Our new show, S-Town, is now live! Listen to all 7 chapters →

Transcript

Episode 03: Escaping

Note: Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Ira Glass

Previously, on Serial.

Man 1

We're like, man, is he, like, CIA or what?

Man 2

He look at us, and then he jump behind our bike. We thought he's drunk, huh?

Bowe Bergdahl

They will kill you just for the amusement of being able to shoot you.

Man 3

And it quickly became very apparent to us that the Taliban knew—

Man 4

This is fuckin' bullshit. He's in Pakistan. [LAUGHS]

Sarah Koenig

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial, one story told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig.

Right after Bowe Bergdahl first went missing from his outpost in Afghanistan, word came down that the higher-ups wanted someone from Bowe's platoon, Second Platoon Blackfoot Company, to record a message to Bowe that they'd play on local radio. They wanted it to be a voice Bowe would recognize. So they chose a guy Bowe was friends with, a guy from Louisiana.

Josh Korder

And he has a very thick Louisiana accent. So [LAUGHS] basically, he went up there and I guess they didn't like it. So they came down and they got me.

Sarah Koenig

That's Josh Korder, originally from Pennsylvania. He didn't want to make a message to Bowe. He said he felt a little disloyal to his platoon, calling out to the guy who was causing them such turmoil.

Josh Korder

But the they told me come ... they brought me up there—two officers brought me up there—and they put a piece of paper in front of me, which was a script, and said, read this.

Sarah Koenig

What was the script?

Josh Korder

It was like—it it was kind of cheesy too. It was like, "Hey, Bowe. This is Josh. We really miss you," you know, "we just want you to come back. We hope you're safe. We hope everything's goin' OK," you know, "so come back, Bowe."

I kept thinking later on that, like, for the entire five years, maybe they played the same thing. [LAUGHS] Like I was like, I wonder how long my voice has been going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, telling Bowe to come home.

Sarah Koenig

Safe to say, Bowe never heard the message. Also safe to say, Bowe was trying really hard to come home. His first year in captivity starts with an escape and ends with an escape, like shitty bookends to a terrible year.

In between the escapes, Bowe was learning necessary twisted lessons of survival: how to smile when you're in agony; that if you ask for something, such as water, you're likely to get less of it or less of something else, such as food; if you're severely dehydrated you can't really drink your own urine, because it turns into a salty brown sludge; that filth and stink are your best weapons—the more disgusting you are, the less your captors want to come near you, which means you can squirrel things away in your bedclothes. The smaller and meeker you can make yourself, the more likely the Taliban are to let you alone. And, as painful as it is to be forgotten, ultimately, that's what you want.

Bowe Bergdahl

Like, the best description I could probably give you is if you took a literally not even an animal. Uh, picture someone taking a bag, throwing it into the closet, shutting the door, and just forgetting about it.

Mark Boal

Right.

Bowe Bergdahl

That was basically how they treated me ... that those ... the majority of the time in the first year, when I was in that household with Mullah Sangeen.

Sarah Koenig

Mullah Sangeen Zadran was a commander in charge of keeping Bowe prisoner up until 2013 when Sangeen was killed in a drone strike.

Bowe Bergdahl

It was basically my interaction was a few times a day that they'd give me food and the little boys would bring it. And then, maybe once or twice a month, one of the other guys—one of the men—would come, like, check on me. Otherwise, it was literally just locked in a room and forgotten.

Sarah Koenig

Back in Afghanistan, the storm of search-and-rescue operations for Bowe had slowed and then dwindled. They'd keep their eyes and ears out, of course, but at a certain point, the military had to call it—while Bowe was in the worst place he could be, if anyone was going to rescue him: locked in a room across the border in Pakistan.

Mark Boal

It seemed like a very strong possibility that he was a Taliban sympathizer, I'll put it that way. And it seemed that that he, um, the unrated version is, like, what a fucking asshole, you know?

Sarah Koenig

That was Mark Boal's first casual assessment of Bowe, when he heard the early reports that Bowe had walked off. And it was a lot of people's assessment. And it's understandable, based on the information dripping out at the time. An early propaganda video reports that Bowe had converted to Islam.

Mark Boal

Yeah, and then I also remember there was the thing of him, like, that there had been...there had been some kind of reporting that he was riding around on a horse. I remember that too.

Sarah Koenig

I'm just looking at one from The Daily Mail, and it says: "One of his captors said that he converted to Islam and was going under the name Abdullah and was, quote, 'very relaxed in our company,' unquote. It has also been claimed that Bergdahl was so trusted by his kidnappers that they let him sleep without restraints and go bird-and rabbit-hunting with an old British rifle."

Mark Boal

Oh, you know what? That reminds me: I heard another one that he played soccer.

Sarah Koenig

Information like this—I learned that intelligence analysts refer to it as "stray voltage." By that they mean it's almost certainly untrue. But still, added up, to people judging from the outside, it didn't look good. Mark said it made him feel like maybe Bowe wasn't someone he should be caring about, which is the opposite feeling you usually get when you hear about a POW.

But then, after Bowe came back and was in Germany recovering, Mark talked to someone in the intel world who knew what was going on.

Mark Boal

I actually remember somebody telling me, "Oh yeah, he's doing a ton of intel debriefings." So I was like, "Oh, that's weird—I thought he was some kind of, like, Taliban guy." And they were like, "No, no, no, no—he's like, he's not." And this was during the period when all the press reporting was about, you know, how, like, mentally damaged he was and how he was gradually, you know, reacclimating to the world. And everyone was, like, cautioning, like, don't expect him to pop up on TV anytime soon because he's severely traumatized.

