Journalist Who Escaped The Taliban Is Trying To Evacuate Family Of Man Who Helped Him
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
You have probably never heard the name Tahir Luddin, but you may have heard a story about him. He was the Afghan journalist captured by the Taliban back in 2008, alongside David Rohde, The New York Times reporter. Tahir Luddin helped Rohde escape. Now he lives in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and David Rohde is trying to help him with another escape. His wife and youngest children are stuck in Afghanistan. David Rohde wrote about the experience for The New Yorker, where he now works, and he joins me now.
DAVID ROHDE: Hi. Thank you so much for having me on today.
KELLY: I want to start where your friendship with Tahir does. You were in Afghanistan reporting for The Times. You both are captured. Without wishing to make you relive what I imagine is one of the darkest moments of your life, can you tell us what happened?
ROHDE: Well, I was actually working on a book, and I was invited to interview a Taliban commander. Tahir had interviewed this commander before. He'd interviewed a couple of European journalists. Instead, when we showed up for our interview outside of Kabul, we were abducted. There's a third person with us, Asad Mangal, a driver. And that was the beginning of seven months in Taliban captivity.
KELLY: Seven months. I mean, I'm just trying to imagine how close a bond would form between men held for seven months in the same room. Is that right?
ROHDE: Yeah, the three of us were held together. And then, the simple reality was that Tahir was the only person who spoke English. That forced him to talk to me, you know, and we spent hours together, at first just sort of regretting, you know, what we'd done, that we'd, you know, agreed to go and meet this Taliban commander. It seemed like a calculated risk. He hadn't kidnapped these other journalists. But we just felt horrible, most of all, about our families. One of the strange things about a kidnapping is that when you're the victim, you're sort of aware of what's happening. It became pretty clear early on that they wanted to keep us alive and try to get a large ransom. And your family sort of suffers through this sort of slow-motion crime.
KELLY: Yeah. Eventually, he helps you escape. How?
ROHDE: So we were moved around to different houses. We were first moved from Afghanistan into the tribal areas of Pakistan. That's a safe haven that the Taliban have enjoyed for 20 years. And we were finally moved to a house that was quite close to a Pakistani base. And, you know, we decided to try to escape. At night, our guards were asleep. We climbed up on a roof. There was a car tow rope I'd found, and we tied it to the roof and got down onto the street outside. And Tahir would be taken outside to shop now and then, so he was able to guide me to a nearby Pakistani military base. And, luckily, there was some lieutenant on duty who let us inside. Several weeks later, Asad was able to get away and return, so all of us survived.
KELLY: So let me bring us up to this spring because you come home, of course. Tahir eventually manages to move to the U.S. He brings some of his kids over, too, becomes a U.S. citizen, starts working. He's an Uber driver. He's working for Amazon. He's sending money home. The next turn in the story, this spring, President Biden announces U.S. troops are coming out, full withdrawal from Afghanistan. You ping Tahir and hear what?
ROHDE: Well, I couldn't reach him at first, so I didn't know. I kept calling him in Virginia. And it was March. It was before Biden's announcement. And Tahir was already in Afghanistan. He was trying to bring the remainder of his family out. And then, he sat there from March through June, waiting to get interviews, waiting for the American embassy, for U.S. immigration officials to process these requests. You know, his right as an American citizen is to bring his family to this country. And this enormous backlog emerged after Biden made the announcement. And it was the beginning of this, I think, incredibly poorly planned American withdrawal and very chaotic situation that continues today.
KELLY: And meanwhile, here in the U.S., you're making calls. You know how to navigate the American bureaucracy. You've done it as a reporter. What are you hearing back?
ROHDE: Well, I've never done this, and I want to be honest that I really feel that it's just core. You know, I do believe deeply in journalism and that we are neutral observers and stuff, so it was very odd and - for me to be, you know, contacting State Department officials...
KELLY: Being an advocate, yeah.
ROHDE: Yes. And saying, I want to bring up this specific case. You know, Tahir Ludin, can you please issue these visas? They've got to be issued before August 31 before U.S. troops pull out.
KELLY: All right, so that brings us to this past weekend. Tahir is here with some of his kids. Others of his kids and his wife are still in Afghanistan. Afghanistan collapses. The Taliban's back in charge. What are you hearing now from Tahir?
ROHDE: I'm, you know, frantically calling him and making sure they're OK. You know, there's an early report that the cities remain calm, but then his wife and children report that, you know, the Taliban are on patrol in the street outside, right outside their house. And the big fear is that, you know, the neighbors know - hey, that's the family of Tahir Ludin. That's the family of the journalist who freed the American. And that was a humiliation for the Taliban. And I'm frantically calling everyone I can to try to get them out.
KELLY: And what about - you know, President Biden has given this explanation, saying, look, this wasn't poor planning. This was the Afghan government saying, please don't create a sense of panic. How does that sit with you?
ROHDE: That is false. When President Biden stands up in April and announces a full American withdrawal four months from then, there should've been an immediate effort. President Ford in the weeks before the fall of Saigon evacuated 130,000 South Vietnamese allies to Guam. And there were multiple people arguing to the administration, launch a Guam operation. Fly tens of thousands of Afghans to a U.S. military base in Guam, in the Middle East, anywhere. You don't have to bring them to the U.S. Get them out now, and you can then keep them on the base for months and vet them if you want for security reasons. Nothing like that was done. Nothing.
KELLY: This is obviously awful for Tahir and his family, and I can hear how close to the bone it is for you that you're still living this story that started all those years ago back in Afghanistan.
ROHDE: So I just, you know, wrote this piece yesterday and got a huge amount of, you know, response from people reading it and strangers offering help. And overnight, Tahir got an email from the U.S. embassy, and it said, go to this gate at the Kabul airport today - that's this day, Tuesday - and, you know, you will show this pass, and you and your and - sorry - your family will be allowed on a U.S. military flight. Very early this morning, his wife and his children went to that gate. They had to go through a Taliban checkpoint. They make it to this gate. They wait for hours. Someone inside calls them, and they are told to go wait near - nearby. I mean, meanwhile, around the airport, you know, there's gunfire. The Taliban are firing rifles in the air. They're beating people. Tear gas is being fired. It's just chaos. And after ten hours of waiting, they went home.
KELLY: David Rohde of The New Yorker. His piece is titled Trying - And Failing - To Save The Family Of The Afghan Who Saved Me.
David Rohde, thank you.
ROHDE: Thank you.
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