In July, while studying at the New York Times Summer Academy, I had the opportunity to take an in-depth look at what it is like to be assigned to the foreign bureau of a major newspaper. I worked with a seasoned NY Times journalist who served as a foreign correspondent based in Tokyo, Rome, and Jerusalem.
During my stay, I was able to speak with David Rohde, a renowned foreign reporter who is currently an executive editor of newyorker.com. Rohde, who worked for the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times, was captured once in 1995 by Bosnian Serbs and again in 2008 by the Taliban. He won a Pulitzer Prize specifically for his coverage of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
While reporting in Bosnia, a Serbian soldier bragged to Rohde about a series of massacres aimed at eliminating Bosnia’s Muslim population. This was the first Rohde had heard of this, and over the next few months, he found survivors and discovered that their stories all supported the existence of the massacres.
Rohde visited the graves and, while there, was captured by soldiers and held prisoner for 10 days. In hindsight, Rohde calls his choice to go alone to explore the site of the massacres, Srebrenica, “bad decision making.”
However, Rohde’s “huge mistake” came thirteen years later. After being seen as “reckless” and relegated to less risky domestic matters, Rohde worked his way back to the foreign desk. He was sent to Afghanistan in 2008 and decided to interview a Taliban leader for his book. However, the meet-up was a trap, and he was kidnapped by Taliban forces and held captive along with his driver and interpreter for seven months.
Accused of espionage, Rohde was transported across Afghanistan and Pakistan in less than hygienic conditions. The Taliban “said they were pious,” Rohde remarked, “but they actually just did organized crime.”
In 2009, he bravely escaped in the middle of the night with his interpreter. They did not share their escape plans with the driver because they feared he was cooperating with the Taliban; later, they learned that he in fact was.
According to Rohde, he was captured in Afghanistan primarily because of the lies the Taliban believed about Americans. He reflected, “The danger isn’t humans being sadists but humans’ ability to rationalize.”
His words ring true. We must trust information only from reliable sources and authenticate the information we receive because the Internet is the home of “completely unverified facts,” says Rohde. Fact-based journalism is more important today than ever.
Rohde never finished his original book about the Taliban. But, after his daring escape, he and his wife wrote a new book together in 2010, A Rope and a Prayer: The Story of a Kidnapping. He described the process of writing about his experience as “cathartic” for both of them.
The power of writing, as always, is unparalleled.
Photo Credit: Tomas Munita for The New York Times