And then I was also hearing that privately he was ... I mean, maybe all that stuff was true—and I'm sure it is—but at the same time, he was doing a lot of intel debriefings. So I was like, wait, he's doing intel debriefs—that doesn't sound like a traitor.

Sarah Koenig

When I finally heard Bowe talk about his time with the Taliban, I thought, no, he does not sound like a traitor. As brutal as Bowe's first year in captivity was, at least he had plans. His singleminded purpose was to get out. As best as Bowe can recall, the first escape—if you don't count the one where he ran 20 or 30 feet before he got tackled—happened the first week he was in Taliban custody.

Taliban fighters, by the way, have confirmed that Bowe did escape once, briefly, early on and then again for a longer time roughly a year later. That first week, Bowe says he was being held at a house of some kind. His feet were tied with ropes. A chain was wrapped in several loops around his wrists. He said he'd noticed that the previous morning a car had arrived with water. And as soon as it did, everyone went inside another room for tea. So when the car came again with the water, Bowe says he saw his chance.

He managed to manipulate the slack in the chain so that he could slip it over his knuckles. He untied his feet. The wooden doors of the room he was in were latched from the outside with a thick wire, so he had to stick his hand through the crack to undo it.

Bowe Bergdahl

So I'm like sticking my hand out. I mean, good grief. If anyone was standing outside, like, they would've fully seen me fiddling with the damn wire, basically, trying to open the door.

Sarah Koenig

But no one does see. He runs outside, turns right, and then realizes he's in some kind of shallow valley or plateau. He sees three houses about 200 yards off. He starts running. He's shoeless. He says there's mostly jagged rocks underfoot, but he sprints as best he can. At the first house, he sees some kids.

Bowe Bergdahl

They see me, and they start screaming. They run towards the house. And I see a woman come running out the gate. And she, like, sees me and does, like, that one-footed like stutter-stop thing, and she, like, runs back into the house.

Sarah Koenig

He keeps going, sees a group of men standing around. The men also see him. So Bowe runs toward some trees, passes the second house, comes to the third, decides to climb onto the roof.

Bowe Bergdahl

And I get to the top of the roof, and there's like a mud puddle there. And, you know, I'm staying low. You know, I basically just slide onto the roof, which happens to be, you know, covered in mud. And I like rolled a few times to try and cover myself, basically, with more mud. And it almost worked.

Sarah Koenig

But the men found him up there, lead him back down.

Bowe Bergdahl

It was a kind of interesting moment. I don't know if I told you this, but, like, I get to the ground, right? And I guess the old lady from the house—like, some old woman from the house—had come out at the commotion, you know? And all these, like, young guys are ... everybody's, like, talking loudly, you know—and I'm covered in mud. And this old woman comes up to me, and she's, like tries to like start...like she's like trying to wipe the mud off my face? And one of the young guys grabs her by, like, the arms and just like kinda chucks her behind him. Um, she like yells at him, and they lead me off.

Sarah Koenig

Start to finish, the escape lasted maybe 10 or 15 minutes, Bowe says. But the aftermath was severe. They brought Bowe back to where they'd been holding him. And once evening came, Bowe said they beat him with a rubber hose. At first it was one guy who spoke some English. He'd twirl and twirl the hose and then whack it against Bowe's feet. Or if Bowe covered his feet with his hands, he'd whack his hands. He doesn't know exactly how long that lasted, but it was a long while, he says.

The next morning a whole group of men came in with a guy who seemed to be an elder, and they all took turns hitting Bowe with the hose until the older man called them off and took his own turn. And then that evening (Bowe thinks it was evening, he's not sure. He says he was blindfolded this whole time) they moved him.

Bowe Bergdahl

They moved me to a new place because I'm pretty sure they're like, oh, he saw where we were, or someone might have seen him, and so we've got to move—

Mark Boal

Oh, OK. And then in the new place, how were you imprisoned, or how did they contain you?

Bowe Bergdahl

In the new place, they put me on an Afghan bed and chained my feet to the ends of the bed and chained my hands to the tops of the bed so that I was basically spread eagle on the bed blindfolded. And that's how I spent, basically, the majority of the next three months.

Sarah Koenig

Three months Bowe was chained spread eagle to a bed and blindfolded. He was allowed to get up twice a day to use the toilet, he says. That's it. In a statement Bowe wrote that was released as part of his legal case, he said that because of the heat and sweat, his body got sore and raw where it was in contact with the bed. His eyes burned from the pressure of the blindfold. He could never wipe the salt from them. He developed open wounds on his ankles, an infection which seemed to spread to his forehead.

They beat the bottoms of his feet and other parts of his body with a copper cable. Bowe says there came a day when he tried to walk and his guard saw his legs were shaking from weakness. After that, they rearranged one of his arms, secured it down by his side instead of over his head, which allowed him to at least sit up. The room had dirt walls and a dirt floor, Bowe says. Every three or four weeks, he could shower and wash his clothes.

By the time six months hit, Bowe had diarrhea. He would have diarrhea for roughly three and a half years—no toilet paper or regular access to water. Most of the time his food was scant and came unpredictably. In the broadest strokes, his captivity consisted of twin torments: isolation and sickness. Or, as Bowe's principal military debriefer described it, there were roughly three phases to Bowe's captivity: phase one, torture; phase two, abuse; phase three, neglect.

