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Transcript

Episode 04: The Captors

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.

Bowe Bergdahl

Sticking my hand out. I mean, good grief, if anyone was standing outside

Man 1

To cheer him up, uh, we did this, uh, little dance.

Man 2

I wonder how long my voice has been going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan, telling Bowe to come home.

Bowe Bergdahl

Questions like, you know, "The officers on your base, how do they get their prostitutes?"

Mark Boal

That's weird. I thought he was some kind of, like, Taliban guy.

Sarah Koenig

From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it's Serial, one story told week by week. I'm Sarah Koenig. The way Bowe talks to Mark about his time as a prisoner, it's almost as if it's divided. There's year one—when he's gathering intel, planning escapes, focused on getting away—and then the rest of it.

And the rest of it is four more years, when his purpose is less sharp, his hope is blurrier, there's less action. Now he's got to endure. And that's in large part because after year one, after Bowe's nine-day escape, the Taliban put him in a cage.

Bowe Bergdahl

And I immediately saw that there was no way of getting out of that cage.

Mark Boal

And this is a metal cage or a wood cage or what?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah, this is like an iron-bar cage.

Mark Boal

Made for what purpose?

Bowe Bergdahl

For keeping me in it.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe says it was six parts—four sides plus a top and a bottom—made of quarter-inch bars. It was collapsible, so when they moved him to a new location, they'd rebuild the cage in whatever room they put him in, bolt and padlock it together. Bowe says if he stretched out his arms, he could touch opposite sides of the cage with his fingers—figures it was about six feet wide.

When Bowe explains stuff like this, I can picture it. I can, of course, understand what he's describing. But at some point, I realized I don't actually understand what is going on. It was like the whole thing was overlaid with a scrim. Where exactly is he? Who exactly is holding him? I couldn't tell what the Taliban and the Haqqanis wanted or expected. Why is he being moved? Why is he being ignored? I couldn't tell if his treatment was senseless and haphazard or if it was part of a plan.

Bowe's descriptions are vivid. That's not the problem. The problem is they're mainly from inside a room. Bowe couldn't see what was happening outside. So I couldn't make order of it because Bowe himself couldn't make order of it.

But there's another guy who has a very good idea of Bowe's place in the Haqqani world order. His name is David Rohde. David's an investigative reporter for Reuters now. But back in 2008, he was on leave from the New York Times, researching a book about Afghanistan. He'd arranged to interview a Taliban commander about an hour's drive south of Kabul, and he got kidnapped and handed over to the same people in pretty much the same place at close to the same time as Bowe. Once I heard David's story, so much of Bowe's story clicked into place for me: the logistics, the locations, the Haqqanis.

Many aspects of David's experience are really different from Bowe's. David's a civilian, first off—he's a journalist—who already knew a lot about Afghanistan and Pakistan. He got free after about seven months versus nearly five years. And a huge difference: David wasn't alone. He was taken with two Afghans: Asad, a driver; and Tahir, a translator. So he had someone to interpret whatever he didn't understand.

Also David wasn't blindfolded all the time—really only when he was being moved to a different location. He wasn't chained or tied up. Inside the compounds, he could walk around in the courtyard. He could have conversations with his guards. And I'm not bringing all that up to suggest some sort of grim hostage contest, only to point out that while David was imprisoned, he wasn't in the dark. He wasn't in solitary confinement like Bowe. So he had an awareness Bowe didn't have about the system he had entered into.

After they were carjacked, David and Asad and Tahir were taken around Afghanistan for a few days, and then they were told to get out of the car and start walking over some mountains. The next morning, it's clear to David where he is. For one thing, the car that picks them up is driving on the left-hand side of the road, like they do in Pakistan.

David Rohde

Uh, and soon after that, I saw a road sign in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. And I knew we'd walked into the tribal areas over the mountains. And I knew we were doomed. That's the worst place you can be taken in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region.

Sarah Koenig

David knew how utterly dangerous the tribal areas in western Pakistan were. This place, it's really just over the mountains, right near the border. And if you're imagining a wild, desolate, inaccessible terrain, it's not like that. David said compared to rural Afghanistan, in fact, a city like Miram Shah, the capital of North Waziristan, where the Haqqanis are based and where Bowe was kept most of the time—in or near Miram Shah—there are more paved roads, more large buildings, more schools. It's bustling, David said.

