CBC correspondent Mellissa Fung had just finished wrapping interviews in a United Nations refugee camp outside Kabul when the kidnappers attacked. Stabbed in the shoulder and the right hand, she was bundled into a car, blindfolded and driven away. It was October, 2008, and the Taliban and other enterprising Afghans had gone aggressively into the kidnapping game. Their business plan was dead simple: Seize a Westerner at gunpoint, then extort a hefty ransom for his or her release. The potential return on investment was sensational, the kind of salary ordinary Afghans could only dream about. More related to this story Captivity, by James Loney
Demanding $100,000, Fung’s kidnappers initially claimed an affiliation with the Taliban – a frightening thought, since the dreaded Islamists would just as soon kill as barter for freedom. But during her traumatic 28 days as their hostage, most of it spent literally in a small hole in the ground west of Kabul – and using a plastic bucket for a toilet – it became clear that her own abductors were mere freelancers. Improvising as they went along, they were running a modest cottage thieving industry. A gang leader called the negotiation shots from nearby Pakistan, while his friends handled the messier logistics of seizure and subsequent babysitting. (A quaint nicety of Islamic law maintained that women prisoners should never be beaten or incarcerated alone, but always tended; rape, apparently, was another matter.)
All of this is recounted in Under the Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity, Fung’s richly detailed chronicle of her ordeal. But between captivity and freedom, there are long days and nights of boredom – a redundancy that inevitably begins to affect the reader as well.
Under the Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity, by Mellissa Fung, Harper Collins, 358 pages, $32.99
Only one of her rotating handlers, Khalid, knows enough English to conduct something resembling a conversation, which leaves Fung alone with an interior monologue that soon becomes repetitive: Life is unfair. Her family will be worried. She misses Paul Workman, the CTV correspondent who had become her boyfriend. Her youthful kidnappers are not fundamentally evil, just untutored in Western liberal values. (“They’re not bad people. … They don’t understand tolerance and probably never had a chance to learn when they were young.”)
To pass the time, Fung smokes too many cigarettes, writes love letters to Workman in a notebook (his letters, from his own diary, are also included), plays the video game Xenzia on a kidnapper’s cellphone, learns some basic Pashto vocabulary, revisits several teachable moments from her earlier life, reluctantly consumes a steady hostage diet of bad cookies and boxed fruit drinks, engages in monosyllabic discussions on comparative religion and Islamic ethics, questions the existence of God, but, as a believing Catholic, frequently fingers a pocket rosary – evidence that old-fashioned faith, though much derided, still retains the power to console.
After about three weeks, she’s informed that an agreement is near and that she will soon be returned to Kabul. But then the mood abruptly shifts and the kidnappers decide to leave her alone, chained and padlocked, threatening to kill her if she screams for help. Here, Fung briefly hits psychological bottom; her reflex optimism about the possible outcome yields to doubt. On her own for two days, she even writes a makeshift will.
The ending – I’m hardly in need of a spoiler alert here – is as happy as possible. Fung was freed Nov. 8, 2008, after Afghan intelligence agents conducted a de facto counter-kidnapping, taking members of the criminal family into custody for questioning and refusing to let them go until Fung herself was released. No money changed hands.
Despite Fung’s generous instincts, the kidnappers emerge as cruel and brainwashed Islamic thugs, filled with hate for all things Western, and dreaming of a prostitute-filled martyrdom at the end of a suicide belt. With a few rocky exceptions, Fung is calm and intelligent, using her well-honed journalistic instincts, as best she can, to befriend and understand her captors.
By definition, this account cannot tell us much about those who prayed and worked tirelessly for her release: Fung’s family and friends, the CBC, the Canadian government – the offstage drama. It’s a gap in this dark chronicle, I suspect, that an ensuing TV movie will inevitably fill.
Michael Posner, a former Washington bureau chief for Maclean’s, is a Globe and Mail reporter.