Bowe Bergdahl

The time deprivation—the too much light or too much darkness and too much randomness—just wears away at you and just drives your nerves into the ground.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, and the constant worry of, er, am I going to die today or is something worse gonna happen today? Am I gonna get food today? Or am I going to be able to go to the bathroom without some kind of problem happening, or ... you know, it's this constant—

Sarah Koenig

The conversations between Bowe and Mark started just a few months after Bowe came back. Bowe talks a lot about how he's numb or distant or disconnected, which actually has the benefit of helping him talk about what happened. Still, the details about the worst episodes are sometimes hard to say and hard for Mark to take in.

Mark Boal

As a story, it's really uh, it's overwhelming. You know, I can comprehend it in little bits and pieces—like the isolated stuff as it goes along, these details that you're giving me, each one of them makes sense, you know? And they're kind of not that hard to to imagine, because you're good at describing it.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah.

Mark Boal

But when you accumulate them all together and you think about this stretch of time and you think about just day in and day out, that's when it becomes sort of incomprehensibly, um, dark, you know?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah.

Mark Boal

It's just—and I understand why the guys, the SERE guys, and the psychologists were so surprised that you weren't a total vegetable, you know? Because I think that would have been enough to basically put 95% of people—turn them into potatoes.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe was being held by Haqqanis, a group run by a very powerful Pashtun family allied with the Taliban. They're based in North Waziristan, which is in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan. The Haqqanis had agreed to hold Bowe for the Taliban. And the guy in charge of Bowe's physical person was Mullah Sangeen.

But Bowe says he only saw Sangeen maybe a half dozen times over the years. In all, Bowe says he was kept in maybe eight different locations, different compounds, different rooms made of mud or cement. Bowe says especially at the beginning, the Taliban questioned him. But he said they weren't what you might normally think of as an interrogation. The questions were strange and sometimes incoherent.

Bowe Bergdahl

Questions like, you know, um "The officers on your base, how did they get their prostitutes? We know that you guys bring prostitutes on base." And, you know, they're trying to find every dirty little secret. Oh, you know: "You guys, what kind of alcohol do you drink? We know you all drink." And, you know, "What about drugs?" And they ask you, "Is Obama gay and sleeps with men?" you know? And then they ask you about how good of cameras do the drones have—they ask you anything.

Thankfully the guy who did speak English and was asking me information—like military information—he knew everything, and he wasn't interested in what I had to say because he didn't trust me. And so he never really asked me anything that was, one, that I could answer. Like one time he asked me how many bombs could fit on a bomber. And I had no idea because I'm not an Air Force pilot.

Sarah Koenig

This hodgepodge of perfectly reasonable questions: "How did the drones work?" And then a kind of crazy talk: "Is it true all American women are prostitutes, that they sleep with animals?" It makes you wonder whether they're just trying to rile Bowe up or whether their understanding of our world is as paltry as our understanding of theirs.

Bowe Bergdahl

Something that I learned really quickly is that if you show hesitation in telling them something, then they think they're on to something. But if they ask you a question and you just start talking to them, like you're talking to a normal person—

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

—then they get extremely suspicious because they think, well, if he has no problem telling me this, then there's something wrong with that information.

Sarah Koenig

So either way, they pretty much assume you're lying, which is maybe why they didn't really press him too hard on any of this stuff. A high ranking Taliban told us, through reporter Sami Yousafzai, that yeah, Bowe didn't give them any useful intelligence or cooperation. Besides, Bowe said the Taliban get most of their information, information they consider more trustworthy, from Afghan interpreters who work with U.S. forces. So Bowe's value wasn't in what he knew. It was in the sheer fact of him—a U.S. soldier that belonged to them.

Bowe Bergdahl

So getting information from me wasn't like their main priority. Getting videos out of me was what they wanted to do.

Sarah Koenig

You might have seen some of these videos on the internet. Bowe said they made probably a dozen of them that were never released, but a small handful were. Bowe said the Taliban spent a lot of time making them. They're morale-boosting. Plus, he says, the Taliban love to embarrass the United States any way they can.

But you can't make too many videos or release too many, because every time you do, you're exposing yourself. Details about the staging, or someone's accent, or the production values, or the decor might give your location away. Bowe says they'd sometimes make a number of videos during the same shoot, changing the backdrop or his clothes or his hair or his beard to pretend the videos had been taken at different times in different locations.

The guy who made Bowe's videos spoke English, seemed Western educated—he had a slight British accent. He'd come into Bowe's room always with the same irritating greeting.

Bowe Bergdahl

He'd say, "Hey, Bowe, what's up?" You know, that was for some strange reason, the guys who could speak fairly good English, that was always their thing: "Hey, what's up?" You know, they'd say, like, "What's up, Bowe?" And he would say, you know, "I'm gonna take a video of you, and you need to think about what you're going to say to President Obama." And then he would say, you know, "You need to talk about how terrible the army is and how badly that you were treated or how corrupt the politicians are," and, you know, stuff like that.

Mark Boal

And so did you have to work on your answers?

Bowe Bergdahl

Well [CHUCKLES], like, the first time he talked to me, I gave him answers, and he was all satisfied with that. But the moment he turned the camera on, I completely forgot what I was supposed to say.

Mark Boal

[CHUCKLES]

Sarah Koenig

After that, they wrote everything down.