David Rohde

There's, you know, a market, with people selling goods from Pakistan proper. I mean, my kidnappers, you know, brought me bottled Nestlé water that was manufactured from a plant in Lahore, Pakistan, one of the main cities, you know. But they were able to buy it in the market in the tribal areas. They bought me copies of this ... the most well-known English-language newspaper in Pakistan, Dawn. Another one's called the News. And they would be two or three days old, but they could buy all these things in the market in the middle of the tribal areas.

There's kids. There's farmers, you know, with donkeys, and they're bringing in their crops to sell. There's tons of Toyota station wagons that people drive on their own, and they also serve as taxis. And it, you know, became clear in those first few hours and then days and weeks that this was a Taliban mini-state that functioned openly, that, you know, repaired roads and ran schools and had some sort of basic form of health care. It wasn't this completely backward area, as it is usually described.

Sarah Koenig

And it's not like the Taliban are sort of skulking around, dodging any Pakistani military presence. David says they're fully aware of each other—maybe wary at times, but also, like, waving to each other. As they drove around the tribal areas in Waziristan (North and South), David said, there'd be regular checkpoints along the road that would normally be manned by Pakistani security or army. And instead, there'd be young Taliban fighters with Kalashnikovs, letting traffic through, not letting traffic through. The driver of David's car had to have the right password to get by.

David Rohde

At one time, I was being driven in a car, and we ran into a Pakistani army resupply convoy. And I thought this was this great opportunity: maybe the convoy will let us all get out the car, and we can make a run for it. And instead, you know, our car, the Taliban car, just pulled over to the side of the road. I remember in front of us was a car full of civilians. The civilians had to get out of the car and sort of put their hands up when the Pakistani army convoy went by. And the Pakistani soldiers did seem to be really afraid that there would be a car bomb or some sort of attack from one of these vehicles on the side of the road, including ours. But they just drove by us. They never forced us to get out of our car.

And then the man driving my car, he was like the number two commander of the Haqqani network; his name was Badruddin Haqqani. He explained to me that the Haqqanis had agreement with the Pakistani Army that the Haqqani vehicles just had to pull over to the side of the road, that no one had to get out of the Haqqani car. And, in return, the Pakistanis would not inspect the car. And that—

Sarah Koenig

How did they know which one ... how did they know which is a Haqqani car and which isn't?

David Rohde

No idea. I just remember, you know, watching, um, Badruddin Haqqani, the number two commander of the Haqqani network, smiling and waving to Pakistani soldiers as they drove by in their trucks—

Sarah Koenig

[Laughing] Oh my god.

David Rohde

—and my heart sinking when I thought maybe they were going to rescue us.

Sarah Koenig

Oh my god. So they're ... it's just like this ... the word just like impunity is just jumping into my head. Like, just—

David Rohde

It's a truce. So it's, you know, and [laughing] you can ask me the question four times, and I'll try to give you a pithier version, but the quick...the easiest way to explain this is, um, uh—

Sarah Koenig

Seems like anyone I ask to explain what gives with the Haqqanis operating so freely in Pakistan, they have to take a deep breath first. Because it is fraught, it is complicated. And to do it justice, it would take a long time. So I'm just going to give you the basics of what I've learned.

Here goes. The Haqqanis are a family-run operation. And they're not one thing. They're Islamic nationalists, they're a militant group, and they have businesses. The New York Times story compared them to quote "the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war," unquote.

They've got their own alliances, their own source of funds, but they're also part of the Taliban. They use the same stationary. I'm not kidding about that. One expert told me their statements come out under the seal of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—same as the Afghan Taliban. The Haqqanis are the most militarily effective part of the Taliban, and they're the part of the Taliban that's most under control of Pakistan. As one expert told me, quote, "You know, they're just very, very close to the Pakistanis," unquote.

The Haqqani family is Afghan—they're Pashtun. Their roots are over in Khost Province in Afghanistan. But they're headquartered in Pakistan. Back in the 1970s, they were fighting the Afghan government and then later switched to fighting the Soviets when they invaded Afghanistan. And, by the way, we—the U.S.—liked that they were fighting the communists. So in the early '80s, we gave them millions of dollars to help them train fighters in North Waziristan. We helped build them up.

As for Pakistan, they tolerate all this because the Haqqanis are useful to them. They are useful proxies in Pakistan's decades-long effort to influence events inside Afghanistan, to keep Afghanistan a manageable neighbor.

And, stay with me, they're useful because they help prevent Pakistan's other neighbor, India, from establishing any serious foothold or influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always seen India as its biggest threat. Here's David's valiant 30-second explanation.

