Sunday, June 26, 2011

David Rohde and Kristen Mulvihill: A Rope and A Prayer

On November 10, 2008, journalist David Rohde was kidnapped in Afghanistan by a hardcore group of Taliban, and held by them, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for 7 months until his unlikely escape. Only two months before his kidnapping, Rohde had married Kristen Mulvihill, a photography editor at a fashion magazine, and promised her this was his last dangerous war correspondent adventure. He had already been kidnapped once before, and his release was negotiated at the highest levels of government. He was done, but decided to do one last interview with a Taliban commander, without telling his wife. He knows there is a risk, but decides the risk is worth it for the book he is writing about the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"A Rope and A Prayer" is the story of Rohde's time as a hostage/captive and Mulvihill's time as the wife of a hostage or captive, told in alternating voices. As I read the book, I enjoyed it, and learned a depressing amount about the sickening, chaotic, worsening situation in Afghanistan. The more time that passes between finishing the book and reading this, the more resentful I feel toward Rohde, on a more small, personal scale. The authors are about 40, and the marriage is the first for each of them. Although Mulvihill writes that she knew what she signed up for when marrying a war correspondent, Rohde told her that he would not jeopardize his life, and clearly took an unnecessary risk. Throughout the process, at least in her telling of the story, Mulvihill is supportive and resourceful, and almost never resentful. She is grateful to all of her family and to Rohde's family for their support, and really, goes above and beyond. Rohde, meanwhile, thinks about his wife, and surviving, but seems to feel worse for the two men who were traveling with him and whose lives he has endangered. Clearly, this is a terrible situation, but the epic guilt that seems implied in the set up is missing.

Aside from the personal aspect I found wanting, the book is a fast read, and the kidnapping gives Rohde an insight into current events in Afghanistan and especially Pakistan that he probably wouldn't have had just writing the book he planned to. An entire area in the Southwest of Pakistan which borders the Southeast of Afghanistan has been designated the "Federally Administered Tribal Areas" or FATA and is basically ungoverned by any officially recognized government: it is Taliban and Al Qaeda territory. Though Pakistan says that they do not harbor Taliban or Al Qaeda, Rohde was clearly held by Taliban and for most of his time in captivity, living in the FATA, which was clearly Taliban-run country. He had a number of guards and met a few commanders, and was distraught by the extremism he saw. He tells of guards who watch videos of suicide videos and decapitations of hostages the way other young men watch pornography or music videos: "The constant images of violence seem to numb our guards to the idea of death. Over and over again, human beings are killed on the small screen in front of us... the videos are cynical efforts by Taliban commanders to brainwash their foot soldiers. While death is ignored in the West, it is embraced in the videos. Death, the message goes, is not a distant fate. Instead, it is a friendly companion and a goal." These are the kinds of insights Rohde shares, along with more global, political and regional ones. While fascinating, the reader is left with the feeling that the book could not have existed without the kidnapping. And that Rohde wouldn't have had it otherwise.