Bowe Bergdahl

One would expect that they would justly treat me as my country's army has treated their Muslim prisoners in Bagram, in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and many other secret prisons that are hidden around the world. Tonight, bear witness. I was continuously treated as a human being with dignity.

Sarah Koenig

In this video, Bowe's wearing a camouflage jacket, a helmet, and sunglasses. He looks really weird. He said the sunglasses were so you couldn't see his eyes reading the paper. And also, maybe because the Taliban think sunglasses look cool—which, agreed.

Bowe Bergdahl

I had nobody deprive me of my clothes and take pictures of me naked. I had no dogs barking at me and biting me as my country has done to the Muslim prisoners in the jails that I mentioned.

Sarah Koenig

When he made that video, Bowe says the bed he was chained to, spread eagle, was just off to his left. The videos hit this theme a lot: how well he's being treated compared to how the U.S. treats Taliban prisoners.

Taliban

How are Mujahideen treating you?

Sarah Koenig

He says, "How are Mujahideen treating you?"

Bowe Bergdahl

They're treating me better than I've been treated in just as a guest in a regular household in America.

Sarah Koenig

The videos also hit other common Taliban talking points, one of which is that the U.S. government is lying to the American public about how many American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan.

Taliban

You make the statement, it's only a few hundreds dead so far. Well, is this true or was it more higher?

Bowe Bergdahl

I believe the death toll of Americans in Afghanistan is higher than what the government allows the world to know.

Sarah Koenig

The army has moral guidelines for how a soldier is supposed to behave if he or she is captured by the enemy. It's called the code of conduct. It says, among other things, "If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades." And, when questioned, besides name, rank, and serial number, quote, "I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause," unquote.

Soldiers I talked to from Bowe's battalion told me the fact that Bowe appears in these videos at all, that he's answering their questions, repeating their talking points, that right there is an obvious violation of the code of conduct. They said even if someone has a gun to your head—and, by the way, Bowe says there were guys with guns on these video shoots—you don't participate in the enemy's propaganda campaign.

Well, that's actually an interpretation of the code that military officials do not agree with. That is not the standard the army is asking soldiers to live up to. You are not expected to die refusing to make a video. In the first and second Gulf wars, American POWs showed up in propaganda videos too, and the military didn't blame them for it.

They understand that as a prisoner, you're gonna be compelled to do things you don't want to do. And also, while the U.S. military isn't gonna encourage you to be in a video if you're captured, there is an upside to being filmed: your government has proof you're alive. At a military hearing on Bowe's case, Terence Russell, the guy who debriefed Bowe, said in these videos, Bowe did what he had to do. And that as the videos go on, you can see him getting better at resisting, at minimizing the propaganda value.

In the very first video the Taliban released, mid-July of 2009, about three weeks after Bowe disappeared, Bowe is sitting in front of a table with some green liquid in a big mug. Mark asked Bowe what it was.

Bowe Bergdahl

Mountain Dew. They love Mountain Dew. Like, if you want to piss those people off in that country, all you do is cut off their sugar supply.

Sarah Koenig

It's in this video that Bowe explains how he was captured.

Taliban

OK, where were you arrested, captured?

Bowe Bergdahl

I was captured outside of Mest [INAUDIBLE].

Taliban

What were you doing?

Bowe Bergdahl

I was behind a patrol. I was lagging behind a patrol when I was captured.

Sarah Koenig

This was widely reported back in the U.S., that Bowe said he was caught while lagging behind on a patrol. And, again, a bunch of the soldiers I talked to mention this—that when they heard it, it made them mad. Because it's such obvious nonsense. U.S. soldiers do not lag behind on patrols in Afghanistan and then just disappear without anyone noticing. It's not a thing.

So when they heard it was in the video, some of them saw it as evidence that Bowe was lying about what happened. Bowe was lying. He says, of course he was lying. He says he knew that Americans listening would know it was baloney. That was the point.

Bowe Bergdahl

That was one way in the video of basically telling people, hey, what I'm saying in this video is you know, is a lie. It's pre-staged. It's pre-rehearsed. It has nothing to do with, you know, reality, in, you know ...

Mark Boal

Was it all rehearsed or staged?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. It was—

Mark Boal

So none of that was you, the real you. I mean, would you—

Bowe Bergdahl

No, it was a desperate me trying to figure out how to stay on the edge of not cooperating with them and yet cooperating with them to the point that they don't shoot me.

Sarah Koenig

The guys guarding Bowe don't speak English, which makes sense. Why would they? But also that same high ranking Taliban told us they don't necessarily want someone like Bowe near anyone who speaks English because they might say something just inadvertently, and it could help him with an escape. But even if they couldn't really talk to him, Bowe says they interacted with him. They messed with him. They'd throw things at him or point an AK-47 at him: "Just kidding!"

Once they tried to make him smoke a cigarette with a little firecracker in it. When he handed it back, he yelled bang at one of the guards. After that, the guy gave him less food.

Bowe learned not to sleep in the daytime, because it left him open to these guys. They might take any opportunity. Picture being shaved by the Taliban with a straight razor. He's handcuffed. Even then, when he couldn't be more vulnerable, they'd have a laugh at his expense.

Bowe Bergdahl

And what they really find hilarious is a guy who has a beard but he doesn't have a mustache.

Mark Boal

[CHUCKLES] OK.

Bowe Bergdahl

So what happened was the jokes came in the sense that they'd shave my face in a way that would most amuse them.