David Rohde

The Pakistani military, their goal is to stop India everywhere they can in South Asia. So the Pakistani government allowed the Haqqanis and the Taliban to operate because they saw them as allies. They saw the Haqqanis as a force that could allow Pakistan to remain in de facto control of Afghanistan and stop India from taking over Afghanistan.

Sarah Koenig

Right.

David Rohde

I could say that in, like, three sentences instead of ten.

Sarah Koenig

No, I liked your ten. Those are good.

And—and this is also important—the Haqqanis help Pakistan deal with the other Taliban in their country, the Pakistani Taliban. Because the Haqqanis have good relations with the Pakistani Taliban, but the Pakistani Taliban does not have good relations with the Pakistani government.

So that was the situation back in 2009, when Bowe and David were held by the Haqqanis. In the past couple years, though, Pakistan strategy toward the Taliban has changed somewhat. They're bombing Waziristan, probably right now. If you've been reading the paper, maybe you're caught up on all this. If not, I have some phone numbers for experts you can call.

David describes the Haqqanis as an incredibly disciplined, organized crime network. They were super-careful not to use cell phones or communications devices that could be tracked. He said Badruddin Haqqani, one of the top commanders, would sometimes show up at a house where David was being held, and he'd be completely alone, because he figured the drones overhead would be looking for a commander moving around with bodyguards.

Like Bowe, David and Asad and Tahir were moved all the time. As far as David can tell, the house-to-house system worked sort of like a franchise. Each family that took them would get some share in the prisoners, either some money, or maybe they had family members who were prisoners whom they wanted released as part of a deal to exchange David.

David Rohde

We're in houses from two to four to five weeks at a time.

Sarah Koenig

And is the, um, is there a logic to the moving that you can discern? Is it just like you just can't stay in one place for too long because you're going to be found out? Or is it like—

David Rohde

I think, I mean, and again, I have this huge advantage because I have these two Afghans that have been kidnapped with me, and they're hearing all kinds of conversations, they're talking to the boys who bring in bread. And so I was told now and then that families would get tired of holding us because it was very dangerous for them. Everyone was very afraid there would be a drone strike to kill me, and that all their family would be killed. When they held me in densely populated neighborhoods, it was because the nearby children, they hoped, would prevent, you know, the U.S. from carrying out a drone strike to kill me, because it would kill so many civilians at the same time.

Sarah Koenig

Are those, like, Haqqani family members? Are they...like, who are those people who are keeping you? Or do they just like bust into anyone's house and be like, "All right, we're gonna hang out here for a while, and you're gonna put up with it"?

David Rohde

I think they only kept us in the homes of commanders and families that they felt they could trust the most, because they were constantly terrified of spies. They were rounding up local people and accusing them of guiding drone strikes and then hanging them.

Sarah Koenig

Oh my god.

David Rohde

The young guards, particularly when we were staying in the intelligence commander's house, would come home every day with the cellphones and possessions of men they had executed that day—

Sarah Koenig

Oh my god.

David Rohde

—for being spies and guiding drone strikes.

Sarah Koenig

And is that...like, did you know that at the time, or is that something you understood only later?

David Rohde

No, they told me. I mean, again, I was learning all this stuff through Tahir.

Sarah Koenig

At one of the last houses David was held in, he met Mullah Sangeen, the guy who would later take charge of Bowe's custody. They only had one conversation, but David said Sangeen made an impression.

David Rohde

He seemed more radical than my guards. He was deeply, incredibly, and sort of angrily anti-American. And I can check—I think that there was a joke one of his men made about killing me or chopping my head off or something like that. It was...it was much more aggressive than other commanders.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really?

The execution videos, the sickness, the constant toying with you about whether they're gonna let you go, whether they're gonna kill you, and the cultural chasm between us and them—David talks about all that. And it echoes so squarely with what Bowe says.

David Rohde

As my captivity went on, they were more and more angry at me because they weren't getting the money or prisoners or fame they wanted. And they sort of became more and more disgusted with me that I was sort of, um, dirty. Because I was a non-believer, because I wasn't Muslim, I was impure. And the reason I was having stomach problems and diarrhea was because, you know, I wasn't a Muslim. It wasn't because of the conditions we were being held in. And eventually, they sort of, you know, ordered me to stop washing dishes. That was one of things I did to sort of appease them and stay alive. And then they stopped wanting to eat near me because I was this sort of dirty animal in their minds.

And in one of the more amazing moments, there was an older man. He came in, and he sort of lectured the younger guards that they shouldn't see me as dirty.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really?

