I Was Released By The Taliban… And Then My Troubles Really Started
I WATCHED Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s handover by the Taliban last month with a mixture of joy and profound sorrow.
Coming home, as I discovered, is far harder than captivity. As I write, the American intel guys will be breaking every detail of Bergdahl’s story down and pulling it apart. I’ll be surprised if he even makes it out of his debriefing room in one piece.
After three months of being locked in a dark room, I spent my first day of freedom in an even smaller one in the British High Commission in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. I’d already been stripped naked in my hotel room by officers from Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism team. They took away all my personal belongings in plastic evidence bags – including the photos of my two children that I had managed to hide from the Taliban – and interrogated me for eight hours. I understood their reasons and was willing to help. I had been captured by some of the most wanted men in the world, responsible for multiple attacks on US and British soldiers. The men I’d been with had trained the bombers behind London’s 7/7 atrocity, which killed 52 people.
As a documentary film-maker, I’d crossed the border illegally from Afghanistan into the tribal areas of Pakistan to film in the secret Taliban and al-Qa’ida training camps. The Haqqani network had invited me, but the moment I arrived in the tribal district of Bajaur I was arrested and accused of being a spy. I was blindfolded, led away at gunpoint and locked in a dark room in a family home. The charges were then read out to me and when I refused to give my Taliban interrogator the names of my children, he threatened to have me shot.
The best time to grill a freshly released hostage is when their trauma is still raw, yet that is when a victim is also at their most vulnerable. I had built a defensive wall around my emotions during my captivity, but now that I was back among “friends” I let my guard drop. And their friendly inquiries almost broke me.
By the time I got on the plane back to London I was about ready to have a nervous breakdown. And so I battened down the hatches and cauterised my emotions. My seven-year marriage had ended the year before and I knew my primary role now was to be a good father to my two sons. When the glass doors at the airport opened, Gabriel stepped forward on his scooter and greeted me: “Hi, Daddy. I’m four!” I knelt down and hugged him. “I know, Gaby. I’m so sorry I missed your birthday”
His birthday had been the worst day of my captivity. As I lay on the bed in my cell I was able to see the whole day unfold. I watched him wake up and rush into Mummy’s bedroom. I could tell he was expecting a present from me, or at least a phone call. He waited all day for me to call. Worst of all, before he fell asleep I knew his last thoughts would be: “I wonder why he didn’t call. Perhaps my Daddy doesn’t love me.” And so, for the sake of my children, when I got back home I decided to bottle up my emotions and postpone my breakdown until a more convenient date. With hindsight, I can see that might have been my first mistake.
My second mistake was agreeing to go on Richard & Judy [a TV chat show]. One minute I’m sitting in a dark room, waiting to have my head chopped off by the Taliban, and the next thing I know I’m sitting next to my fellow guest, Henry Winkler, who played the Fonz in Happy Days. Even before I opened my mouth, Judy’s eyes welled up and she started blubbing. Looking back, if you were to ask me to plot the development of my post-traumatic stress disorder on a chart, I would pinpoint that precise moment as the start. Because what passes as relatively normal life in London struck me as simply surreal. And, like a deep-sea diver who comes up too fast, my mind got a severe case of the bends.
I tried to maintain a pretence after my release and acted as though I were fine. But inside I was slowly falling apart and I couldn’t understand why. By some miracle I was alive. I was no longer being held captive. No one was threatening to kill me. I had my freedom back. I should have been happy. And yet for some irrational reason I felt nothing. I was emotionally dead. Worse, I turned on all those I loved most in the world. My ex-wife, Anabel, took me out to lunch soon after I got back home. I hadn’t expected her to get involved in my recovery. But I learnt that from the day I was kidnapped she had thrown herself into advocating for my release. While she was doing that, I was lying on the bed in my cell reliving every moment of our relationship. When you think you’re about to die, your whole life passes before you. And you see everything with perfect clarity. I saw her face the first time we met. I relived our first kiss and the first time we made love. I saw her walking down the aisle of the church, the beads of sweat on her forehead and her beautiful smile beneath a Spanish veil.
