Part 1 of a two-part series.
For journalist and documentary filmmaker Sean Langan, being held captive in the Middle East for three months by the Haqqani network—the same Taliban-affiliated group that held Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five years—was just the beginning of a long journey into hell.
Langan—a native of England who has been in the Wood River Valley most of the summer working on a documentary film about Bergdahl—spent the spring of 2008 as a prisoner in a 10-by-12-foot room on a homestead in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan, near the border of Afghanistan. The dark, concrete room had a sliver of a window, two wicker day beds infested with fleas and mites, a cane roof in which he would see snakes and scorpions, and a hole in the ground for a toilet. His captors put an AK-47 assault rifle to his head and told him they were going to kill him for being a spy—and they made him watch hours upon hours of video of Taliban soldiers beheading their enemies.
As the U.S. Army continues to investigate the capture of Hailey native Bergdahl from his post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009, Langan has been closely watching the process of reintegrating the soldier into life outside of captivity. Reports have indicated that Bergdahl was apprehended from a makeshift latrine outside the walls of his unit’s base in Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan. He was released on May 31 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Last month, when the Taliban posted on Twitter a photo of Bergdahl apparently smiling as he stands beside a senior Taliban commander who has his arm around the American’s shoulders, some Bergdahl critics said the photo provided additional evidence that Bergdahl had deserted his post and should be treated as a traitor. Langan said the photo should only be viewed as Taliban propaganda.
“I look into his eyes, and I’m back in that room,” Langan said. “I look into his eyes now and I see they are pumped with adrenaline. … To survive, you need to get along with your captors. … Any comments made about Bowe are completely erroneous. They would chop your head off in a second.”
Foray into Pakistan
leads to capture
Langan, 49, and his Afghan translator Sami were thrust into captivity while they were working on a project to film and report on Haqqani network and al Qaeda safe houses and training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, a frontier area mainly inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns. A high-ranking Taliban mullah had agreed to take the team into the carefully protected tribal areas, to the district of Bajaur—a place where Westerners are loathed, not welcomed. The men were blindfolded and taken to a remote Pashtun farmstead, where they were led into a dingy room in which livestock were once kept. It was March 28, Bowe Bergdahl’s birthday. Langan and Sami would not leave the room for three months.
The pair sensed something was wrong early on. Initially, they were told that they were being held as a measure of caution. Then, on the second day, the man who had picked them up and driven them to Baujaur was taken outside, where he was made the victim of a mock beating and execution. But Langan and Sami thought he had been killed. Later, a Haqqani commander came into the room and told them they were being “charged and arrested for working for enemy governments,” Langan said.
“I said to my translator, ‘Shit. We’re kidnapped,’” Langan said.
Sami responded, “No, we’re dead.”
Langan, who had spent 10 years working as a journalist and filmmaker in the Middle East, said, in hindsight, that he should not have been surprised that he had been taken prisoner. The Haqqani network was famous for kidnapping people. And, he said, he had been taken and released by the Taliban before. He later learned that Taliban officials would sometimes take a simple up-or-down vote on whether to kidnap or kill a foreigner they were meeting with.
“The vote went against me on this occasion,” he said.
Early days in captivity
Langan was interrogated for three days. He was told he was an “unbeliever” and a spy. In his years reporting on the Taliban, he had learned that to punish spies, the militants would cut their throats and stuff money in their mouths. At gunpoint, the captors threatened to kill him. But, Langan said, he never begged for his life.
The only time Langan broke down in the interrogation was when his captors asked him if he had children. He did, from a marriage that had failed while he was working on documentary films in Iraq. For Langan, discussing his two boys—Luke, who was 4 at the time, and Gabriel, 3—was out of bounds. So, he said, he tried to appeal to the sensitivities of the Pashtun men who owned the house.
“I told them, ‘They have no place in this darkness,’” he said.
But the plan didn’t work. A smiling Haqqani gunman said casually that he was going to have to kill him. And he threatened to kill Sami, too, so Langan talked.
“I cried,” he said. “It was pure anger and anguish.”
When Langan said Gabriel’s name, the Pashtun men who owned the homestead started crying, he said.
“Gabriel is one of the holiest names in Islam,” Langan said.
After that, his captors looked ashamed, he said, and one of them put his arm around Langan.
The incident changed the game, Langan said. He was then viewed as a human being, and started to get more food—usually rice and some stringy chicken—and a little bit of medical care. Occasionally, the Pashtun men drank tea with him. And, out of necessity, he started to bond with his captors. Once, the commander showed him a video of a child wearing a belt with a bomb on it. The child walked next to a U.S. Army Humvee and detonated the bomb.
“With a crocodile tear, he said, ‘You see? We also understand the loss of a child,’” Langan said.
Living in the dark
Langan started to increasingly win over the sympathy of the Pashtun farmers, he said. The family—who told Langan and Sami that they had housed other “guests” for the Taliban military—told the captives that they would offer them protection if necessary—they would not allow the men to be killed under their roof.
