I had no idea. They would say things like, 'The money is not coming. Your company is not talking to us. They don't have the money.' They would say things like that, but they lie all the time. So, I could never pinpoint them on what the truth was and what was really going on. They just kept deferring to this father in Pakistan.
And did they say that they were talking to government people, too? Did they talk about how valuable they thought you were or anything like that?
They said that other Taliban were offering them money for me. They said — Khaled came in one day and said, 'I've got a Taliban friend who is offering me a lot of money for you, but I say, No, I only want what my father ask in Pakistan.'
So, that suggests there were people who wanted to trade off and take you further, like, into that hostage chain?
Yeah, I wasn't sure if that was true or not. I tended to believe it wasn't true. It was a threat. Because he didn't really want me — he was so afraid that I would yell out or, you know, there were people. I could hear people walking over the hole sometimes. He was afraid that I would yell out. He said, 'You don't want to make any noise because if other Taliban know that you're here, they will kill me and take you, and you don't want that.'
So, they said they were Taliban, but they also admitted that they were essentially a criminal gang?
They said, yeah, they said they were Taliban, but I never really believed they were Taliban. They didn't seem organized enough or political enough to be Taliban. They didn't have a video camera, you know.
Is that what the Taliban would do?
In all the kidnappings that I've read about in the past, Taliban are pretty organized. They're political. It's not always just about money, and, you know, they take video, and they release it widely. Didn't happen in my case. They didn't have a camera.
Was there any point when you wanted to negotiate for yourself? Did you try —?
I tried that the first day, to negotiate by myself. I had a bit of money in the safe in my hotel, and I said, 'We can go back there. I'll give you what I have. And, you know, it's over today.'
They weren't interested?
They had to call Dad in Pakistan before they could do anything.
Did you ever hear them on the phone?
And what was that like?
I wish I understood Pashto. I kept saying, damn, I wish I understood Pashto. Then I got very angry towards the third week. They got bored being in the hole so they would call their friends, and I said, 'It's not fair. I can't make a phone call. You know, if you're going to be in here, don't call your friends.'
You told them off?
Yeah. I said, you know, 'It's not fair to me. You're on the phone, and I can't pick up the phone.'
And what did they say?
OK. Then they got off the phone.
So, you nagged them?
You got a lot of gall.
They didn't have any — you know, they didn't carry weapons in there for the first two weeks. The third week, they started bringing their guns in there because they said they were afraid of police.
So something was changing.
Something was changing that third week.
Could you hear outside that something was changing, too?
No, there was one day when Khaled was very nervous. He was very preoccupied. It was the morning. 'I said, what's wrong? You're unhappy about something.' And he said, 'I'm not going to tell you now. I'll tell you this afternoon.' So then he got a phone call and he said, 'OK, I'll tell you now. Police are all around like this area. That's why I was so upset.'
Were they looking for you?
I have no idea. Anna Maria, nobody would have found me. I'm convinced nobody would have found this hole.
So if it wasn't for the negotiations that did take place…
Yeah, and negotiations I knew had to be happening, right. So I knew help was coming, but that was the only way. Nobody was going to find me.
You know, as part of its plan for reporters in war zones, the CBC, you do know this, has this proof of life thing that they do. That you're supposed to have some kind of answers that would prove that you're alive if they give that answer to the people they're talking to back home. Did that happen?
It happened three times. It happened the second Sunday after I was taken, and those were the basic proof of life questions. Where did you go to school? Those are the ones we fill out before we go. Where did you go to school? What city were you born in? So, it gave me great hope when they asked me those questions, because I knew then that something was happening. They were talking to the CBC or somebody about trying to get me out of there.
The second time they asked me — what did they ask me? What colour my school tie was. And keep in mind, the person asking the question is sort of at the top of the hole yelling down those two vents, right, and really couldn't spell very well. That's right, they asked me my piano teacher's name and what colour my school tie was. I said, school tie? I didn't wear a tie in high school.
So what was the question supposed to be?
I think the question, I'm told later, was what was your sister's favourite toy?
So we're talking lost in translation?
But that was the information that the negotiators needed to know that you were still alive?
Right, but I don't know if the question got back because I did answer maroon as a school tie. I never wore a tie in high school because ties were reserved for exceptional students who were prefects. You work through this in your head. They must have been talking to my sister because she was a prefect, and she wore a maroon tie, so that's why I answered maroon. But that was no question at all.
