'Dying is not an option': CBC journalist Fung describes Afghan captivity

Mellissa Fung repeatedly told herself "I am not dying here" during her 28-day captivity in Afghanistan, despite being stabbed in the shoulder during her abduction, the CBC journalist said Wednesday in her first public interview since being released.

35-year-old reporter held for 28 days outside Kabul

Mellissa Fung repeatedly told herself, "I am not dying here" during her 28-day captivity in Afghanistan, despite being stabbed in the shoulder during her abduction, the CBC journalist said Wednesday.

In an exclusive interview with the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti from an undisclosed location — her first since being released Saturday — Fung said she struck one of the armed men as she was forced into a vehicle at a refugee camp in Afghanistan on Oct. 12.

"Two guys with big guns came out of the car and grabbed me," she said. "I think I hit one, and he stabbed me in the shoulder. They stabbed me as I was getting in the car.

"Next thing I knew, I was inside the car on the floor."

Fung, who is from Vancouver and is normally based in Regina, was on her second tour reporting from Afghanistan and had been in Kabul almost a month.

She described the criminal gang who held her as a "family business" eager to "finish her case" and get paid a ransom.

The lead kidnapper, Khaled, was about 19 years old, and told her his father ran the operation from Pakistan. He told her he would have preferred to take a man, because it wouldn't be "as much trouble."

"He said, 'I saw you. We were in a hurry. We needed to get out of there so we grabbed you.'"

Her driver and her translator, or "fixer," were overpowered, but not taken. They were later detained by government authorities for questioning and have yet to be released.

'We are not going to kill you'

Wounded, bleeding, and hampered by the loss of a contact lens in the abduction, Fung was then driven for about 20 minutes with one of her captors stepping on her leg to restrain her.

"One of the first things they said was, 'We're not going to kill you,'" she said. "They said it in English."

She was then taken out of the car and forced to walk for three hours to her eventual prison — a damp, cold underground chamber southwest of Kabul, where she would be held until the last week before her release on Saturday.

"I thought maybe I could run, but they had guns, so I didn’t think that was a very good idea," she said.

Fung said her captors, who had searched her bags under the suspicion she had a GPS device with her, initially were not aware she had a cellphone in her pocket.

The kidnappers soon discovered the phone when it beeped with a message. They were furious, she said, and accused her of lying, but she told them she had forgotten about it being there.

Inside the closet-sized pit at the end of the tunnel, she said, she could see daylight emerging through cracks in the makeshift beams of the ceiling.

"I was so worried about everybody, all my friends, my family," she said. "That was the hardest, most frustrating thing: I couldn't tell anybody.

"I just thought, 'Nobody's ever going to find me. I'm in a hole. I'm in the middle of nowhere."

Fung said she soon forced herself to keep positive and focus on "making plans" for when she was released, including moving to Toronto and organizing a "picnic day" with friends and family.

"I know myself pretty well  — that helped me," she said. "I just didn't let myself go to those places I couldn't go.… It's funny how your mind and body can adapt."

She said she was watched by a guard at all times and treated well by her captors, subsisting on cookies and juice given to her, and going to the bathroom in a bucket while the guard turned away.

"I would maybe sleep a couple of hours at a time, and never during the day," she said. "I think I have two cavities."

Her captors allowed her to write in her notebook, which she said she used to write letters and make a detailed account of the time spent in the cave. The notebook, her bags and camera equipment were all taken from her by her captors upon her release. "I wish I had that diary now."

She said her shoulder wound turned into a "huge, ugly scab" that eventually fell off in the third week of her captivity.

'Don't cry,' lead captor pleaded

She said only the lead kidnapper spoke English well enough, but she soon developed a rapport with him.

"I interviewed him, because there’s not much else to do," she said.

She also had him swear several times on the Qur'an that he wouldn't kill her. Seeing that he appeared sincerely worried about her health, she said she faked feeling ill in the hope of speeding up her release.

At one point, and only once during a moment of anger, she cried, only to have the lead kidnapper hold her hand and plead with her to stop, insisting she would soon be freed.

"He said, 'Please don't cry, you're leaving. It will be soon. Don't cry. Don't cry.'"

Captor complained he wasn't getting money

She also described the night she was released and how the lead captor complained to her that he wasn't getting any ransom.

"He told me, 'I am not happy. I am letting you go for no money.'" she said.

She described approaching a car parked on a road that she would soon learn belonged to Afghan intelligence officers.

"We walked up to the car and my kidnapper said, 'Goodbye,'" she said. "I didn’t know what was going on until a man said, 'Hello, how are you?' and put me in the back of the car."

Fung was then driven to the Kabul offices of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), where a camera was set up for her debriefing.

"The last thing I wanted after 28 days was to have my picture taken," she said.

NDS chief Amrullah Saleh, she said, seemed to know all the names of the people involved.

"Obviously it was not the first time they dealt with these people," she said.

She also said there was "no way" her fixer was involved in her abduction, and she pleaded for his release.

"I know he didn’t do it," she said. "I know he couldn’t have been involved."

The Canadian and Afghan governments have insisted no ransom was paid in order to have Fung released. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also said no political prisoners have been freed in exchange for the journalist.

News of the abduction had been kept secret over concerns about her safety before Afghanistan's intelligence agency secured her release.

'I want to get back to my normal life'

Fung said she was surprised by the blackout surrounding her abduction and thanked media outlets for their co-operation. She also said she understood the current debate surrounding the decision not to report her story.

"As a journalist, I'd want to report on it, but if you're talking about a life, that supercedes a good story," she said. "If it helped, then it worked, right?"

Since her release, Fung said she has had trouble sleeping, but otherwise feels in good shape.

"I am trying to erase the faces of my kidnappers in my mind," she said. "As time passes, it will fade. I want to get back to my normal life."

She said she would go back to Afghanistan, but doesn't want to put her family through the pain of worrying about her.

Her biggest regret, she said, was not being able to tell the story she went to tell in the first place about the refugee camps.

"Those are the people whose stories need to get out there. Those are the real casualties of this war," she said.

"I still wish I could tell that story."

You can follow Mellissa Fung's story on CBC Radio's The World At Six tonight, as well as World Report and The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti on Thursday. You can also tune in to CBC Television's The National and Newsworld.