David Rohde speaks at Facing History School on kidnapping by Taliban


David Rohde, a New York Times reporter who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, captivated students and teachers at the Facing History School in New York City on March 30 with a presentation on the seven months he was held by the Taliban and why journalists such as himself risk their lives to report from dangerous areas.

He spoke to about 60 students and six teachers in ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade humanities classes as part of the News Literacy Project unit. Facing History is in its third year with NLP.

Rohde has reported from more than 25 countries around the world and has been kidnapped twice: In 1995 he was held in Bosnia by Bosnian Serb authorities for 10 days, and in 2008 he, his driver and the Afghan journalist working with him were kidnapped by the Taliban while reporting in Afghanistan. This time, he was held for seven months before he managed to escape. He and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, wrote A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides (2010), detailing their grueling separation during his second kidnapping.

He began his presentation with a powerful example of the News Literacy Project’s first pillar: why news matters. Displaying a map of Afghanistan, he said he was there because 100,000 U.S. troops are there. He asked the students if they knew anyone in military and if they themselves intended to join the military. A number of hands went up.

“That’s why I go,” he said: If all those Americans are risking their lives, journalists need to be there to tell the story of what is happening.

“Our job is to be an independent voice,” he said. “If it weren’t for journalists in Afghanistan, who would tell you what’s going on there?”

Reporting in dangerous corners of the world is fraught with risk, and Rohde, looking to arrange a face-to-face meeting with a Taliban commander, was ambushed outside of Kabul on Nov. 10, 2008. When he and his colleagues were captured, he told the students, the first words uttered by one of their Taliban captors was: “We will send a blood message to Obama.”

Many of the students wanted to know why he didn’t try to kill his captors. Rohde explained that as a journalist, he was unarmed. “My job was to survive,” he said.

He and his colleagues pulled off a dramatic escape on June 18, 2009.

Upon his return to the United States, Rohde helped produce a first-person account of his captivity in a five-part series on NYTimes.com. He shared with the students two videos from the series, the first of which offered insight into the minds of Rohde’s captors, all Afghan men in their 20s and 30s who watched jihadi videos and U.S. war movies on a daily basis.

“In the United States and Europe, death is often avoided. But while watching videos with the Taliban, it was a normal part of life, even a goal,” Rohde says in the video.

He also showed a video detailing his escape to a Pakistani military base.

During his captivity, the Times orchestrated a media blackout on news of the kidnapping. Rohde asked the students why it was important for the paper to do that. One student said, correctly, that if other Afghans, including members of al Qaeda, found out that Rohde was being held, they might come in and kill him and his colleagues.

He described for the students the kind of personal sacrifices that journalists endure to report a story. He had been married for just two months when he was captured, and he and his wife were planning to start a family when he completed his last interview with the Taliban commander. He said he felt a sense of shame about his capture, knowing the pain it would cause his loved ones.

He told the students that the one letter he was able to read from his wife said, “You must be strong because I am strong.”

When he first spoke to his mother after his release, she told him, “I love you. And I am revoking your passport.”

“My days as a war correspondent are over,” Rohde told the students. “I put my family through enough.”

Since his return, Rohde and his wife have had a baby girl. He now reports for the Times based in New York.

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