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It was a throwaway line in a grim Human Rights Watch report that sent me on my quest: “The Taliban run dozens of unacknowledged prisons.” Here, for me, was a new and sinister aspect of the kind of parallel government that this insurgent group has constructed in Afghanistan.
Bombings and shootings have been written about at length. These prisons were an overlooked element in the Taliban’s terror campaign: a below-the-radar network of incarceration that is waiting to arbitrarily swallow up and punish citizens who are considered enemies of the group.
As the Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times, I surmised that this network must have affected a substantial number of Afghans. My goal was to describe the physical features of these prisons as closely as possible, the conditions under which the Taliban’s prisoners are held and the psychological aftermath. What followed was a trip north, to Badakhshan Province, and a series of wrenching accounts of beatings, privation, despair and lingering trauma, culminating in one interview I will remember for a long time.
buzkashi match — a rough game of mounted polo in which the headless corpse of a calf or goat is chased by riders around an immense field — was unfolding noisily beneath us.
Before the interview, I had ranged far and wide in the mountains of Badakhshan looking for ex-prisoners of the Taliban, with my small and excellent team of colleagues: the photographer Kiana Hayeri; a reporter in the Kabul bureau, Najim Rahim; and a great Faizabad freelance journalist and driver (who asked not to be named).
One of our destinations was a forlorn rural outpost of an ineffectual pro-government militia in Jorm District. We were told as soon as we arrived that we would have to make the interviews quick, as the Taliban had gotten wind of our arrival. So we hurried, and afterward the Faizabad colleague sped our small car through the hills to get us out of there.
As we were making our way back, we could see the white flag of the Taliban fluttering across the river. When we arrived back in town, our colleague told us with grim humor that the last stretch of road was known locally as “the valley of death” because Taliban kidnappings were not infrequent.
Just the week before, he told us, a judge from Faizabad had been kidnapped on it.
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