David Rohde

And he said, uh, you know, "David is God's creation." And he took this, um ... he said he would take this piece of bread he was holding, and I could eat it. "David can eat this piece of bread and take it out of his mouth without swallowing it." And the man said he would take that piece of bread and then place it in his own mouth. 'Cause that's what the prophet taught, that you should treat all humans humanely.

Sarah Koenig

God, that's so interesting. Why do you think he cared how they thought of you?

David Rohde

Well, I think that, I mean, this is the moment. There's a civil war in the Islamic world for the interpretation of this faith. And I saw examples of the Islam ... the moderate Islam, I saw practiced in Bosnia and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq. So you ... there was this one older man who said that to them, but he was surrounded by these young, deluded men whose whole identity was, you know, that there was only this strict interpretation of Islam, that anyone who didn't follow their interpretation of Islam deserved to die.

Anyone who lived ... they literally told me that anyone who lived under the Karzai government in Afghanistan or the Musharraf government in Pakistan were nonbelievers and deserved to die. Muslims.

Sarah Koenig

Right. Those are infidels as well.

David Rohde

Everyone. And they were worse. They hated my two Afghan colleagues more than they hated me, because they were ... they were, um, munafiqeen? I can't remember all these words anymore. But they were traitors.

Sarah Koenig

Did you ever have, like, substantive conversations with anyone who was holding you, about, like—

David Rohde

Yeah, in the first three days it was all about the war, and why the Americans had come, and 9/11, and my book, and, you know, I told them about the reporting I had done in Bosnia exposing the mass executions of thousands of Muslims, and, um ...

I remember after I told them about my reporting in Bosnia, they said, "That's good. That means you're worth more money."

Sarah Koenig

Oh, man. You were like, "That's not the point of my story! You missed it."

David Rohde

[Laughs] But there was no, I mean, it was, uh, you know, um, there was no kind of rational conversation.

Sarah Koenig

Bowe and David did not overlap in Haqqani custody. David escaped one night, along with Tahir, from the compound where they were being held. And they made their way over to a Pakistani military base about a half-mile away. And they were rescued. David and Tahir got out on June 20, 2009. Bowe was captured just 10 days later.

David's never met Bowe. He's never talked to Bowe. But he says he feels linked to him. In our interview, he kept coming back, somewhat guiltily, to how much better he had it than Bowe. Obviously, he knows it's not his fault, what happened to Bowe. But he feels bad. He said as soon as he heard a US soldier had been grabbed by these same people, he worried that he'd be treated harshly, in part because David was treated well, which helped him get away.

Sami Yousafzai, the Afghan reporter, told me he did hear that after David escaped, there were all kinds of rumors and accusations flying around that someone had been paid off. There was infighting between the Haqqanis and the other Taliban that the Haqqanis couldn't be trusted. One news report said the Haqqanis suspected the Taliban guards had taken a bribe. Maybe there was a traitor among them. So, yeah, it does seem they weren't planning on letting it happen twice.

Then again, maybe Bowe's rough treatment had more to do with the fact that he had tried to escape from them right away that first week. And also, one intel guy told me, the Haqqanis are savvy enough to know the difference, in terms of risk, in terms of danger, in terms of value, between an American journalist and an American soldier.

In the beginning, it seems that perhaps Sangeen and the Haqqanis were looking for a quick and easy deal to get rid of Bowe. Sami Yousafzai did an interview for us in Dubai with a high-level Taliban guy there. This guy wasn't directly involved with the negotiations for Bowe, but he heard about it from the people who were involved. What this Taliban told Sami is that initially they wanted ransom—maybe some prisoners from an Afghan jail—which is what they'd also been asking for in David Rohde's case.

But then, somehow the Taliban gets word from the Americans. And it's not clear how or from whom exactly, but the story is they get word that the Americans aren't going to pay ransom—which was true, by the way—and furthermore that they're not going to free any prisoners, because they're not too concerned with getting Bowe back. That if they can tolerate the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Afghanistan, one soldier in captivity isn't that big a deal for the U.S. Army.

And this message, if it really came ... but apparently Sangeen got upset. And his position was: Well then, why are we wasting our time and our resources? Let's just kill him. And that's when, this guy told Sami, that someone—a well-connected person in Pakistan—told Sangeen, "Don't kill him. Sit tight."

Sami Yousafzai

Uh, that's, "Don't worry. Keep the guy. This is a worth deal," you know? "Don't get upset. Don't lose your patience. Stay. This is an important person." And after that, they say OK.

