Former foreign correspondent and current New Yorker online news director David Rohde spoke to an audience in the Sidney Gelber Auditorium on Wednesday night as part of the School of Journalism’s Marie Colvin Lecture Series.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for his work in international reporting, Rohde was kidnapped and detained by the Taliban for seven months in Afghanistan while he was a reporter for The New York Times.
Rohde gained worldwide recognition in the mid 1990s during the Bosnian War, when he became the first reporter to cover the aftermath of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre. Working for The Christian Science Monitor, Rohde uncovered the story behind the genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, the largest targeted mass killing in Europe since World War II.
“Each year we invite here one of the outstanding foreign correspondents, someone who’s done special work in this area, to talk to all of us about what’s it’s like to be overseas and to bear witness,” Howard Schneider, dean of the School of Journalism, said when introducing Rohde. “I can think of few who better exhibit the spirit and courage of Marie Colvin … than tonight’s guest, David Rohde.”
Rohde’s reporting in Bosnia would later inspire his colleague Marie Colvin, namesake of the School of Journalism’s Center for International Reporting. Colvin was killed by artillery fire in Homs, Syria in 2012 while covering the country’s civil war. The Syrian government barred foreign journalists from entering the country, but Colvin, echoing Rohde’s own coverage of Bosnia, felt she could not do her job effectively from the sidelines.
“On a personal level, why giving this lecture means so much to me is that she chose to go into Homs … and chose to cover the siege of that city,” Rohde said. “She wrote to this friend of hers, from Homs, on the night before she was killed … She said ‘I just thought I could not cover the modern-day Srebrenica from the suburbs.’”
While Rohde maintained he has no regrets about his work in Bosnia, which resulted in a 10-day detention on espionage charges by Bosnian Serb forces, he criticized the motives that led to his capture in Afghanistan. Rohde chalked his capture up to a lack of caution he displayed while reporting for a book about the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan.
“I was driven, I wanted this to be the best book possible,” Rohde said. “My mistake in Afghanistan was competition. I would say several dozen journalists had interviewed Taliban commanders, but I had not done that … I let competition get the best of me.”
Rohde linked up with Afghan journalist and translator Tahir Ludin and driver Asadullah Mangal to set up an interview with a Taliban commander in Logar Province, less than two hours from Kabul, to finish the groundwork for Rohde’s book. When they arrived at the scheduled meeting place, the commander was nowhere to be found.
“There was a car stopped in the middle of the road, blocking us,” Rohde said. “Two men came running at us with Kalashnikov assault rifles, screaming and screaming. Assad and Tahir got in the back seat of the car. The two men jumped in the front seat and very quickly started driving us down the road … we quickly turned off the road and started driving off into the desert.”
Rohde was smuggled under a sheet in the car on a three-day journey to a Taliban base in Pakistan. When he told his captors he was American, one of them responded, “We will send a blood message to Obama.”
The three men were held in Pakistan for seven months while the Taliban attempted to ransom Rohde in exchange for money and detained terrorists. During his detainment, The Times worked with international news outlets to suppress news about Rohde’s kidnapping for fear it would embolden his captors.
Rohde and Ludin escaped from captivity June 19. The two maneuvered past sleeping guards under cover of night, and used a rope they found to scale down the wall of the Taliban complex. They made their way through a nearby town to a Pakistani military base, with Rohde fearing capture the entire time.
“We were walking down a side street that had streetlights on it, and I was convinced the Taliban would find us and capture us,” Rohde said. “I suddenly heard two men shout in Pashtun, the local language … I was convinced the Taliban had captured us, and would take us back to captivity. Instead Tahir turned to me and said ‘this is it, this is Pakistan base.’”
The Pakistani soldiers who encountered the unshaven men initially mistook them for Taliban fighters, but eventually they were permitted to enter the base, where Rohde got to call his wife for the first time in over half a year.
Rohde managed to make light of his ordeal from time to time, joking to the audience that he was a horrible newlywed husband and saying his wife thought he would be skinnier the first time she saw him again. His levity and modest demeanor made an impression on the people who heard him speak, including journalism professor Stephen Reiner, who interviewed Rohde in a Q&A session after his lecture.
“I was really taken by his modesty and the fact that he seemed very centered,” Reiner said. “And for someone who’s done such extraordinarily brave reporting and such heroic reporting, and survived seven months where basically any day you might be beheaded, I thought he was amazingly modest.”
After recounting the tale of his escape, Rohde left the journalism students in the room with a message to keep pursuing their careers. While he no longer travels in pursuit of stories, he still admires the work reporters like Colvin have done, and the ambition of those who seek to follow in her footsteps.
“I’m incredibly proud of Marie and what she achieved, and the bravery that she showed,” Rohde said. “She kept taking the risks that I stopped taking, and I’ll always respect her for that … Journalism has never been more important than it is today. It’s a calling, not just a profession.”