Serial Recap, Episode 3: Surviving Year 1 with the Taliban
Last week, Serial listeners learned about how, exactly, Taliban forces captured Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, hearing the story from Taliban operatives themselves. This week, host Sarah Koenig examines what happened to him in the weeks and months after his capture. Here’s what Bergdahl, who only had rudimentary training in how to survive captivity, did to make it through his first year with the Taliban.
Become meek and forgotten. As a military debriefer explains, there were three phases to Bergdahl’s containment: torture, abuse, and neglect. He spent months spread-eagled shackled on a bed, and had nearly constant diarrhea for four years, but the isolation was often the hardest part to take—and key to his survival. As Bergdahl explains, he quickly learned that the best way to stay alive was to keep a low profile. Don’t ask for water, or you won’t get it. Stay physically disgusting, so your captors don’t want to come near you and beat you. As he says in an interview with Mark Boal, “Picture someone taking a bag, throwing it into a closet, shutting the door and just forgetting about it. That was basically how they treated me.”
Answer questions—carefully. Bergdahl faced a mix of reasonable questions, many of which he could not answer (What kind of cameras do drones have?), seemingly absurd questions (Are all American women prostitutes who sleep with animals?), and minutia about life on the base (What kind of alcohol do American military officers drink?). But Bergdahl’s value to the Taliban wasn’t in his information—they could get more from Afghan interpreters. The value was in the sheer fact of having him, especially for propaganda videos disseminated to international media, in which Bergdahl was forced to read scripts about how well he was being treated in comparison to Taliban prisoners-of-war at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.
Remember everything. From the moment of his capture, Bergdahl carefully tried to remember all the details he could, to eventually relay the information back to the American military. Chained to a bed and blindfolded, he would listen to the daily patterns of when his captors slept and ate and worked, and try to identify which kinds of planes and drones flew overhead by their sound. And he took advantage of any visible intel: When a young boy showed him his baseball cap, Bergdahl got a valuable clue that he was held in North Waziristan.
Try to escape. Bergdahl escaped twice in that first year. His first time, which lasted for about 10 minutes, resulted in days of getting whipped with a hose. His second escape was more considered. After months of collecting tools—an eight-inch length of PVC pipe, a nail, a key—he made it out of captivity. Here, Koenig offers one of her first appraisals of Bergdahl’s character and motives. She sees this moment as proof that Bergdahl was not a Taliban sympathizer, as many (including Boal, initially) had hypothesized. Despite his punishment the last time he escaped, and the fact that no P.O.W. had successfully escaped captivity since Vietnam, he was desperate enough to try it. But after nine days of starvation, injury, and hiding in remote northwest Pakistan, the Taliban found Bergdahl. As he explains, that was the last time he would see stars for the next four years.
Of course, popular media has already told much of the story of Bowe Bergdahl. But Koenig and the Serial team offer something else, both through Boal’s candid interviews and through the circumspect scene-setting: the specific details about his open wounds and how often he was allowed to stand up; the way different Pakistanis—Taliban, but also women and kids—would interact with Bergdahl. Koenig talks to Afghan reporter Sami Yousafzai about just how stressful and boring it was for Taliban members—young men eager to devote their lives to the cause—to stand guard over a scared, sick, starving prisoner for years, and how they would pass the time: giving him goofy haircuts, joking about circumcising him, forcing him to watch beheading videos.
On the next episode of Serial (in two weeks, on Jan. 7), Koenig promises to delve into the continued American response to Bergdahl’s captivity: what it meant for US politics, and for US troops. In the meantime, Serial continues to experiment with multimedia, from an interactive map of where Bergdahl was held to a collection of his appearances in Taliban propaganda videos.