Sarah Koenig

The Haqqanis are willing to wait, which means Bowe also waits. One defense official told me, if you could set aside the circumstances of Bowe's capture—which of course you can't—but if you could, Bowe would be a huge success story for the army. This 23-year-old kid with no training manages not only to survive but to resist as a POW. And, most extraordinary, perhaps, he does it alone, in isolation. There's no one else in the recent history of the army with a story like that.

Terrence Russell, Bowe's principal debriefer, testified at a military hearing in September. Russell is an undisputed expert on this stuff. During his career, he's debriefed or interviewed about 125 POWs, possibly more than anyone in the country.

At the hearing, Russell was asked, basically, how bad did Bowe have it? And Russell said you'd have to go back to the jungle camps in Vietnam to begin to compare. Quote, "Sergeant Bergdahl's experience—and I don't know, sir, that I can give you a percentage—but his experience ranks at the same echelon of the most horrible conditions of captivity that we've seen in the last 60 years," unquote.

After Bowe was rescued and they took him to a hospital in Germany, Bowe asked them to take the clock off the wall in the room he was in. He couldn't deal with time, seeing it delineated like that. It had taken him years as a captive to wean himself off of time. Often when he was locked in whatever room, there might be a light on all the time or not at all. The clock and the calendar became bendy and troublesome.

Bowe Bergdahl

Months and days, weeks or months don't really matter, because the only thing you can really understand is how long the seconds are lasting. I mean, that's what hits you the hardest is just the seconds.

Mark Boal

What do you mean?

Bowe Bergdahl

Um, I mean, it's just, you know, you're not in tomorrow. You're not in next week. You're not in next month. You're in this second. And it can last an eternity. It just ... it's ... I literally, you know, I was feeling every second and the fact that there was nothing there. I mean, you can forget about time when you're able to distract yourself with reading a book or doing something that concentrates your mind. But when you don't have any of that, you're just sitting there, and it turns into a repetition. Like, your mind turns into a broken record almost, looping, because at some point, you have only so much to think about.

Mark Boal

Right. You run out of ideas. Yeah.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. You know, and in that situation, there's only certain things that you're going to think about.

Sarah Koenig

Such as, Will I get food today? Who will give it to me? Why did the girl who gave it to me yesterday look annoyed? Why aren't they giving it to me? Is there something I can do to make them give it to me but not make it look like I'm trying to get it? And by the way, depriving someone of any discernible schedule is a time-honored method of keeping your prisoner compliant.

Bowe said it was maddening, the obsessive thoughts. Maybe he'd do an Abbott and Costello bit in his head, or that line from the Johnny Cash song, "I fell into a burning ring of fire." He said he couldn't remember the rest. Or he'd look and look and look at the room around him, not in search of something new, just because that's all he had to look at.

Bowe Bergdahl

You know, I'll look at one thing, and then I'll look at another thing, and I'll just keep looking back and forth for different things, you know, just keep scanning the wall, just keep scanning whatever it is, the doorway, the cracks, the, you know. And in, you know, the darkness, you're looking at shadows or you're not looking at shadows. If it's too dark, then you can't see anything, but you're still, you know, you're still moving. You're still kinda, you know, you're looking at your hands, but you can't see your hands, so you're touching your face.

Sarah Koenig

If you're thinking maybe Bowe went crazy, he didn't. He says he didn't. It might have been a little easier if he had, but he didn't.

In fact, a psychologist we talked to who was on a SERE team that planned for Bowe's return, he said that they assume if you've survived captivity, you're more or less psychologically healthy. PTSD maybe, but not crazy. Because as soon as you start to lose your mind, your chances of surviving go down. If you spend, say, five years trying to get food, trying to get water, trying to escape, you need to keep your mind intact for all that. Still, sanity in Bowe's situation is psychologically exhausting, because you're simultaneously bored, afraid, and hyperaware, a combination other POWs have described.

Mark asked Bowe, Did you tell yourself stories? Did you try to disappear into your imagination? And, surprisingly, Bowe said "not really." In fact, he said he'd force himself to stay in the present, not succumb to what he calls his fantastic storybook tendencies, since that's partly what got him in trouble in the first place. And anyway, even if he'd wanted to drift off, often he just couldn't. He says he didn't have a choice about it. Pain, he said, is a great distractor.

He might spend an entire day just dealing with his feet or the cramps from dehydration or from starvation. His body was demanding his full, immediate attention. Bowe says even when he was kind of ready to give up, his body was stubborn, nagging, doing its own thing.