Once I was back in England, there were no longer any doubts. I knew she was the love of my life, my soulmate. She was single again and we had taken the children to Venice a few weeks after my release and had a romantic evening together. Now here I was, a few days later, sitting opposite her in a restaurant. But for some reason I leant across the table, looked straight into her eyes and heard myself speak these words: “Just in case you’re wondering. We will never, ever get back together.”
Her face crumpled and tears fell from her eyes. To this day I have no idea why I said that. In the following months I disconnected the phone and cut myself off from family and friends. I turned my back on all those I cherished most. I wouldn’t leave my apartment for weeks. I’d curl up on the floor and stay like that for days on end, just like the fictional Sergeant Brody in the first episode of Homeland.
Until last year I couldn’t sleep without a light on. I would lie awake, unable to stop the images of violence and beheadings playing in my mind. It all just came tumbling out of me like a never-ending spool of film spilling onto the floor. The truth is, you never really move on. At the flick of a switch I’m straight back in that room. Some experiences are so visceral that they never quite fade into memory but live on, for ever more, in the present tense.
When I was first led down a mountain towards the house in which I would be held captive, the Taliban fighter pulled a blindfold over my eyes and ushered me towards a precipice. I felt the end of an AK-47 pressed against my head and I thought: So this is it. This is how I’m going to die. All I have to do now is close my eyes and I’m standing back on that precipice.
There were so many moments like that – I got used to them. I woke up one night in my bed and found death standing over me. He was swathed in a black shawl, a black scarf covered his face and he had a long knife in his hands. I jumped up like a bolt and he laughed. It wasn’t death incarnate, merely an insane mullah. “Don’t worry,” he cackled. “I only wanted to show you the knife I killed an American with. When I cut his throat he screamed like a dog.”
My Afghan fixer and cellmate had a nervous breakdown and would spend the days gently rocking back and forth on his bed. He stopped eating and his physical condition collapsed. We had only one towel between us and it was soon caked in blood. Our cell was infested with fleas and termites and I was always fighting some kind of fever. My only luxury was a small bar of Hermès soap. One morning I dropped it down the latrine hole. But I knew my sanity depended on it and so I got down and put my arm deep into the hole. I would have done anything to keep my sanity.
One day they let us out, another moment that’s seared into my memory. It was the first time I’d seen sunlight in three months and I emerged like a mole blinking in the harsh glare. I looked down and couldn’t recognise myself. My skin looked like parchment stretched over bone. But we were free, or at least I thought we were. I was wrong. The Taliban commander handed me a satellite phone and ordered me to call Channel 4 (I had travelled to Afghanistan to work on a documentary about the Taliban for the British network). “Tell them we will kill your fixer if they don’t meet our demands.”
I called the Channel 4 switchboard in London and explained the situation. There was a pause. “I see – and how do you spell Sean Langan?” asked the switchboard operator, before putting me through to someone’s voicemail. The commander exploded. “Don’t these foreign f..kers get it? We kill people just to prove we mean business.” He then cocked his AK-47 and sprayed bullets over our heads in anger. After that we were led back into our dark room.
In the early months of my release I would pretend everything was well. But inside I was screaming and I could feel my life spiralling out of control. Once, after I was incommunicado for two weeks, my ex-wife had to climb up a drainpipe to get into my flat to find me. She was worried about the children and why I kept missing my meetings with them. But I couldn’t understand myself, so how could anyone else?
It has taken me six years to come to terms with my ordeal and to make sense of my post-traumatic stress disorder meltdown. During my captivity I suffered from regular bouts of fever and dysentery; five of my teeth dropped out and I lost 20kg. And for the first time in my life I knew – really knew – what it is to live in fear. But the strange thing is that I felt genuinely happy inside that dark room. Not happy in the everyday sense; the threat of execution was my sword of Damocles. And I was tormented that my death would cause so much suffering to my children and cast a shadow over their lives. For three months I lay awake every night waiting to have my throat cut. It’s an intense kind of terror that seeps into the subconscious where it lies in wait, curled up, ready to pounce at any moment.
