Part 2 of a two-part series.
As journalist and documentary filmmaker Sean Langan dreamed of being freed from a punishing imprisonment by his Taliban-affiliated captors in the tribal areas of Pakistan, family members and his media employer in England tried to make connections that would make that dream a reality.
Langan and his Afghan translator, Sami, had been taken captive in March 2008 while trying to report on Taliban and al Qaeda safe areas in Pakistan, a nation that officially was serving as an ally to the United States in the Afghanistan war against terrorism. Langan and Sami had planned to try to meet with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who served as al Qaeda’s second in command behind Osama bin Laden. There were reports that al-Zawahiri was operating for al Qaeda in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.
Langan and Sami were suffering in a small, dark room on a Pashtun farmstead under the command of the Haqqani network, the same faction of the Taliban that captured and held Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, a Hailey native who had volunteered to fight for the Western cause in the Middle East. Their health was deteriorating. Their captors had threatened to shoot or behead them for being spies. Later, after thinking they would be released, the prisoners were transferred to an alternate mountain hideout, which Langan refers to as the “‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ place,” for all of the violent beheading videos he was forced to watch.
Finally, Langan’s family and the company he was working for—Channel 4 of England—made some progress and Langan’s general whereabouts were determined. Langan heard drones flying overhead and wondered if the aerial American robots were looking for him or al-Zawahiri.
“They knew where I was,” Langan said.
He surmised that it might look bad for Pakistan if it was discovered that a British journalist was being held captive by the Haqqani network in the tribal areas—Pakistan was denying that the tribal areas were a safe haven for terrorists.
Release from captivity
Langan doesn’t know exactly what circumstances led to his release, but, he said, intelligence gathering suggests that an order was given by Pakistani officials to kill him and dump his body in a remote area so there would be no evidence he was ever in the Pakistan tribal areas. Then, he said, the British foreign secretary in Pakistan found out about the threat and warned that he would let it be known that Langan was in the tribal areas, and there would be evidence of Pakistan turning a blind eye to the machinations of the Haqqani terrorists. Pakistan would not want that. So, an American private operative who had formerly worked for the FBI started to negotiate Langan’s release.
At first, Langan said, his captors wanted up to 10 Haqqani prisoners and a large sum of money in return for Langan and Sami. Then, a deal was finally negotiated for a ransom sum—which was not disclosed but Langan believes to be around $150,000—to be paid but no exchange of prisoners. Langan spoke in a proof-of-life video but relayed a message to his supporters that he did not want a ransom to be paid that would support terrorism or future kidnappings.
Then, about three months after he had been taken captive, Langan was dressed in a traditional Islamic woman’s burka and some cheap, plastic high-heeled shoes, he said. He was driven to a city in Pakistan where jihadists were walking around freely. He was told to get out of the car and get into another vehicle nearby. Fighters with guns—seemingly on a “rest and relaxation” break from the war against the Americans—walked by the car but didn’t notice him. After another transport, he was let out in another city, where he saw a big man approach him with a cup of coffee in a Dunkin Donuts cup. The man handed him the coffee and said, “Welcome home, sir,” Langan said.
Channel 4 of England denies paying for Langan’s freedom, but on June 21, 2008, he was released to the hired American negotiator in the Pakistan capital of Islamabad.
Langan quickly found himself in a Pakistani hotel room, where Western military officials demanded information on his ordeal.
“They need to get at hostages when they are most raw,” Langan said.
He was asked to undress and was strip-searched, he said. Someone took a DNA swab from his mouth. His possessions—including photos of his two sons that he had hidden from his Haqqani captors—were put in evidence bags and taken away. And he was aggressively questioned for nine hours.
“I had a breakdown,” he said. “I felt like the good guys were raping me.”
Nonetheless, Langan said, he wanted to tell his story, to get it all out of his mind.
“I just couldn’t wait to start talking,” he said. “But, at the same time, that can keep it all alive.”
Sami was allowed to return to Afghanistan and Langan returned to his home in London. He had lost 42 pounds and five of his teeth, but he was alive. But, counter to his hopes, the dream of freedom in the West soon proved to be a nightmare.
“Coming home is far harder than being in captivity,” he said.
