March 16th, 2007. The author lies bound in a cargo bed, his two colleagues placed similarly by his side, having been taken prisoner by a group of Taliban eleven days earlier. All three are surrounded by young Taliban soldiers with large guns, parked among one of the countless fields of tall opium poppies that stare sunward in the dry heat of southern Afghanistan. It is nearly harvest season; the ubiquitous flowers bloom in a psychedelic crown atop bulbous heads. At the correct moment, vehicles are started and driven for a stretch to a deserted patch along the Helmand River, where the prisoners are unloaded along the riverbank:
In the name of Allah Most High and All-Merciful, Sayed Agha, Ajmal Naqshbandi, and Daniele Mastrogiacomo are sentenced to death for acts of espionage within Taliban territories.
Thus speaks the portly commandant in Pashto, setting the author’s mind in every direction as his body remains fixed solid from the known and obvious inability to affect the situation—as would we all be upon receiving our own condemnation for imaginary acts. Sayed Agha, Mastrogiacomo’s driver, a native of this very land, is dragged forth. A camera chronicles the scene as several sets of silent hands in measured motions calmly render him onto the earth, to be sent away as flotsam into the river.
The video of this moment—the three men kneeling in the desert sand, the convoy of white-and-gray turbaned Taliban with arms raised around them—has been played and published around the world. But the video, at once a bargaining chip and future propaganda, shows but one angle. What followed and preceded this moment Daniele Mastrogiacomo has set in Days of Fear, a memoir of his time spent in captivity.
With the vantage of a seasoned journalist, words of a master storyteller, and a character of remarkable mettle, Mastrogiacomo takes us through fifteen days of captivity in this severe and strangely beautiful terrain—a land which will become his “open-air prison,” which will weaken his mind and waste his body as he and his colleagues are dragged through opium farms, over bridges and boats and vast swaths of endless desert.
Mastrogiacomo, a foreign affairs reporter of twenty years for the Italian daily La Repubblica (covering “some of the most dangerous places” throughout the Mid-East and Sub-Saharan Africa), had been keeping an ear towards the developments in Afghanistan for some years prior, and, grasping the tenor of the situation, had insisted on the assignment that would lead to his capture. It was an insistence born out of desire to understand. To tell the story as was not being told.
Mastrogiacomo enlisted the help of translator, colleague, friend and fixer Ajmal Naqshbandi. In a land where the West and its media are regarded as little more than interlocutors, locals who act to bridge the gaps often find themselves living between disparate worlds. Ajmal embodies this dichotomy (having been “caught more than once in the wrong place at the wrong time with his beard too short”), having the rare possession of mutual trust. The passing of time had brought him new contacts, he said. The Taliban had come to see him as a conduit to the western media, and could secure him an interview with someone high within the Taliban’s ranks. From there, it was only a matter of logistics. The interview would be in Helmand Province—a region in the tribal south where the Taliban still operate openly and govern harshly. Ajmal in turn recruites Sayed, the “best driver in Helmand.” They travel to Lashkar Gah and set out to the meeting place. They will not get far. Capture is sudden, and their indictment as spies swifter still:
I complain, saying this is no way to welcome a guest. They smile, and some of them laugh. They reply as one voice, “journalist, journalist,” chanting, mocking. It will be the same story the whole time we are together.
Afghanistan has never been very welcoming towards its guests, who often arrive unannounced and stay until made to leave. Soviet withdrawal in late 80s left a power vacuum that the Taliban deftly filled. As 9/11 brought renewed attention and, consequently, “Operation Enduring Freedom” to the region, change was again at hand, and the Taliban unseated. Hamid Karzai was knighted by the U.N. as the leader of a new interim government, winning the nation’s first democratic election in 2004, its second in 2009, and myriad accusations of undemocratic activity shortly thereafter.
The coalition invasions, subsequent occupation, and upheavals in governance were successful in removing the leaves but not the root, which only grew deeper and stronger in the mulch, illustrating a resiliency not entirely surprising for a country with an endless list of invaders from B.C. onward. 2003 saw the rise of a guerrilla movement in the outer provinces, and in the following years an escalation of civilian and military casualties crept inward towards the capital. Mastrogiacomo’s book opens with the story of a baker from the southern city of Kandahar, who, having baked his last loaf of bread, dons a vest of dynamite to attend a ceremony for a fallen religious leader who dared voice opposition to the Taliban. At the end of the ceremony, the baker kneels before the chief of police, kisses the man’s hand, and triggers his vest.
Violence abounds. Throughout the country, suicide bombers of the more quotidian variety ignite themselves in crowded streets and schools and marketplaces. Soldiers and police frenetically swarm the streets and man the road blocks, waiting for the next inevitable ambush. The Taliban flow freely between them, calm as cows.
Mastrogiacomo allows us to peer into their silent eyes in remarkable ways. While language barriers and other circumstances often inhibit the free exchange of ideas between the author and his captors, when their conversation flows beyond grunts and gestures some of the Taliban display a marked openness and curiosity towards the ways of the West, and Mastrogiacomo, despite the spectre of captivity, becomes an astute cultural ambassador. When enough time between abuses has passed for Mastrogiacomo and his captors to feel prolix again, they query him on politics, criminal justice, religion (at one point, a commander floats the idea of freeing him in exchange for converting to Islam), sex, and how men behave around their wives during their menstruation. Contrasts are drawn and measured in extremes. The West punishes thieves with jail, the Taliban, with amputation. Morality is viewed as black and white. Mastrogiacomo, for his part, goes to great lengths to illuminate the grays.