One morning the Taliban commander entered my room and told me I was to be executed. I was already resigned to my fate by then. But I explained I had a slight problem with having my throat cut. “Would it be OK,” I politely asked, “if they could just shoot me in the back of the head instead?” Then I turned to my favourite guard and asked if he could deliver the coup de grâce. He was so touched that I’d chosen him as my executioner that he cried. For some reason my life was spared and we never spoke of it again.
The happiness I felt during my time in captivity – and I’m afraid I don’t know how to say this without sounding a bit soppy – was closer to a spiritual awakening. Living in fear of my life I became acutely sensitive not only to other people’s suffering, but also to the exquisite joy in life. I felt such overwhelming love for my family and as I listened to the birdsong in the surrounding fields I would imagine my thoughts being carried home on the same delicate waves that carried their song. I spent days on end crouching by a small hole at the back of the room. There was an apricot tree outside and beyond that I could just make out the wheat fields and the mountains beyond. This was my small window onto the world and I’d sit there and let my mind drift off to my loved ones.
When I knew it was the boys’ bath time at home, I would kneel down by my bed and go through the motions of bathing Luke, five, and Gabriel, four. As I closed my eyes I would carefully trace their limbs and feel the contours of their skin beneath my hands. I could even hear their squeals of delight as they splashed water over me. After my release I was embarrassed to talk about this product of my own feverish imagination. Perhaps I was just trying to block out the very real terrors that surrounded me. But the truth is, I was happy inside that dark room because I’d never felt quite so connected to all those I hold dear, and so alive, and so in love with life and all living things. The threat of death had granted me that insight. It was the greatest lesson one could ask for in life and for that I am eternally grateful. Having said that, I’d rather shoot myself than go through it all again. In fact, I spent the next three years after my release fighting the urge to do just that: shoot myself.
It’s hard to say why, but if life shone brightest while I was in that dark room, when I got home the light dimmed and the darkness threatened to overwhelm me. It was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said: “If you stare into the abyss for too long, the abyss stares back at you.” That made perfect sense to me.
All the fear I managed to keep at bay during captivity came back to haunt me. It never dissipated; it was just lying there in wait, growing stronger and more malevolent. Some mornings I’d wake up in a sweat and want to put a gun to my head. I wanted to feel the cold steel against my temple and then – in one final blinding explosion of violence – bring it all to an abrupt end. After waiting so long for the Taliban to cut off my head with a butcher’s knife, I just felt the need for some kind of closure.
I think it’s the waiting to be killed that really kills you. Despite my spiritual epiphany, I felt that a little part of me, the purest, most innocent part of me, had shrivelled up and died back in that room. If I’d had to contend with the backlash that Bergdahl is now facing while dealing with my own PTSD, I would have simply taken the easy option and ended it all. (Bergdahl was exchanged for five Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.) Fortunately for me, everyone was supportive.
Anabel is now in a relationship and has the stability that I could never give her. My kidnap ordeal and PTSD almost destroyed her but she has never given up on me, which is a strange thing for a divorced wife to do. And I have my relationship with my children to thank her for. Every moment I share with them is a miracle, one that might never have been. Our weekends together are so precious that I cry every time they end. We have been on all the holidays I dreamt we would take when I was imprisoned in that cell waiting to die.
I took my boys to the Arctic Circle, where we crossed frozen lakes on dog sleds. We slept in an igloo and drank hot chocolate while gazing up at the heavenly northern lights. Such stuff are dreams made of. And I thank God for every one of them. But it’s the mundane little things that I now really appreciate in life; the small interactions between people, a smile from a stranger, the laughter of a child and my favourite thing in the world – sharing a seafood lunch with family and friends and then a swim in the ocean. The threat of death has taught me the value of small things and for that I am eternally grateful.
More than that, I have now connected to the love I felt in my time in captivity. The shadow has lifted and all that is left is a wonderful appreciation of how life is so exquisite and fragile.
Note – This article was first published in The Sunday Times as ‘Home Sweet Hell’ on the 8th June 2014. It was then published by The Australian, on 21st June 2014.