Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo has reported from many of the world's most dangerous places, but the experience he recounts in Days of Fear reduces him to sobbing. At 52, he's a seasoned reporter and has come to Afghanistan, a land proudly boasting 3,000 suicide bombers, a country infested by 10 million land mines, to interview a powerful, dangerous leader of the new Taliban. He intends to meet the enemy face to face, to give the Taliban a true voice.
Always carrying with him his copy of Albert Camus' The Plague, heading toward a remote outpost on the edge of Pakistan, walking the thin line between the Taliban and the Afghan police, Mastrogiacomo has a surprise waiting. He's not heading toward an interview, at all. The leader he's come to meet has been placed under arrest. The new leader does not consider the author a journalist. He considers him a spy. Mastrogiacomo is bound and blindfolded, along with his interpreter and driver. Overnight they become tortured, brutalized hostages. His driver is beheaded. His interpreter will be next.
It's an icy plunge into what looks like pure evil. Yet the Taliban who enact these horrors are boys in their 20s, cold-blooded and brutal but sometimes surprisingly sympathetic, not expecting to live long, admiring their short beards with pocket mirrors, callously trying to provoke their prisoners into spilling tears of terror.
Written with grace and fairness, with you-are-there realism, the book is a nail-biter. Mastrogiacomo introduces us to the terror of helplessness, of blindfolds so tight they hurt your eyes, of wounds that go on bleeding for hours because tied hands can't stop the flow of blood. It's a harrowing, heartbreaking, ultimately redemptive journey to the limits of what a man can endure, and Mastrogiacomo brilliantly captures step-by-step the mental fracturing and psychological breakdown that accompany torture, reporting in an unadorned style that is sensitively underwritten.
As a survival story, it's gripping stuff, and you believe every word of it. Think The Old Man and the Sea, set in a world of Kalashnikovs and decapitations. Mastrogiacomo takes the reader on a body-punishing dash across the desert, from villages of tents and cardboard huts to vast opium poppy farms. It's a narrative with all the sheer unpredictability of nonfiction told with the sophistication, compassion and suspense of Joseph Conrad.
By Nick DiMartino