Bowe Bergdahl

I tell you that the only reason why I'm still here is simply because my body didn't quit.

Sarah Koenig

When food came, he ate it. His body just took it. He'd be so cold, but his body would struggle to get warm.

Bowe Bergdahl

When they, uh ... when they'd move me around, they'd put a girl's dress over me, and then they'd put a burqa over me. And then, you know, because anything I touch, because I'm an infidel or I'm a kuffir or whatever you want to call it, everything I touch is dirty. So they'd leave the ... thankfully, they left the dress and the burqa in the room. So I was able to use that as, you know, warmth. But even with that like wrapped around my shoulders—

Mark Boal

Did you ever ask for more blankets and shit and like that?

Bowe Bergdahl

I never asked for one. But there was a guy who was ... you know, he wasn't a bad guy, and he ended up giving me an extra blanket.

Sami Yousafzai

I don't know. I mean, everybody human has some good deeds, you know?

Sarah Koenig

Yeah.

Sami Yousafzai

Good qualities, especially if somebody's helpless or hopeless and in troubles, you know, and ...

Sarah Koenig

I can't say for sure, of course, but I think it's possible the guy who gave Bowe the blanket was a cook named Babrak. Sami interviewed him for Mark's company, Page One. He was an older guy, maybe 50, unmarried. He'd known the Haqqanis a long time. He'd cooked for them and their people for many years. He said he'd once made lunch for Osama bin Laden. He'd retired and moved back to his village from Miram Shah, but he told Sami that one day a few years ago, he got a call to come do a job. He's met by Mullah Sangeen, who takes him to a remote farmhouse. There's no road—you have to hike way out to it. And I'm not sure, but it's possible this place was somewhere in the Shawal Valley, a couple hours from Miram Shah.

Sangeen gives him an AK-47 and tells him: The whole area is mined. Don't leave the house. And if you see anyone approach, shoot.

Inside the house, Babrak says he sees his guests—by guests, he means prisoners—a blue-eyed foreigner in one small, dark room, and some rich Afghan guy in another room. He said they were all stuck out there in the wild—the two prisoners, three guards, and Babrak. The guards weren't allowed walkie-talkies or phones. A couple times a week, someone might show up. They'd use a code word to be let in.

In Sami's notes, Babrak sounds like he was more than a little freaked out. He says, "The only thing we could hear there was noise of drones, dangerous animal crying ... dangerous animal cries at night, and scary, deep darkness."

Sami Yousafzai

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, these mountains at nighttime is quite scary, you know? It's very scary. They have all kind of bad animals. And drone is 24-hour, like, making buzz, buzz, buzz. And you were worried, you know, maybe there's a raid or something going, or but they could not leave everything like that, you know, because they were trusted by the commander.

Sarah Koenig

Babrak's first menu, he said, was potato with gravy, yogurt, and naan. He said they kept one plate aside for Bowe. (Since he wasn't Muslim, no one else would eat off that plate.) Babrak said the Afghan prisoner was chatty and funny, but that he couldn't communicate with Bowe. He could see, though, that Bowe wasn't doing well. Wasn't eating much—which is an insult to the cook, by the way. Babrak told Sami he wasn't sure if Bowe didn't like the food or just needed a utensil. So he finds a spoon for him.

Sami Yousafzai

And he said ... I mean, every time, of course, he was trying to say something, but we don't understand, or our English was not good. And he said, sometime I really wish I could understand; he was trying to say something. And next time, I brought lot of thing for him. And he didn't pick up nothing of them. You know, like I had brought paracetamol—I thought he maybe sick or some other stuff, whatever I had.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, paracetamol—like, um, like the painkiller.

Sami Yousafzai

Paracetamol, yeah, the tablet painkiller.

Sarah Koenig

He says, in the notes, it says, um, "One day he was asking me something. I brought numbers of things at the next arrival, but he did not take either of it and was laughing. I brought him salt, a tablet of painkiller, and blanket."

Sami Yousafzai

Yeah, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

So he's trying.

Sami Yousafzai

Because he was an old man. He was trying to understand, to give him something.

Sarah Koenig

"American was"—oh, I think this means sitting. "The American was sitting in the beginning, most of the time. He put his head on his knees. A number of times I entered this lockup room, and he remained with his head down on his knees."

Sami Yousafzai

Yeah, yeah. That's why, I mean, maybe he doesn't ... I mean, maybe he was very sad, depressed, you know, and that's why he put his head in his knees.

