By: Mark Fitzgerald
Speaking to a standing room only audience Wednesday evening at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, New York Times reporter David Rohde urged students to become a foreign correspondent as he was — but to be sure they had the back of a strong news organization if they venture into conflict zones.
“I urge you to be cautious and never go into a war zone without the support you need and deserve,” Rohde said.
Rohde spoke from the experience of spending seven months and 10 days as a hostage of the Taliban, spirited from place to place in the tribal areas of Pakistan where government authority was virtually non-existent.
Rohde described his many encounters with his guards, “brainwashed,” poorly educated young men who idolized suicide bombers as Westerners might revere sports stars — and who long to emulate their violence, preferably inside the United States.
Journalists no longer enjoy the relative immunity from kidnapping, Rohde told the audience composed mostly of students. Militant groups like the Taliban believe they can earn substantial ransoms for journalists. The Taliban holding Rohde demanded $25 million and the release of 15 prisoners from Guantanamo, a ransom ultimately reduced to $7 million.
Rohde and Afghan reporter Tahir Ludin were kidnapped in November 2008 on their way to an interview with a Taliban commander who had been interviewed by European journalists without incident. The pair plotted their escape after being moved to a house very close to a Pakistani Army base. Rohde’s description of the escape mixed tension and comedy and the two bumbled their way past sleeping guards. “My wife calls it ‘Abbott and Costello escape,’” he said.
Rohde and his wife have written a book about the ordeal which is about to be published. The reporter is now stateside, working on an investigation into the BP oil spill disaster.
“My days as a war correspondent are over,” he said.