Mark Boal

I see.

Bowe Bergdahl

And they'd take videos or take pictures. You have to laugh at yourself in order to keep things from getting worse. But basically, the reality of the situation was the butt of the joke was me, and it just was something I had to accept.

Sarah Koenig

Sami Yousafzai, the Afghan reporter, interviewed some people who had dealings with Bowe while he was in captivity—a big shot who came by and talked to Bowe on his cell, a guy who cooked for him, a friend of one of the guards, someone from Mullah Sangeen's entourage.

What Sami took away from these interviews was that keeping Bergdahl was, number one, stressful.

Sami Yousafzai

You have to keep him away from everybody, not only from drones. You have to keep him away from al-Qaeda, Arabs, and bandits, because if something happened, you know, then you are responsible. Then you would be beaten, even arrested. So that's why.

Sarah Koenig

These guards are watching the only U.S. soldier who's ever been taken prisoner in this war. Other groups might want to steal him from them. Sami said the guards had heard talk that some Arabs in masks had almost made it to the house where they were holding Bowe and that Mullah Sangeen had captured and executed some people he thought were being paid by the U.S. for information on Bowe.

Sarah Koenig

So even though it's a prestigious job, it still sucks.

Sami Yousafzai

Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

I see—

Sami Yousafzai

It's still like mentally a lot of pressure and—

Sarah Koenig

And boring, it sounds like.

Sami Yousafzai

Anything could happen. And boring.

Sarah Koenig

That's the other thing Sami heard in these interviews, how tedious it was for them, which is probably where the stupid and sometimes sadistic jokes come in. These guys are mostly young men. They're stuck inside a compound or some other prison location while their pals are maybe out and about enjoying themselves.

Sami Yousafzai

You know, having fun, dancing a ton or something, but here, you are bored. Nobody is allowed to come to visit. Because of this guy, we are in trouble. We cannot go around. We cannot go to the city. We cannot make a phone call because there was nothing. So even for the guards, you know, they were not really happy.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

Sami Yousafzai

But still since there were the orders, then I'm sure Mullah Sangeen was promising them a lot of thing ... a lot of things.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah, yeah.

Sami Yousafzai

This is big chicken and you will have more money and everything.

Sarah Koenig

Sami talked to a friend of one of the guards who told him that to amuse themselves they'd think up things to do to Bowe or how to get rid of Bowe. They had a long hypothetical discussion about circumcising him. They talked about selling him or maybe calling in a phony tip to the Americans that they had Osama bin Laden so there'd be a raid and they could be done with it. In other words, they're young guys shooting the shit, following orders.

Bowe's keepers would make him watch execution videos of beheadings or suicide bombers. Bowe said the very first day they got him they showed him a video of Mujahideen executing prisoners. He talks to Mark a lot about these videos in part because he's still affected by them. Certain details lodged in his head. In one, a man is about to be beheaded. He looks terrified. He's silent, and a rooster is crowing. For Bowe, the videos were obviously disturbing on their face, but they were also a grisly warning that this could happen to him at any time.

Bowe Bergdahl

Every group I went to, they all had their own videos to show me.

Mark Boal

And were they showing you like, this is shit that we've done or just stuff that other people we know have done?

Bowe Bergdahl

The majority of them was this is what other people have done. A few of them have been, this is what our people have done. And there is one guy who was, I would say, literally basically out of his mind, in fact to the point where the other Taliban called them crazy Talib.

Mark Boal

What was—

Bowe Bergdahl

He was ... what's that?

Mark Boal

What word did they use for that?

Bowe Bergdahl

They use "crazy Talib."

Mark Boal

Oh, OK.

Bowe Bergdahl

They used ... because he had been in Bagram. So they call him crazy Talib. And he would tell me he's killed, like one time on one of his shifts, he told me he killed ... he decapitated two guys. And then a few months later, he came back and he told me that he had done another.

Mark Boal

Oh, while he was in the interim, while he hadn't seen you?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah, while he hadn't seen me. And the people he was killing, he called them [INAUDIBLE]. And those are the guys who are basically ... they're Afghans who betrayed their brothers for America.

Sarah Koenig

During all this time, Bowe is scheming and plotting, gathering information that he hopes will get him out and that he can deliver back to the U.S., which, by the way, he does. Terrence Russell at the military hearing said he and other debriefers, intelligence debriefers, SERE psychologists, FBI agents all found Bowe eager to download whatever intel he could and, quote, "remarked on the quality of information Sergeant Bergdahl was providing," unquote.

Also, they praised his recall. Bowe said he was trying all the time to store in his memory mental pictures of every detail he could. For this mission, he pretty much starts from zero when he's chained down and blindfolded. When he can't see, he listens, tries to discern the daily patterns of the people who kept him, when they slept, when they ate, how their families work, who's related to whom. He didn't know if it would be useful to him or to someone else back home, but in case.

As he gets moved around from house to house and is allowed marginally more freedom to see and to stand, he sponges up new bits of information. He ends up staying a while at a house owned by a guy he thinks was named Day. By this time, Bowe was so filthy. He smelled so bad. He said the young women and little boys resented having to deal with him. They might spill his food on purpose. Once a boy beat him over the head with his own chain. As best as Bowe could tell, it was because he'd been humming. Bowe started to suss out information.

Bowe Bergdahl

There was one little kid who came in, and he was just really enthusiastic, just showing me this hat that he had, and it was given to him by his brother. It was actually a blue baseball cap.