This happened three times, you said?
Happened three times. The third time was really the last week, and that was, you know, who my sister's favourite hockey player was, and I can't remember the other question.
You must have been thinking about your family a lot, huh? You knew they would be worried.
I was so worried about them. I was so worried about everybody who was out here, all my friends, my family worrying about me. I knew everybody had to be worried sick, and that was the hardest part because I knew I was OK. I couldn't communicate that. I couldn't tell anybody. I knew everybody was worried. And that was the hardest, most frustrating thing. I couldn't tell anybody I was OK.
That last week that they had you there, things changed again. Tell us about that.
Yeah, they had said that on the third week, they said, your case is finished on Sunday. It will be finished on Sunday. Sunday came, and they dug up the hole. I thought I was getting out, but they were very, very angry. They brought in a chain, and they said, we're leaving you alone tonight.
So, they shackled my ankles to my wrist and left a bag of juice and cookies and covered the hole. I said, 'How long are you going to leave me here? You can't leave me here. I'm very sick. I've got to see a doctor.' [They said] '[A] few days.' So — and that was hard, to be left alone. As much as, you know, I couldn't communicate with some of my guards, it was almost sometimes better to just have somebody there, right? But two days later, they came and dug me up and took me up to the mountain. So, it wasn't that long.
And when they took you up to the mountain, that was — earlier, you talked about them being up in the mountain.
And then they brought you back to the hole.
Yeah, and chained me up until I was released.
They chained you. Did they blindfold you at that point?
No, I was never blindfolded when I was in the hole. Just every time they took me out.
So you were chained back in there until you were released. What happened that day that you were released?
I wasn't sure, I had no idea what was happening. About 6 o'clock that night, that was about the third day I was left alone chained up. They would drop more juice and cookies down the vent, so I knew I wasn't — That morning, they dropped more down the vent, so I didn't think I was getting out anytime soon.
Around 6 o'clock that night, one of the kidnappers yelled down and said, 'Tomorrow, you leave. You're going to Kabul tomorrow.' I said, 'What time?' [They said] 'Evening.' Always in the evening. They would never dig up the hole during the day. I said, 'Are you sure? Because you're telling me this every day. I don't believe you anymore.' He goes, 'No, no, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.'
An hour and a bit later, they came back and said, 'We're going now.' I said, 'What do you mean now? I thought we were going tomorrow?' They started digging up the hole, put a blindfold on me. They came in and unchained me, put a blindfold on me and led me on an hour-and-a-half walk through what I thought was a great field because, you know, there were lots of bumps in the road.
And did they talk to you? Did they tell you where you were going?
They said, 'You're going to Kabul. You're going to Kabul. You're going to Kabul.' I said, 'Are you sure? You're not taking me somewhere?' And Khaled said, 'I told you I'm not going to kill you, and I'm not happy because I'm letting you go for no money.' And I didn't understand what was going on at that point at all. So, I just had to trust that I was going. I couldn't think anything else.
You just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other?
So how long did that go on for?
About a half an hour after they unblindfolded me. We were on a road, we walked another half-hour, and I saw some sort of figures in the dark, and a car parked, and we sort of walked up to the car or up to — yeah, up to the car, and my kidnapper said, goodbye.
Just like that?
What did you say?
I didn't know if I was being handed over, traded. I didn't know what was going on until this man took me and said, 'Hello, how are you?' And put me in the back of the car.
Who was he?
Works for the Afghan intelligence service as it turns out. As we drove away, I could see that there were dozens of armed guards surrounding the area and about a dozen cars, a dozen SUVs sort of parked along the side of the road.
And what did you think?
I thought, 'Where are we going?' He said, 'We're going to Kabul.' But I didn't know what had happened. I didn't know who these people were. You know, I didn't know what was going on. I knew it couldn't be bad because he said, 'We're going to Kabul,' and there were all these — they looked official.
Was there a sense of relief or just...?
I wasn't completely relieved until we did get to Kabul, and they took me into the office of the head of the Afghan intelligence service.
So they really didn't explain much.
They didn't speak English.
Oh, nothing, really?
No, they couldn't speak English very well.
So, you had to ride in silence?
Yeah, they said, 'It's OK. It's OK.'
Did they give you a phone or anything?
