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It was a throwaway line in a grim Human Rights Watch report that sent me on my quest: “The Taliban run dozens of unacknowledged prisons.” Here, for me, was a new and sinister aspect of the kind of parallel government that this insurgent group has constructed in Afghanistan.
Bombings and shootings have been written about at length. These prisons were an overlooked element in the Taliban’s terror campaign: a below-the-radar network of incarceration that is waiting to arbitrarily swallow up and punish citizens who are considered enemies of the group.
As the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times, I surmised that this network must have affected a substantial number of Afghans. My goal was to describe the physical features of these prisons as closely as possible, the conditions under which the Taliban’s prisoners are held and the psychological aftermath. What followed was a trip north, to Badakhshan Province, and a series of wrenching accounts of beatings, privation, despair and lingering trauma, culminating in one interview I will remember for a long time.
A dignified man of about 60, already old by Afghan standards, told me how he had watched the Taliban slowly put to death his 32-year-old son, Nasrullah, an army officer, in one of their makeshift prisons.
The father, Malik Mohammadi, was allowed to visit Nasrullah three times over nine days, during which his son was deprived of food and medicine for his epilepsy, and was systematically beaten. It all took place in an abandoned house.
“They chained him to a column. He was on a wooden bed frame. The chain was tight on his hands and legs. He was dying,” Mr. Mohammadi said.
Nasrullah lapsed into unconsciousness and died on his 10th day of detention.
This painful story, which I wrote about in an article in late February, was recounted with great calm. Mr. Mohammadi was not trying to gain my sympathy. He simply wanted to bear witness to what had happened to his son.
A resigned half smile played on his lips as he talked, as if he recognized the futility of speaking — his son would still be dead, no matter what he said.
At the end, I did something I rarely do, as a journalist who, over nearly 40 years of reporting, has heard many terrible stories, and been witness to more than a few: I put my arms around Mr. Mohammadi and gave him a hug.
The rule is always, don’t get involved in the tragedies of others. It’s not part of the job. Sometimes though, not often, the rule is bent. Mr. Mohammadi seemed very alone in his grief. He accepted my gesture without embarrassment and took his leave.
The interview with Mr. Mohammadi took place on a hotel balcony in the northern provincial capital of Faizabad. A buzkashi match — a rough game of mounted polo in which the headless corpse of a calf or goat is chased by riders around an immense field — was unfolding noisily beneath us.
Before the interview, I had ranged far and wide in the mountains of Badakhshan looking for ex-prisoners of the Taliban, with my small and excellent team of colleagues: the photographer Kiana Hayeri; a reporter in the Kabul bureau, Najim Rahim; and a great Faizabad freelance journalist and driver (who asked not to be named).
One of our destinations was a forlorn rural outpost of an ineffectual pro-government militia in Jorm District. We were told as soon as we arrived that we would have to make the interviews quick, as the Taliban had gotten wind of our arrival. So we hurried, and afterward the Faizabad colleague sped our small car through the hills to get us out of there.
As we were making our way back, we could see the white flag of the Taliban fluttering across the river. When we arrived back in town, our colleague told us with grim humor that the last stretch of road was known locally as “the valley of death” because Taliban kidnappings were not infrequent.
Just the week before, he told us, a judge from Faizabad had been kidnapped on it.
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