Mark Boal

Oh, OK.

Bowe Bergdahl

And he showed it to me, and on the baseball cap it said the name of the school. And in the corners it said the name of the town, and in the other side it said North Waziristan.

Mark Boal

Oh, all English?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah, all of it English.

Mark Boal

Oh, so like somebody had given it to them, like NGO or somebody.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. Well, that was their school uniform.

Sarah Koenig

So maybe that was the name of the place he was in, North Waziristan. Now he'd just have to figure out exactly where North Waziristan was. Everywhere he was held he said except for one place in the mountains he was pretty sure he wasn't too far from what he assumed was an American base. He could hear artillery. He could see helicopters losing altitude to land. He could hear the scream of plane engines. In fact, what he was hearing was almost certainly a Pakistani base, but Bowe couldn't know that. The best he could figure he was still in Afghanistan, very near the border.

Bowe had no special training in how to survive any of this, how to deal with abuse, how to gather intel, how to resist while making it look like you're cooperating. As an army private, he'd had what's called A-level SERE training, the most basic level of survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training. And what it consisted of at the time of Bowe's deployment, according to Bowe's senior debriefer was, quote, "here's the code of conduct," unquote. So he's just puzzling it out as he goes, trying things and then trying them again.

Day's house is a sort of mud hut. Bowe attempts to dig himself out something like five times. To get rid of the dirt he loosed from the wall, he'd mix it with his own urine or feces and then smear it back on the wall. The pebbles and rocks were harder to dispose of. At the same house, there was a dog, a pretty aggressive dog, that the little boys and men especially were scared of. Bowe said the women sometimes gave it leftovers, so it was nicer to them. Bowe knew if he tried to escape, he couldn't have the dog freaking out and barking. So he started sneaking a bit of food out to it when he was led to the latrine, which was right near where the dog slept. In that way, Bowe made peace with the dog who eventually began sleeping in the room where Bowe was, which his captors thought was totally weird.

Incidentally, someone who analyzed intel in Bowe's case told me one of the rumors they heard along the way was that Bowe had a puppy—possibly a German Shepherd puppy—which the analyst took to be silliness. But maybe this sometimes vicious guard dog was the so-called puppy.

Over the months, Bowe managed to gather small items which he turned into tools. And by the end of that first year, taken together, they'd become his escape kit. He had a length of PVC tube, maybe eight inches long, he'd been able to keep with him since the very first house. In one of the rooms, he shoved it into the wall and peed down it so his urine wouldn't just be in the room. The pipe will reappear later as part of a crossbar.

He found a nail in a mud wall. He could make holes with it, scrape away dirt with it, clean his fingernails with it. And when the time came, he'd spend weeks rubbing the head of it on a rock until it was just the right shape to get the old timey shackles off his wrists. He stored the nail in the sole of his shoe.

But probably the biggest score was the key. The men and boys had come into his room. One of the boys was holding a bunch of keys on a string, and he dropped them. And when he did, one of the keys got away. It fell right near the mat where Bowe slept. So Bowe slid it underneath. He said nobody seemed to notice it was missing.

It wasn't the key to the padlocks he needed to open, but Bowe says the locks were these cheaply made Chinese locks and that by wiggling the key just so, he could hit the sweet spot and pop them open.

Bowe Bergdahl

And with that one key and using that technique, it allowed me to open, I think, the three padlocks that they were using to hold the chains around my feet and the chains that were chained to the door or wherever it was they were chained in. So over the year, over the months, I was able to keep this key.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe had tried many, many escapes. He'd gotten as far as a courtyard, up to a wall. But they were forays, really. His biggest, best chance came when he was at a remote place in the mountains. This was the farthest he ever was from a populated area. It's basically a Taliban prison. Bowe calls it the mountain fortress.

Bowe Bergdahl

Because it was really ... it literally, like, it looked like a fortress, because it had like this really tall battlement type thing that looked like a lookout tower or something. And I know it was old because the wood that was used to make like the rafters, and the pillars, and the stairs, and everything was just this really old wood. And, like, it was actually, um, hand-chiseled. You could see the chisel marks.

Sarah Koenig

In the mountain fortress, Bowe was kept in a second story room which was padlocked. But there was a window without bars on it, this place was so old. And he seemed so pathetic by that point he says his guards weren't taking extra precautions. Bowe had the nail, the key, the PVC pipe, plus a wooden stake that was in the room. He had an empty liter bottle of Mountain Dew, a hat, a blanket, his sandals. He went for it.

Bowe Bergdahl

And so in the middle of the night, I basically ... I put everything together. I practiced all the nights before, counting the hours down to the point where everything was silent, so I knew everyone was asleep, for the most part. And I practiced the nights before, putting like ... with no sight, just all feeling, putting everything together, putting the ... tying my bedding together, getting the padlocks off, getting my handcuffs off, tying up the water bottle that I had so then finally... And once I had all that done, I threw the makeshift rope out the window.

Sarah Koenig

The rope was made from the two chains he'd now liberated, each about six feet long, he says, plus his bedding. It ended up being quite a bit longer than he needed. The drop to the ground was only about 15 feet, but Bowe didn't know that.

Bowe Bergdahl

I used the PVC bar and PVC pipe and the stake and the cross bar to brace in the window. And that allowed me to climb out.