Back in England, Langan said, he “was totally disconnected.” He could not relate to his friends and loved ones, so he holed up alone in his house. He didn’t answer the phone and rejected congenial offerings from friends. On his computer, there were some 150 emails from friends and family congratulating him on surviving the ordeal—he deleted them all without answering a single one. He couldn’t sleep on a bed for three months—he simply curled up on the hard floor. His gas was turned off because he couldn’t cope with paying a leftover bill for about $20.
“I hid in a room because I couldn’t deal with it,” he said.
He didn’t speak to his brother for a year, over a “stupid argument,” he said. At lunch one day, his ex-wife—whom he dreamed of rekindling a love and life with—told Langan she wanted to get back together. He looked at her—with “ice in my heart,” he said—and told her they would never be a couple or family again.
And then there were the terrifying thoughts and images playing out in his head. He had visions of bloody battles, death and beheadings. He was afraid of whether he was capable of violence because he had planned to kill some of his captors in that hell hole in Pakistan. One night, he kept reliving in his mind having to watch videos of Taliban beheadings, for hours and hours until it was daylight.
“In the morning, I wanted to shoot myself, but, fortunately, I didn’t have a gun.”
He left London and went to spend time in a more pastoral area of England, in Norfolk. But, the depression and hopelessness endured.
“I would spend hours upon hours looking at trees and wondering which one I should use to hang myself with,” he said. “When I came home [to England], all of the stuff I was putting out of my mind before just came out.”
In October 2008, just months after the ordeal, he went to New York City to give lectures about his experience and what it meant. He didn’t have trouble talking about his time in captivity, but he couldn’t deal with the realities of everyday life in the city. He barely left his apartment the entire time he was in New York, he said, except to speak about the horrors he endured.
“When you’ve been in that intense of a bubble of captivity, and you’ve then swapped one intense bubble for another one, all it does is make it harder to salvage a normal life,” he said.
Langan attributes most of his anti-social behavior to a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He was diagnosed and treated for PTSD, but had a hard time in counseling.
“PTSD is counter-intuitive,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
He thought about his two boys to stay positive and talked about the months in captivity to release its grip on him.
“The only way to get through PTSD is to let the horror out,” he said. “If you keep a lid on it, it gets worse.”
It took about five years for Langan to process the horrors and let them go. Now, some six years later, he said he is happy and is enjoying life.
“I know I’m through it,” he said. “I can still put myself back in the room, but it’s farther away. Now, the light is brighter than the darkness of depression.”
Thoughts about Bowe Bergdahl
Despite his own difficulties in reintegrating with Western society, Langan said he believes there is “light at end of the tunnel” for Sgt. Bergdahl, but acknowledges that it could be “a long road.”
After spending five years in the captivity of Haqqani fighters, Bergdahl is working a desk job at the Fort Sam Houston military base in Texas. He was released on May 31 in exchange for five Taliban prisoners who had been held in a U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He and his family are awaiting the results of an investigation into whether he violated any military laws on the day he was captured in the Paktika province of Afghanistan on June 30, 2009.
Reports have indicated that he might not have yet spoken with his parents—Hailey-area residents Bob and Jani Bergdahl—who worked tirelessly to secure his release. Bob Bergdahl has been criticized in some circles for making numerous high-profile appeals for his son’s release, despite evidence that Bowe was disenchanted with the war and its ugly realities.
“I rejected my loved ones, but it wasn’t my true feeling,” Langan said. “There’s no question that hostages have PTSD, and sometimes people around them suffer, too.”
The guilt associated with PTSD can be especially difficult, Langan said. One night while in captivity, his captors let him outside. He looked at the stars in the sky and enjoyed the beauty of the open spaces above him. But he felt guilty for having positive thoughts while his family was suffering in England, wondering if he was OK, he said.
With all of the challenges of Bowe’s return looming, the Wood River Valley community should give Bob Bergdahl some “leniency,” Langan said.
“He fought for his son. As a father, you do everything it takes to get your son back. After all, he has been traumatized, too.”
And, Langan said, Bowe’s hometown of Hailey should “be there” for all of the Bergdahl family, for a potentially long journey remains.
But, he said, the scenic beauty of Idaho can be a positive influence.
“Since I’ve been here, I can’t stop smiling,” he said.
Greg Foley: email@example.com
Editor’s note: Sean Langan recently left the Wood River Valley to return to Europe to see his family. He plans to return soon to Blaine County to continue work on a documentary film about Bowe Bergdahl.