Yes, I tried to make a couple phone calls but couldn't get through. I did call my parents. They said, you can call Canada. So, I called my parents from the back of the car.
What was that like?
It was great. I talked to my dad.
What did he say?
He was so relieved. So relieved. I said, 'I'll call you back later.'
And how did you feel when you heard his voice?
I was so relieved. I was so relieved he was OK because I was way more worried about my parents than I was about myself. I knew what they were worrying. They had to be so upset.
Everybody says your parents were pillars of strength.
I know, I've heard that since. I've heard that since.
So, they brought you to the Afghan intelligence place. We saw pictures. Is that where you sat and explained things?
Yes, but I didn't know there was a video camera there. The last thing I wanted after being held for 28 days was to have my picture taken. So, the head of the service, Amrullah Saleh, called the ambassador, Ron Hoffman, to come and get me, and that's when I knew it was going to be OK, I was home.
What did you say?
That was it?
Thank you. He asked some questions. He wanted to know the kidnappers' names. I asked him where I was. He thought he had a pretty good idea of where I was. He seemed to know who these people were. You know, when I said there's a guy named Khaled, a guy named Shafir Gala, he seemed to know the names and asked me to describe the hole I was being held in, and he nodded and said, yeah.
So they knew something about this family and what they were up to?
Yeah, and obviously, this was not the first time they'd dealt with a situation like this.
You know, one of the first things you did was to apologize for the trouble you put everybody through. Did you blame yourself?
I didn't so much blame myself as I just felt bad that everybody was so worried. I knew I was OK. I knew I was going to be OK, but what was hard was that I knew that my parents, my friends didn't. They had no information. They didn't know where I was. That was the hardest part about all of this.
You seem like such a tranquil person. Did that help you?
I'm not always tranquil. I think that helped me, too, but I know myself pretty well. I think that helped me. I knew in my mind where I could go and where I couldn't go those 28 days. So, I just didn't let myself go to those places where I knew I couldn't go.
So your mind was always turning?
You were taking care of yourself.
How about the stab wound by this point? What had happened?
It scabbed over by this point. It was a huge ugly scab, big, big, huge, and the third week, going into the fourth week, it fell off, so I took that as a really good sign. I wrote that in my diary. 'Scabs fell off. Must be good sign.' Wish I had that diary because then, you know, I could tell you everything, but I'm kind of going on memory now.
They took it away from you?
They wouldn't let me take it that last night when they were walking me.
Your fixer and translator, Shakur, who was there the day you were taken, was arrested after and jailed. He's still there. The allegations are, the suspicions are, that he was somehow involved. It's not the first time you'd worked with him. It's not the first time other people had worked with him, too. From what you know of him, does it seem possible?
No. And that was one of the first things that I wrote in my diary. I was thinking about Shakur and how awful he must have felt that I was kidnapped. I knew, I just know, there's no way Shakur could have been involved, and I think every other journalist who has worked with Shakur would say the same thing.
Have you been able to get any word to him?
One of the RCMP investigators went to see him yesterday. He's being held in custody, and I told him to just tell Shakur that, you know, I'm thinking about him and I know he didn't do this. I know he couldn't have been involved, there's no way. I knew he had to have felt awful.
You know, throughout this whole thing, every Western news organization knew about you and agreed not to say anything. The CBC asked them not to because of concern for your safety. What do you think about that decision when you found out about that?
I was surprised. I thought for sure it would already be in the media. I was really surprised. If the CBC, you know, and the experts they called felt that was the right thing to do, then that was the right thing to do. I know there's a great debate about it. I've heard that people at home are debating whether it should have been made public or not, but, you know, if the advice is that's what we should do, that's... and everybody agreed, right?
Are you surprised?
I am surprised.
That everybody agreed?
I am surprised because as a journalist, right, I'd want to report on it, but if you're talking about somebody's life, right, I think that sort of supercedes a good story, and I thank everybody for co-operating.
And, you know, I guess it depends on the place because you probably remember the story of Alan Johnson taken in Gaza, and it was headline news for a very long time, and no one asked that they be quiet even though there had been other cases. There was a BBC reporter kidnapped and that, too, was kept quiet earlier this year until he was released.
That, you know, whatever the decision is, maybe sometimes it's different for different cases, but I just kind of have to trust the experts who made that recommendation that it was the best one. It was really, you know, if it helped, then it worked, right?