Through these conversations between Mastrogiacomo and his captors—mostly young boys and men who may one day recreate a scene similar to the aforementioned carnage—the level of zealotry exhibited, though not at all surprising, is illuminating in the gravity these incidental conversations give it. It is one thing to hear on the radio or see on the television sound bytes of bearded men proclaiming jihad. It’s quite another to live a million moments with them, and witness every little daily deference. Mastrogiacomo is a smoker, and incredibly, the Taliban provide him with cigarettes, a grave taboo for themselves to partake in. He duly savors this indulgence of infidels. Noticing that they instead chew lines of a “tobacco-like” stimulant as they race across the desert, Daniele offers one soldier with whom he’s established some rapport one of his cigarettes, to “try something new.” Alas, says the soldier:
[That would be] impossible. It isn’t the Qur’an that forbids smoking, but the commander in chief, Mullah Omar.… He explains that Omar issued a special fatwa after consulting with the other ten members of the Supreme Shura. In that moment, whoever had been a smoker was no longer a smoker.
And so it goes for the tenure of their capture with little consistency but absolute conviction. This example serves as interesting contrast to the more lackadaisical moments of orthodox Shari’ah law, which the Taliban enforce throughout their strongholds. Time in the desert passes slowly, and to aid its passing, the Taliban occasionally kick around a soccer ball. Mastrogiacomo, in chains, is asked to referee an impromptu tournament:
They follow my instructions and abide by every one of my calls. When I ask them why they are allowed to play soccer when every other form of amusement is strictly forbidden, they reply as one voice: “But this is football!”
For the hostages, however, time and its stillness becomes as tangible as the stagnant air; its expanses are vast as the desert itself. Later, as the climactic moment of release approaches, one Taliban communicates lengths of the prisoners’ remaining time through the distance between his hands, a distance that shrinks day by day, “From twenty centimeters … to a hair’s breadth …” to nothing—palms pressed together as if in prayer.
Freedom comes as suddenly as capture had. The forces that drew those hands together—a “constellation” of people and events—are the product of a resilient tenacity on the part of Mastrogiacomo and company, a million frantic actions within his home country, and an occasional moment of serendipity.
The accusation of being British spies is a thin one that wears poorly over their first week. Once it is realized by the Taliban what valuable bargaining chips have happened upon them, a series of video appeals are commissioned—each more insistent as the threat of death looms larger—shot across multiple takes until the appropriate affect is reached. The Taliban’s demand is predictable—a prisoner exchange. Perhaps it is because of the necessity of these missives that Mastrogiacomo is treated somewhat better than his oft-brutalized comrades. In one surreal moment, a BBC radio news brief is heard commenting upon a video filmed but a few hours earlier. As Daniele listens from his chains, they remark upon how really, he appears to be doing quite well.
News from the world beyond Helmand enters the desert in drops. To verify his condition – living, cognizant – Daniele is asked at several times about private secrets that only he, and someone else deeply interested in his life and cognition would know. Each instance is a distraction from the present situation, bringing the warmth of loved ones and memories that seem so distant in these environs. There is a crescendo as he recalls the name he and his wife wanted to give a future child. The joy in the air is palpable as Daniele summons forth what becomes a chorus of shouts from all sides: “Antaya! Antaya! Antaya!” His hope is at times signified by
a sparrow that comes in and out of our hovel constantly. I interpret its presence as a sign. My wife Luisella […] once explained to me the meaning of some symbolic occurrences. Birds signify change; they are messengers bringing news of a turning point, a development of some kind. The thought comforts me in this moment of extreme desperation. I delude myself into imagining that she is here with me, that she has come to the deepest Afghanistan [sic] under the guise of that sparrow. I fall asleep and dream of her.
Birders often remark at the fact that we are almost always in the presence of some winged creature. Whether in the city or in the country, ocean or desert, there is an entire unseen universe of lives being lived parallel to our own. Here, a lone sparrow – that most resilient of breeds, prolific on every continent – whom we would not look at twice in normal circumstances, reminds us of our interconnection amongst the entropy. There is always a sky.
Like the birds, the captors and captured migrate in a deliberate, constant and complex system of movements, spurred by forces greater than themselves. Tonight, a field, tomorrow, a tent, the next, a bed of a pickup truck. Maybe they will be tortured. Maybe they will be asked about their dogs.
As kidnapping is a game of guises and constant duplicity, there is often a vague command or indication from someone, Mullah so-and-so, this-or-that commander, but nothing that can be summed. Of course this is deliberate obfuscation, but the extent to which this hand is played, in the company of those whose duplicity Mastrogiacomo describes as extending to “a part of their nature,” adds a constant layer of confusion and doubt to every turn.
For the forces that brought Mastrogiacomo, Ajmal, and Sayed to their fate could be of two equally probable origins: they may have been pawns from the start; or, somewhere along the way they may have entered into a game of giants, three innocent men caught underfoot—caught in the wrong place with their beards too short. The truth is a confluence of both in which the game is petty but the stakes are grand, and some have paid dearly. The dénouement is not one of celebration but of contemplation, grievance for that which was lost, gratitude for that which remains. Mastrogiacomo writes:
Many consider this episode merely a terrible and bloody story. I prefer to remember it as an experience that cast me down to the depths of my soul, that made me stronger, more convinced of the vital importance of many things: my relationships with loved ones, life’s small everyday moments, basic human values, my profession.
Always, there are the sparrows.