By Dawa Khan Meenapal
I was in Kabul when Azizullah Popal, my friend and an employee of local Kandahar station Hewad TV, turned to me.Azizullah had intended to catch a flight home from the capital — his family was insisting that he must get to Kandahar soon to see his ailing mother. But all the flights to Kandahar were booked, and he asked me to drive him to southern Afghanistan. So the two of us set off together in my Toyota Corolla sedan.
It was a sunny winter day and we wanted to get the six-hour journey, along one of our country’s most treacherous routes, behind us as quickly as possible. The nearly 500-kilometer Kabul-to-Kandahar highway is a major artery connecting the Afghan people that is now notorious for being a Taliban hunting ground. I remember how, after being opened to traffic in late 2003, this road was touted as a success in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
Police protection recedes in the rearview mirror as motorists make their way from the capital on the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway. Recent kidnappings and attacks on Afghan and international forces on this road had provided fresh reminders of how dangerous the journey could be. By early afternoon, halfway through our journey as we reached a particularly dangerous stretch of highway in Zabul Province, I was getting more anxious. Soon I spotted a roadblock just outside the small town of Shahjoy. As I slowed my car to see what was going on, two armed men rushed toward us and pointed their guns at me and told me to pull over to the side of the road. After I shut off the engine, they ordered us into another car. We were surrounded by gunmen, and I could see that one of them was now behind the wheel of my car. Very soon, we were heading toward the mountains.
Our captors were mostly local Taliban from Zabul who quickly established our identities. They told us that they would not tie our hands or torture us, but made clear that it was their leaders who would determine our fates. They were all young men in their twenties.
Villagers, like these men in Zabul, were too frightened to confront the armed captors.They took us to a small village nearby. Soon we were in the guest room of a mud house. In a way, we all were forced guests of the poor family who gave us bread, rice, and dried meat. In this part of Afghanistan, villagers are simply too fearful to confront any armed men — whether from the government, its armed opposition, or even bandits. So they extend hospitality to anyone who asks for it. In some villages, local residents were so poor that all they could offer was dry bread and water.The region has been ravaged by a recent drought that destroyed the subsistence farming and killed the sheep and goats that provide livelihoods for so many people in the region.
Over the course of the next four days, the Taliban constantly moved us from one remote mountain village to another. They drove us around in a pick-up truck they had snatched from a local reconstruction firm. Some armed Taliban also drove on motorbikes at times forming a security cordon around it. Some of the journeys — over dirt roads and rocky desert — were bone-jarring.Every time they took us to a new village, the Taliban who looked after us behaved decently.
The commander who was responsible for abducting us was particularly kind to us. The locals everywhere questioned the Taliban’s decision to abduct local journalists. We were not tortured at any point during our captivity.Finally FreeOn November 30, the Taliban finally freed us. They returned my car, mobile phone, all our equipment, and all our money and documents. I had gradually discovered that many of my captors were avid Radio Free Afghanistan (RFA) listeners.
Many people in that southern region listen to our broadcasts, and the Taliban in particular. They never complained of any one-sidedness in RFA’s coverage, I would note, although they frequently lamented that “the media” did not give them fair coverage.During our captivity, local commanders repeatedly told me that their leaders wanted us to remember that we should always be independent journalists. I told them that we are independent journalists and our radio is independent with a policy of fairness. We follow internationally established principles of [balanced] journalism. And we will keep doing so forever — again and again.