What do you know now about the kinds of negotiations that went on? There were reports that there were prisoner exchanges, reports that JTF-2 was left on hold, Canada's commando unit, just in case they could help you.
I didn't know about any of that.
Did you hear any of this?
No, but I read a Globe and Mail article the other day that was totally wrong. I had to laugh because none of it was true except they got my name right.
What was it about?
It was about trading up, that I traded hands three times and — I don't remember the details. But I had to laugh because there was nothing about it that was right except they spelled my name right.
I now understand that Afghan intelligence had sort of fingered the family of the ringleader of this gang and had arrested a whole bunch of them, and it was a prisoner exchange that they agreed to release the family if the group would release me, and that's what ended up happening.
But that was directly related to the people that took you as opposed to other prisoners.
There were never any other prisoners.
Yeah, OK. Of all of the things that you thought about and that you might have learned since, you know, what you've been through, is there anything that you think has changed you or that will change you because you've gone through this?
I don't know. Maybe. But maybe that's a better question a month down the road. I don't know. It's still kind of fresh right now, and I've had trouble sleeping. I've had trouble sleeping. I'm trying to erase the faces of my kidnappers from my memory.
Are there things that just come into — images that come into your head sometimes?
The ceiling, which I was staring at the whole time. I see that ceiling sometimes, but I think, you know, as time passes, it will fade. I want to get back to my normal life as soon as possible.
You want to get back to reporting?
Would you want to go to a place like that again? Would you go back there?
I would, but I think my family and my friends would not let me.
Do you think you might change your mind when you are a little more removed?
Maybe. Maybe. One of the worst things is I'm not going to be able to tell that story that I went to tell in the first place — about the refugees — and I kept thinking about that while I was in the hole, you know. How am I going to be able to tell the story? I want to go back to the camp when I get out and, you know, retake those pictures with my still camera and still put up a photo gallery for our web site. You know, I still wish I could tell that story.
I was going to ask you what you want us to know about this in relation to how you feel about covering war and covering the people in war. You obviously think that's really important.
I obviously think it's important that we tell the stories of the people who are kind of caught in the middle. These people I talked to at the camp didn't care whether it was Taliban or coalition forces that were bombing their homes. They just had no home. They had nowhere to go, right, so these camps are springing up all around Kabul, people who have no place to go, and those are the people whose stories need to get out there. Those are the real casualties of war, of this war.
Are you surprised at the attention your story is getting?
Yes, I think I'm getting too much attention compared to —
You don't like that?
No. I'm the worst person this could happen to. I'm low-key.
You know, a lot happened while you were in there. Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
I know, and those were my first two questions to the ambassador when he came to pick me up that night. Who won the elections? Because I missed both of them.
They didn't tell you? Khaled didn't tell you?
No, he had no idea that there were even elections going on. I did ask them. He didn't know what I was talking about.
What about sports? You're a real Canucks fan, aren't you? I guess not quite the full season yet, but were you thinking about stuff like that?
I was thinking about stuff like that. Actually, there was one other time I managed to get a note out to everybody. It was when they said, 'We need to take a video of you. You need to talk for a good 15 minutes, but we don't have a video camera.' I said, 'What kind of kidnappers are you that you don't have a video camera?' 'We need this video.' 'Well, what are you going to do without the video?' 'I don't know. It's going to take days to get a video camera.' I said, 'I don't have days. I'm very sick.'
So I said, 'What about if write a note, and you can read it? At the end of the note —'. They had told me whoever they were talking to didn't believe that they really had me. They didn't believe it was me. So I said, 'OK, I'll write a note, and they'll believe., I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about my parents going on vacation and my sister, and at the very end of the note, I wrote, 'Go, Canucks.' And they said, 'What is this, Go, Canucks?' And I said, 'Just read it. They'll know it's me.'
It's an amazing story. But you know, we see these stories, and you come out, and you're sitting here and talking to me, and it all seems fine, and then you're going to go away and deal with your life. Are you worried about what you might have to deal with down the road because of what happened to you?
No. I've had four weeks to kind of think about what's been going on as it's been going on. I have no doubt that I'll probably, you know, I'd like to maybe talk to somebody down the road, but I feel pretty good.
I feel pretty good. And I just want to get back to my normal life as soon as I can.
Thanks. It's good to be back.