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Jere Van Dyk: Captured by the Taliban

Jere van Dyk

A colleague passed along an advance copy of Jere's book "Captive: My Time as a Prisoner of the Taliban" and said I needed to read it. I wasn't disappointed. I was stunned. Jere's curiousity, courage and reporting are remarkable. Give the book a few pages and just try to put it down.

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Jere Van Dyk: I was hiking in the tribal areas of Pakistan, off-limits to foreigners, researching a book I was writing on the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I was kidnapped in the mountains by the Taliban.

They took everything from me, including my glasses, pen and notebook. I was taken higher up into the mountains and into a dark cell.

I realized a few days into my captivity that the book I had come to write was over. I would never be able to finish it. I was probably finished. It was cold and I had hours and hours where I had nothing to do but stare into the dark and worry. I had to stay alive. I realized that I needed something to occupy my time. I had to write, otherwise, I would go crazy. I asked my jailer for a pen and paper. I began to take notes, a diary, a journal, of everything that had happened and was happening all around me.

I could only write for a short time without my glasses. My jailer knew I was writing, but didn't seem to mind, but still I was afraid that he would seize my notes. I gathered my courage and asked him for my glasses. He gave them to me. I began to realize that if I stayed alive, that this would be the book I would write. I felt that he even maybe wanted me to write it, that maybe, just maybe I might survive. But I was never sure, nor did I know what the book would be.

I didn't know if I would be allowed to continue to write. I took most of my notes at night, using a flashlight, when the jailers weren't there. I was afraid that someone outside might see a glimmer of light, discover that I was there and come and take me outside and kill me.

The most important thing was to stay alive, secondly, not to alienate my captors, or be discovered by anyone else. I was afraid that someone would take my notes. I didn't trust anyone, I didn't think that I had a book, or didn't have a book. All I knew was that when they said they were going to release us and they left the cell, I grabbed my notebooks and put them in my vest pockets, to hide them. They were the most important things I had.

I didn't really think I had a book, or even what the book would be until after I returned to New York, talked to my editor and he told me to write about my time in prison, and I did this, that I saw that this might be the book. I wrote about my other times with other Taliban groups also, but in the end the book the story of my last time with the Taliban.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

JVD: I was surprised to see how much I had failed to include in my notes, things that were too painful, or dangerous, for me to write. I realized that I had pushed events and thoughts deep inside of me. I was surprised to realize that the more I wrote that the more things percolated up inside of me and came out like an emotional geyser. The deeper I dug, the more emotions that I didn't know where there, thoughts even from my childhood came up and overwhelmed me. I was interested to learn that, at least for me, when you confront death over a long period, that something changes in you, that it exposes you to a core that you didn't know existed, that deep unfathomable part of you, that repository of all that is in you. I was surprised to learn so much about myself.

JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

JVD: I learned in prison that I have no choice but to be a writer, and a journalist. I saw that I could not live without writing. I wanted to know everything that was going on around me. I wanted to know why. I was always looking for information, not just to try to stay alive, but to try to understand. I have no choice but to continue to live this way. But if I weren't a writer I would be a school teacher, a professor, work in politics in some way, work for the Red Cross or with children who have suffered.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

JVD: I have just begun reading "A Sultan in Palermo," a novel by Tariq Ali about Muslim cartographer set in the 12th Century in Palermo, part of his Islam Quintet. I am finishing "The Punishment of Virtue," by Sarah Chayes, an American journalist who left her job and lived in Kandahar after the U.S. invasion of 2001 and started a business.

JG: What's next for you?

JVD: I don't know, yet. In the short term, I have a book tour and speeches to give. My editor has suggested another book idea to me, but I don't know, yet, if I can leave Afghanistan and go on, yet.