Sarah Koenig

Well, then he says this thing that's really sad. He says, "At the start, he was used to coming to the door to breathe fresh air and see light. But then he gives up and stays in his pla ... then he gave up and stayed in his place."

There are lots of images out there, many of them horrifying, of captives, usually Westerners, about to be executed, wearing orange jumpsuits, à la Guantánamo Bay. The symbolism is so clear and so loud. But until I heard Bowe talk about his captivity, I hadn't realized just how present Guantánamo and other US prisons are for these guys. But it comes up all the time, not just in displays of broad political theater. The topic is woven all through Bowe's story, and in David Rohde's, too.

Sami talked to another guy, named Badr Zaman Badr. Both Badr and his brother, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, they each spent a few years imprisoned at Guantánamo. According to what Badr told Sami, his brother, Muslim Dost, met Bowe in 2010.

Sami Yousafzai

And he went to his room and he said I should treat him like the way I was treated by American in Guantánamo Bay. And he says the American way of interrogation was so strange. So I also asking him like strange question.

Sarah Koenig

Like what?

Sami Yousafzai

You know, like asking, "How many dogs do you have? How many chicken do you have? How many eggs your chicken give a day?" You know, so—

Sarah Koenig

[Laughing] Just like nonsense, questions that seem like complete nonsense.

Sami Yousafzai

Nonsense. You see, that was exactly, you know, he says, he had a translator as well, but he said he could speak English little bit because he learned [at] Guantánamo. He says at some point he had a debate with Bergdahl and told him, "Why you are in Afghanistan? Why you came to Afghanistan?" And Bergdahl said, "I'm deployed by American forces. I'm not a decision maker. And I was deployed."

Sarah Koenig

Right, like, "It's not my fault, I just did what I was told" kind of thing?

Sami Yousafzai

Yeah. And he says I told ... Muslim Dost told him you can simply say no and leave army and didn't come here.

Sarah Koenig

Badr Zaman Badr happens to be a guy I also talked to for a story I worked on back in 2005. He's Afghan, and he and his brother, a poet and journalist, were living in Pakistan. They pissed off some important people with their writing, much of which was satirical. Pakistani authorities arrested them and turned them over to U.S. forces, and we sent them to Guantánamo. Muslim Dost wasn't much of a terrorist back then, but it seems we might have turned him into one. He's reportedly working as an ISIS recruiter now.

David said the people holding him would tell them, we're treating you well because we're better than the Americans. We treat our prisoners better than Americans treat their prisoners in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

In Bowe's case, though, that rationale seemed to work in reverse. For instance, the guy who repeatedly tortured Bowe. Bowe says a man would come into the room—he never saw his face, because either Bowe would be blindfolded or the guy's face was covered with a cloth. Bowe would be handcuffed, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Bowe says the guy would pin his legs down, push him against a wall, and then cut his chest with a razor blade.

Bowe Bergdahl

Don't think one or two cuts at a time. Think, like, probably between 60 to 70 cuts at a time.

Mark Boal

Oh my god.

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah, and, um, they did it slowly.

Sarah Koenig

It hurts more, of course, if you do it slowly. Bowe said he lost count how many cuts after it reached 600.

Mark Boal

And, uh, would he ... did he speak English enough to tell you why he was punishing you?

Bowe Bergdahl

Uh, no, he wouldn't speak any English. He'd mutter things in Pashto, a lot of, uh ... a lot of like [speaking Pashto] and, you know, things like that.

Mark Boal

What does [speaking Pashto] mean?

Bowe Bergdahl

[Speaking Pashto] is wife of a dog.

Mark Boal

Like W-I-F-E?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah, wife. And, um, I'm sure they got all the typical insults in, you know, donkey, [speaking Pashto], kuffir. It was more like ... it was more along the lines of a revenge-type thing.

Mark Boal

Yeah. For what, though? That's what I'm asking.

Bowe Bergdahl

For being American, for all the things that, you know, Americans have done in their country, for all the things that, you know, were done to guys in Guantánamo and Bagram and all that. You know, the waterboarding, the dogs, you know, the isolation chambers, you know, the food deprivation, the sleep deprivation—all those things. Those were the ... that was the list of things that they always talked about whenever it came around to, you know, Guantánamo and Bagram and all that.

Mark Boal

And what would you say in response to that?

Bowe Bergdahl

I wouldn't say anything. Usually it was a one-way conversation, so I just listened to him. And, uh, just, you know, basically ride it out. You wait it out.

Mark Boal

You'd like nod, or would you at least say, "I understand, I hear you" and stuff like that?