Sarah Koenig

There's a reason maybe you haven't heard other American POW escape stories. It's because there hasn't been a successful one since the Vietnam War. Again, the code of conduct says you're supposed to attempt it, but the Army understands, especially since Vietnam, that the odds are usually and overwhelmingly against you. If you're a POW, and you assess the situation, and you decide it's highly unlikely I can make it out that window without being shot, it's highly unlikely that even if I do make it out I'll be able to blend in with the local population, and it's highly likely that if the enemy finds me they will torture or kill me, so no, I'm not going to try to go out that window. That is right and fine. No one will fault you for it.

To me, more than anything, this moment in the mountain fortress puts all the talk about Bowe being a sympathizer to rest. Bowe did not sympathize with the Taliban. He loathed the Taliban, so much so that even when he's sick, when he doesn't have any food, when he's already been punished for escaping the first time—he knows what that's like—and still, he goes out the window.

At the bottom, he makes a bag out of his blanket, puts his water bottle in it, slings it over his shoulder, and starts walking. Bowe says apart from being rescued, it was maybe the best moment of his five years.

Bowe Bergdahl

It was like a huge weight was just lifted off of my back.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

And it got—suddenly my sickness, suddenly all the pain, just didn't matter anymore. And I was just walking.

Sarah Koenig

It's high desert terrain—cold at night, hot in the day, rocky. There are bushes and trees that Bowe said looked like Joshua trees, and something piney, not a lot of cover. But his immediate objective is not to hide, though he'll have to do a lot of hiding, obviously. But right now, he's trying to get as far away as he can from the fortress. He wants to spread the search party as thinly as possible.

He heads what he hopes is southeast, intending to go into Pakistan. He figures he's got a better shot at encountering someone non-hostile to him in Pakistan. But the terrain is so difficult. He's in these short, steep mazey mountains. You get over one, there's immediately another one. And they're all about the same height, so it's not like you can reach a peak and get your bearings, see the twinkle of a friendly FOB in the distance.

He climbs and descends, sometimes scooting on his butt. All the while he's listening for water to replenish his water bottle. He reaches a valley, and it's populated. He keeps having to veer this way or that, skirt a fence, or a house, or a sheep herder's tent.

Bowe Bergdahl

So stupidly trying to put a distance between me and the tent, I wasn't taking my time and taking it slow and easy, and I step off a cliff. I don't know how long ... I don't know how big of drop it was, but it was a big enough drop for me to think on the way down it was like that initial drop was like, "Oh, good grief." But then I kept falling to the point where I got over the surprise that I was falling, and I started thinking you've got to be kidding me. It cannot be this far down.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe lands on a dry riverbed on his left side. He said the word "oof" actually came out of his mouth, just like in a cartoon, loud enough so that some dogs started barking their heads off.

Bowe Bergdahl

Maybe about 30, 40 feet away from where I had fallen, there was a creek. So I wanted to fill up my water bottle, because that's what I was looking for. So I drank as much water ... And like when I pulled the water bottle out, that was when I realized that I couldn't actually move my fingers of my left hand. So I couldn't get that top off. So that was my first inkling that what I did to my left side was a lot worse than what I was feeling at the time.

Mark Boal

Your adrenaline must've just been pumping so hard this whole time.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. Yeah, it was. And I think that's the reason why I didn't feel what I ended up feeling about maybe 15 minutes later.

Sarah Koenig

He's done something terrible to his left leg and his left arm. And the pain of that starts to wash over him, and then just stay. It's getting later. It's going to be light soon. So Bowe uses the small length of bar that had been used to hold his feet together, and he uses it to claw at the earth at the base of a tree to make a hole. It's mulchy and then just rocks underneath, but it's good enough. He piles the dirt around the hole to make a berm and then sticks branches into the berm so it blends into the landscape better. And then he gets into the hole and pulls his blanket over himself.

Bowe Bergdahl

And then I take a bunch of the pine needles from the tree and I sprinkle them all over the blanket. And I sit there and wait. And by that time, the sun was already starting to come up over the horizon.

Sarah Koenig

So that was his first night of freedom. In all, Bowe says this escape lasted about nine days. In interviews with Sami and in other media reports, the Taliban admit this escape happened, though their versions vary in terms of how it happened and how long it lasted. Generally they say two to three days. Bowe's debriefers settled on 8.5 days.

Once morning hits, Bowe has to stay put in the hole. He can't move around in the day. And where he is, it's populated, and it's rural, so people walk everywhere. There are footpaths crisscrossing all over the place. Over the coming week while he's hiding in holes or trenches during the day, Bowe says there were so many close calls—sheep that came close and spooked, women out gathering something or other from the bushes, men—he could tell they were men with guns, he could hear the clack of the metal.

There was a scare with a flashlight, a time when he heard the familiar beeping of those Motorola type walkie talkies the Taliban use, a time when little girls wandered off the road and up the hill where he was hiding.

Bowe Bergdahl

These little girls, they had to have been maybe maybe three or four? They were tiny little things. They come walking along, and apparently they're looking for flowers or something.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

Suddenly they veer off the road. They come like almost directly towards me.

Sarah Koenig

They pass right by his feet, keep going. They're talking to each other, immersed in whatever they're doing. And then they come back down the hill, and Bowe says they pass right by his head, tiny oblivious girls. Bowe can't walk properly because his left side is hurting so badly, so he's crawling along on a combination of elbows and knees or on his butt. It's not going well.

