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The Wall Street Journal: "The Taliban and Personal Terror"

Date: Feb 26 2010

From The Wall Street Journal

Over the past decade—as we know too well—the Internet has revolutionized journalism by allowing almost anyone to set up his own virtual news outlet from the comfort of his home-based laptop. But as Daniele Mastrogiacomo reminds us in "Days of Fear," there are still stories that require a willingness to brave fraught circumstances and, at times, to endure unimaginable hardship.

Mr. Mastrogiacomo, a veteran correspondent for the Rome daily La Repubblica, traveled to Afghanistan in 2007 for a promised interview with a Taliban military commander. He ended up spending two weeks in captivity, enduring repeated floggings, witnessing the decapitation of his Afghan driver and more than once coming close to being murdered himself.

Of course this ordeal— shorter yet evidently no less harrowing than the Taliban's later kidnapping of the New York Times's David Rohde— gave Mr. Mastrogiacomo deeper access to his subject than he had ever expected. As Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban commander, told him sardonically when they finally did meet: "You have obtained much more than an interview. You have seen how we live and how we think." The value of "Days of Fear," beyond its tense narrative, is precisely this close look at a far-off tribal society.

As he is taken to a series of squalid hiding places near the Pakistan border, Mr. Mastrogiacomo finds his captors eager to talk about the West, which they see as depraved, selfish and hopelessly anarchic. "Where you're from, the rules are unclear," one tells him. "That's why you are surrounded by murderers, thieves, betrayers." Mr. Mastrogiacomo argues with them, to no avail, in favor of sexual freedom and secular justice. Unable to join in a game of soccer because of his shackles, he ends up in the role of referee. The abductors "follow my instructions and abide by every one of my calls."

When the Taliban announce to the international public the capture of Mr. Mastrogiacomo, on charges of "espionage," the Italian authorities try to confirm that he is alive and truly in the Taliban's hands. The officials ask his wife, still in Italy, for a bit of information that only Mr. Mastrogiacomo would know—the name that the couple had privately planned to give a daughter if they were lucky enough to have one. Confused at first by the question, Mr. Mastrogiacomo finally gives a frustrated Taliban officer the information he needs. In a scene worthy of Fellini, at once poignant and darkly ironic, the Taliban soldiers around him erupt in cheers of "Antaya!" They call out the name "joyfully, almost as if they were celebrating a birthday or intoning a hymn." For them, the name has set in motion negotiations for the release of Taliban prisoners. For Mr. Mastrogiacomo, it signals the possibility of his own release.

It is obvious that nothing in Mr. Mastrogiacomo's contact with the Taliban left him sympathetic to their cause. They reveal themselves as manipulative and mendacious, promising to let Mr. Mastrogiacomo go, then changing their minds and threatening to execute him. He is whipsawed between seeming leniency and real brutality, including beatings and the Kalashnikov-rifle version of a pistol-whipping. The Taliban taunt him by telling him he is lucky not to be a prisoner at Guantánamo, where (they say) prisoners of the U.S. are routinely tortured. Mr. Mastrogiacomo realizes that he is "nothing but merchandise to be traded." He fears that, if the negotiations for a prisoner exchange break down, he will be killed.

"Days of Fear" offers glimpses of the opium trade with which the Taliban finance their activities. Work in the poppy fields, we learn, pays a handsome $150 a week and leaves the harvesters "disoriented due to the extremely strong odor of the opium paste." We are reminded of the religious fervor that makes the Taliban impossible to confuse with a mere criminal gang. A young fighter shouts out "Allah Akbar" in his sleep. A suave commander gives Mr. Mastrogiacomo an MP3 player with a recording of the entire Quran. A soft-spoken marksman recites from scripture, then exhales onto the prisoner's chest, telling him: "I breathe all of Allah's energy into you to protect you from enemies and danger." At one point Mr. Mastrogiacomo is told that he can go free if he converts to Islam. He pretends to consider the proposal but balks at one pre-condition. "I shake my head, terrorized by the idea of being circumcised in a sheepfold, amidst fleas and mice, with an old rusty knife."

Mr. Mastrogiacomo recalls his prayers to God during his imprisonment. He does not go so far as to say that he was praying to a different God from that of his captors, yet the differences between his values and theirs could not be clearer.

One of the most riveting passages in "Days of Fear" describes the fate of Mr. Mastrogiacomo's driver, Sayed, a native Pashtun who is tortured by his captors until, 11 days after the kidnapping, he is driven out to a river bank, where three or four Taliban soldiers push him down on the sand and one saws his head off with a knife. The episode takes place in front of Mr. Mastrogiacomo, who watches in shock through a slit in his blindfold.

Eventually Italy prevails on Afghanistan's government, and some Taliban prisoners are exchanged for Mr. Mastrogiacomo's life. He is grateful, if shaken. The ordeal, he says, "made me stronger, more convinced of the vital importance of many things: my relationships with loved ones, life's small everyday moments, basic human values, my profession." The Taliban, he says, have other priorities: "They spend this mere flicker of earthly life waiting to die in battle and ascend to paradise—their reward for having participated in a jihad in Allah's name."

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