Bowe Bergdahl

Yeah. I would nod understanding of what they were saying. 'Cause that's what they wanted acknowledgement, so that's what I'd give 'em, you know.

Sarah Koenig

When Bowe was in the cage—and again, it's a metal cage padlocked together—he still made one last, impotent attempt at escape. He says he did it because he was so angry. He could not stand the idea of these guys winning. He says it was in his second to last year.

Bowe Bergdahl

One of the guys that spoke English came to tell me ... um, he basically came to laugh at me. And he was like, "Oh, we're not," you know, "in order to exchange you, the Taliban is waiting for all the prisoners in all the prisons to be," you know, "all the Muslims around the world to be released." You know, and so he came there to just mess with me. So I got, you know, I got really angry about that. And so, um, what they had done with me ... they moved me to this last place where they actually put particle board down in the cage floor so that I could actually walk around.

Sarah Koenig

After the guy left, Bowe decided to risk lifting the particle board away from the cage floor. He'd realize the only flaw in the cage was the shoddy welding down there. He thought if he could rust the welds with spit or water, he could maybe get a few of the bars free and squeeze out. But because of the cold and damp, the particle board had expanded. So he gets it maybe halfway up, but then he can't get it back down in place to hide what he's trying to do.

So he thinks if he softens it, maybe he can shave off the edges and get it to go back down. So he puts water on it, which just makes it swell even more. And that begins a fight with the particle board that lasts all night.

All night, he's using a triple-A battery he had. He'd popped off the top and flattened it and sharpened it against the cage. And now he's using it to try to shave down the particle board. And every noise he makes, he's scared someone's going to hear and come in, and then who knows what the consequences would be, but very bad. And he can't get the board back down.

Bowe Bergdahl

The idea of losing that one chance, and I don't know how to explain it, but in that night, it left me exhausted and just drained, you know, for, for like months. And I, you know, I don't think I ever came back from it. I never stopped like putting water on the bars, I never stopped trying to escape, but it just ... that night seemed to burn something out of me that, uh, never came back. I just lost the ... something inside of me that ... it's hard to explain, but it was just ... things didn't matter anymore.

Sarah Koenig

By his last year and a half as a prisoner, Bowe says his daily conversation had funneled down to a few words. He'd say, "That's fine," "That's good." Or he'd say, "OK," or "Understood." That was it.

In 2011, a diplomat named Marc Grossman came in as the State Department's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. At that point, the U.S. government knew Bowe was with the Haqqanis in Pakistan. Grossman said he'd often bring up Bowe with the Pakistanis in those years in meetings with the foreign secretary, the prime minister, the president, the army chief of staff. According to Grossman, their response was consistent: We're sympathetic. If we hear anything, we'll let you know. We'll do what we can. It makes you wonder, what were we doing to get Bowe out? How hard were we trying?

Man

You had a bureaucracy that was broken and a, you know, a feeling of, well, he's a traitor anyway, so ... It, I mean, to me that was probably the most destructive part of getting him home, was just that conclusion: oh, he's a traitor.

Sarah Koenig

Next time, on Serial.

Serial is 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 adviser. 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 Tamar London, Glen Palmer, Barney Rubin, Robert Crews, Kevin Danaher, Tim Montenyohl, Mark Rabenhorst, Alex Tait, Dan Markey, and Jeff Mann.

Our website is serialpodcast.org, and this week, we've got a great 3-D map that flies over North and South Waziristan, part of the tribal areas of Pakistan where Bowe was held. If you want to know more about David Rohde's kidnapping and escape, he and his wife wrote a book about it called A Rope and a Prayer. You can find a link to it on our website. Again, that's serialpodcast.org. Serial is a production of This American Life and WBEZ Chicago.

Ira Glass

Coming up on the next episode of Serial.

Man 1

We were talking about a recovery situation that was so complicated that nobody even—nobody knew how to even begin to unravel it.

Woman 1

Our niche job is to find hostages.

Woman 2

If you just want a few examples, NGA, DIA, CIA, FBI, NSA.

Man 2

There had to be some political pressure to make that happen.

Sarah Koenig

And that's where you come in.

Woman 1

I want to know everything about potential terrorist network here. What do the captor networks look like? Where are the likely places that they would take a hostage?

Woman 2

So anyway, I did pick up, and he's speaking in Pashto. It's very—obviously, I was not able to understand it. Except for he said, blah, blah, blah, Bergdahl. Bergdahl. That's when I went, oh, crap.

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