On top of everything, he really has no idea where he's going. He's completely lost. He'd learned celestial navigation as a kid, but now he can't recall how the Big Dipper relates to the North Star. The water he's drinking is fetid, like it's seen too many sheep. He's eating grass.

Bowe Bergdahl

Stupid thing was, there wasn't enough grass in that country to make a difference. It was like [CLEARS THROAT] I could maybe every now and again I'd be able to take like 20 or 30 little strands of grass and eat that.

Sarah Koenig

It's as if Bowe is shrinking, getting smaller and more helpless, more primitive. His shit is completely green. He's stuck in a hole all day. He's down to nothing, no resources. And right above him, some of the highest tech equipment in the world for seeing and finding, drones, American drones, guided by American eyes. And Bowe and these drone pilots, they can't reach each other. Bowe says he remembers one night being on top of a mountain.

Bowe Bergdahl

Looking up at the sky, I remember, and I was seeing like six drones moving across the sky. And it's just really ... it's not a nice feeling. You're so close and yet things are so stacked against you that it's just, it's impossible, but you can't do anything but just keep going.

Sarah Koenig

Sometimes he'd think about what he'd do if a friendly convoy or a patrol came by, how he'd safely get their attention. If he ran at them in his Afghan clothes, they might think he was a suicide bomber. So he figured he'd take all his clothes off. Because a tall, skinny, naked white guy coming at you, something to pause over perhaps. If anyone had come across Bowe, they'd probably have taken in the following: He's in pain on his left side. He's in gastric distress. He's starving. He's scared. And he's lost.

Mark Boal

Did you ever think that during the course of the escape that maybe you made a mistake, that being out, that escaping, was maybe more treacherous than just staying put?

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, before I escaped, I knew there was going to be more immediate risk.

Mark Boal

Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

In order to get myself out the window, I had to basically come to terms with the fact that this was very much like a suicide mission. You know, it was like one way out, and I looking for a needle in a haystack as far as being saved, as far as finding some safe point. But it was like, OK, if I'm going to die either from exposure out there or being shot while I escape, it's better than having my head cut off because I saw enough of those movies or videos—I saw enough of those—to know what that would be like.

Sarah Koenig

Toward the end, Bowe was too debilitated to cover much ground. His hunger pangs were gone, but he was blacking out when he stood up, getting tunnel vision. He didn't exactly stop caring about getting caught, more like he stopped having the energy to be afraid. He remembers one of the last nights, watching the sun go down, and his only thought was that it was beautiful.

On the last day, Bowe says he had passed out on top of a mountain, and when he came to, he started trying to make some sort of brace out of sticks for his left knee. And he heard voices and rustling bushes. And below him, he saw the search party coming up the mountain. He was caught.

Because of the drones, the men wanted to get him off the mountain as quickly as they could. They took him back to the prison. One of the older guys—Bowe thinks he might have been a relative of Mullah Sangeen—attacked him, tried to rip his hair out, his beard out, which Bowe says he mostly succeeded in doing.

But Bowe says he was so out of it he didn't really feel it. He wasn't beaten more than that, he says, maybe because they knew, looking at him, he might not survive a beating. They threw Bowe in a room, let him sleep. The next morning, they cleaned him up and they took him to a meeting with Mullah Sangeen, whose principal message to Bowe was, if you try to escape again, we'll just kill you.

Mark Boal

I mean, did you apologize to them?

Bowe Bergdahl

No. No, I never apologized.

Mark Boal

For trying to escape?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah.

Mark Boal

I probably would've.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. And I think that escape was the last time I saw stars until the night Special Forces picked me up. That was a long time.

Sarah Koenig

About four years, in fact. And while he's waiting, so many people would be trying to get Bowe away from Sangeen—all these huge military and diplomatic forces about to kick in, just as the United States is realizing, we need to get out of this war. And then things get really interesting. We'll get into all of that when we come back with more episodes of Serial after the new year on January 7.

Serial's produced by Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, and me in partnership with Mark Boal, Megan Ellison, Hugo Lindgren, Jessica Weisberg, Page One, and Annapurna Pictures. Ira Glass is our editorial advisor. Whitney Dangerfield is our digital editor. Research by Kevin Garnett. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, copyediting by Anaheed Alani.

Our music is composed by Nick Thorburn, Fritz Myers, and Mark Phillips. The show is mixed by Kate Bilinski. Kristen Taylor's our community editor. Other Serial staff: Seth Lind, Emily Condon, Elise Bergerson, and Kimberly Henderson.

Special thanks this week to Blake Morrison, Studio Rodrigo, Chris Rhoden, and Andrew Kuklewicz.

Our website serialpodcast.org, where you can listen to all of our episodes, sign up for our newsletter, read articles by the Serial staff and check out maps, videos, and more. This week we've posted a photograph that Bowe says was taken right after his big escape, right after his meeting with Mullah Sageen. Again, that's serialpodcast.org. Serial's a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

Ira Glass

Coming up on the next episode of Serial.

Sarah Koenig

Was it worse than Iraq, that deployment, I mean?

Man 1

Yeah, it was the worst year of my life. It was horrible, yeah.

Man 2

Your operations order had something to do with Bowe Bergdahl. Then people were going to just give it the stamp of approval, say, go ahead. Smash down some doors and ask some questions.

Woman

I have some guilt, like maybe there was something I could do, but then what if—

Man 3

I don't know exactly why Bowe was sort of treated the way he was treated, but it's certainly plausible to me that the reason he was treated so horribly was because I was treated so well.

Follow Serial