“Hearing that certainly felt better,” Langan said.
When he showed signs of sickness, sometimes a few vegetables would be added to his meals.
But life in the room was still torturous, Langan said. In the early weeks, the room was cold and rain came in through the roof. Later in the spring, it was stiflingly hot. The men had only a bucket for a shower, positioned over the toilet hole in the ground. They had a towel but it was covered in Sami’s blood—he was sick and bleeding from the inside out. Once, a big, black scorpion fell from the roof next to Langan’s head while he was resting.
The two prisoners didn’t talk much. They had a small radio to listen to, and occasionally they would hear news from the outside world. As time wore on, though, Sami would just sit and rock back and forth while clutching the radio, which was often powerless and silent.
A few weeks into the ordeal, Langan was told he was going to be executed. He was told to wash and was given a clean shirt.
“In a dark room,
one day can be like a lifetime.
Time can literally drive a man insane.”
“I said, ‘I’ve got a problem having my throat cut. I’d rather be shot in the back of the head.’”
But, the execution never happened and nothing more was said of it.
Nonetheless, Langan suffered, and he longed for home. Facing death felt like a punch in the chest.
“I was able to see my whole life flash before my eyes,” he said. “It was like watching slides on a phone. I wrote down the names of my schoolteachers. I remembered the first day I met my wife, and the day we got married.”
For long periods, there was no sign of the Taliban soldiers who imprisoned him—only visits from the Pashtun homeowners. To pass the time, Langan looked through a hole in the wall of the room for hours on end. In the spring, an apricot tree outside started to sprout leaves and flowers.
“I would crouch there and watch the apricots grow,” he said.
Still, it was a challenge to stay positive.
“In a dark room, one day can be like a lifetime,” Langan said. “Time can literally drive a man insane. It drove my translator insane. The passage of hours, days, weeks grinds you down.”
Langan notched marks in the wall to measure the passing days. He said the Lord’s Prayer and thought of home in England. He missed rainy London, the Big Ben clock tower, tolerant societies and English football. He thought of reconciling with his ex-wife.
“I’ve never felt so connected to my loved ones,” he said. “When you’re so isolated, there is an overwhelming sense of love for your family. … When you think you’re going to die, you suddenly realize how precious life is.”
Dreams and nightmares
In the dark room, Langan said life’s priorities came to him clearly.
“To be a good father, to be a good provider, and to be a good friend.”
He tried to stay calm and eventually came up with a plan to escape, one that he practiced time and again in his mind: He would grab the heavy gas lamp in the room and hit one of his captors over the head with it.
The nights were full of dark thoughts, Langan said, but the days were reserved for loving memories of his family and good food.
“It was my form of escape, from my hell hole.”
He did 50 sit-ups in the morning, and then spent the days dreaming, looking out of the hole in the wall. He dreamed of taking his children to Disneyworld in Florida. At the time of day he would usually give the boys a bath, he would go through the routine in his head.
One day, the Haqqani men returned. They showed him a video of the crosshairs of a sniper’s gun fixing on a U.S. soldier. As music plays, the soldier is shot and men yell, “Allahu Akbar”—“God is the greatest.”
“They were watching my reaction to see if I’d wince,” Langan said.
The militants placed a 2-year-old boy in his lap and, as a group, they watched other militants behead victim after victim. Langan asked if they thought it was inappropriate, and the men said, “No.”
Meanwhile, the health of the two prisoners kept declining. Sami continued to bleed and sometimes tried to eat his beard. They suffered constantly from insect bites and dysentery set in. Fevers were common. Langan’s teeth started to rot and fall apart.
Langan clung to photos of his children for inspiration, but if he looked at them for too long he would feel guilty about not being with them. And, he gained strength from touches of Western society. He had a small bottle of Clarins shampoo and a small bar of Hermes soap. In the bucket shower, he would smell the Hermes soap and then wash himself with the Pakistani soap he had been provided. He would also use a tiny drop of the shampoo. One day, he dropped the Hermes soap into the toilet hole. He desperately looked at Sami and sunk his hand into the sludge below, where he eventually retrieved the prize.
“I was hanging on by a thread,” he said. “I kept that soap until the end.”
Next in Part 2: The final days in captivity, being released and the difficulties of going home.
The Bowe Bergdahl saga
June 30, 2009—Bowe Bergdahl is captured in Afghanistan.
May 2012—The U.S. Army acknowledges that it has engaged in negotiations with the Taliban to free Bergdahl.
May 31, 2014—Bergdahl is released in a prisoner exchange.
June 13, 2014—Bergdahl returns to the United States, to an Army base in Texas.
Sean Langan’s work
Sean Langan has made documentary films in settings torn by war and civil unrest, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and Latin America. He put himself in dangerous situations numerous times in making two award-winning films in Afghanistan that were released in 2007, “Meeting the Taliban” and “Fighting the Taliban.” For more information, go to www.seanlangan.co.uk.