Kristen Mulvihill and David Rohde knew of the risks involved in Rohde’s work as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Before getting married, they had even discussed the worst, including what to do if Rohde was killed overseas.
The couple had not, however, contemplated what to do if kidnappers grabbed Rohde and told his wife she must pay $25 million and secure the release of Guantanamo prisoners to save his life. But that is exactly what happened when the journalist left his new bride in New York and went to Afghanistan to finish reporting his book, which included an interview with the Taliban.
The result was a seven month ordeal that is described in the couple’s new book, A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping From Two Sides.
Rohde and Mulvihill were at Club Quarters on January 11 to share their story of love and courage with members of the Overseas Press Club. Their talk was also a testament to the plight of kidnapped journalists and a candid assessment of America’s dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan.
Rohde explained how his first minutes of captivity came as a rude jolt of shame in which he realized that his all-important interview opportunity was no more than an act of recklessness.
“There’s an intensifying race to the bottom that leads to taking risks in exchange for adulation,” he said, describing his own actions and what he regards as a dangerous trend in overseas journalism. Rohde had been kidnapped before while reporting in Bosnia.
For Mulvihill, her husband’s kidnapping was at once traumatic and absurd. For instance, she learned of the capture while at Cosmopolitan magazine where she was editing a piece called “How my Bra Saved my Life.” She also had to experience the indignity of tormentors who demanded millions of dollars, but called collect to do so.
There were moments of levity, too. Mulvihill recounted with a laugh the time she and a car full of FBI agents looked on powerlessly as a cop handed them a parking ticket as they conferred outside a Starbucks on the Upper West Side.
At the event, Mulvihill expressed gratitude not only to the federal agents but also to the New York journalism community who supported her during Rohde’s captivity. Even though the kidnapping was widely known at The New York Times and other news rooms, no reporter chose to endanger Rohde further by publishing the fact.
News accounts would have only further stoked the deluded grandiosity of the Taliban who, the couple reported, proved remarkably sophisticated in their use of technology and media. Their tactics included trolling Google for Rohde’s family members and driving him three hours up a mountain to make a ransom video appear that it was produced in Afghanistan, not Pakistan where he was actually held.
The couple’s ordeal ended happily after Rohde used a rope to escape his captors and make his way to a Pakistan military base.
Other kidnapped journalists are not so fortunate. Rohde described a captured Canadian reporter whose family has been resorting to charity cookouts in a desperate attempt to raise ransom money. He added that unlike European and Asian nations, the governments of English speaking countries do not pay kidnappers.
To help others who land in his situation, Rohde is working with the Committee to Protect Journalists to develop protocols for governments and news agencies to follow when a reporter is kidnapped.
In response to a question from former OPC President Allan Dodds Frank, Rohde also offered advice for young journalists reporting in danger areas.
“Don’t interview the Taliban,” he replied deadpan before adding that it has become essential to work only with large news agencies who have the best fixers. “We’re only as good as the local journalists we work with.”
The event’s discussion finally turned to the intractable problem of how Americans can work with a government in Pakistan that is blatantly in cahoots with the Taliban.
Rohde’s view is that no amount of money and military aid to Pakistan will induce the country to dislodge the Taliban. Instead, he endorses a view expressed in a WikiLeaks cable that the answer lies in a strategic shift that addresses Pakistan’s fear of encirclement. Rohde notes that India has erected six consulates in the Afghan region and that this is a source of anger and paranoia even among ordinary Pakistanis.
The couple’s book offers insight on Pakistan and the kidnapping but it is also, they say, a symbolic end to Rohde’s war reporting and the start of a new phase of life. It may have to be. He says his mother’s first words on his return were, “I’m revoking your passport.”