Nov 19, 2007 04:30 AM
KABUL–Held captive by the Taliban for 18 days, only to win back his freedom in exchange for much of his family's wealth, one might imagine the worst is behind Mustafa Barakzai.
The 20-year-old Afghan computer college student is immeasurably more fortunate, after all, than one of his dearest childhood friends, whose beheading Barakzai was forced to witness during their September kidnap ordeal. At the time, he was certain he would be next.
And Barakzai's family can claim a victory of sorts, if only because the initial demands of his captors – that his mother resign her seat as the only female member of parliament for Kandahar and denounce the government – were never met.
Instead, they hawked the family Lexus, the gold and whatever else could be found to scrounge together a ransom of about $100,000.
But this nightmare is most decidedly not over, because having enriched themselves once at the family's expense, the militants who held Barakzai just keep calling. They are hunting their man all over again.
"I started getting threatening calls on my mobile phone a few weeks ago. The Taliban said, `We can easily kill you, but instead we want you to join us. Work with us, and we will let your mother live,'" Barakzai said yesterday, breaking silence for the first time since the saga began Sept. 3, with the abduction on the road between Kabul and Kandahar.
"I said, `You made me watch as you cut the head off my friend.' What could possibly make you think I would go with you willingly?' And they said, `Worse things can happen.'"
Five days ago, worse nearly did happen when two of Barakzai's younger siblings narrowly escaped the clutches of four Taliban kidnappers in an SUV waiting outside their Kabul school. Alert to the threat, the children screamed for their lives as they saw the men approaching. Parents and teachers immediately rushed in, surrounding them in a protective buffer. The kidnappers fled.
Then, more calls to Barakzai's phone, one telling him he must kill his mother. "Now I don't even answer it, unless it is my mother herself. She checks on me 20, 25 times a day," he said.
Recurrence is not something foreign kidnap survivors need worry about. The 19 Korean missionaries freed in August in a frenzy of headlines, for example, will never again darken Afghanistan's door. But Afghans like Barakzai, whose saga passed beneath the public radar, have no choice but to remain in the country, where they dangle like prizes in a twisted lottery, waiting to be claimed a second time.
And a prize Barakzai is. Fluent in Pashtu, Dari and English, competent in Arabic and Turkish, an honours student in information technology at Kabul's Kardan Institute, he made an impression on his captors in September.
They were four at first – Barakzai, an uncle, and two childhood friends, one an electrician, the other a member of the Kandahar police – when gunmen on motorbikes waved them down in the area of Leewani Bazaar.
They were returning from a family wedding in Kandahar – a fact already known to the Taliban, much to Barakzai's distress. Seven bumpy hours later, they arrived blindfolded and bound at the wrists at a safe house in Paktia province, near the border with Pakistan. That's where the grilling began.
"They had a frightening amount of information. They told me what I ate at the wedding, right down to how many cans of Pepsi I had. They told me the name of the place where we had gone on a family picnic in Kandahar," said Barakzai.
"They told me what school I went to, what I was studying and what languages I speak. They even knew where I filled up my car with gas. I was in shock. It was like they were inside me head."
When Barakzai confirmed his identity, his captors erupted with joy, firing Kalashnikovs in the air, thanking God for their bounty.
Nearly every night for the next 17 days, the captives were marched overland, a few kilometres each time, to a different house, a process intended to evade U.S. forces, who were waging almost nightly operations in the area.
"They were paranoid. The first night we walked with ankle chains but after that they removed them. They thought the Americans were watching from the sky, looking for me the whole time," he said. "But I wasn't important to the Americans. The battles that were happening were for other Taliban, not the group that had us."
In a separate interview at the Wolesi Jirga, or parliament, headquarters in Kabul, Barakzai's mother, Malalai Ishaqzai, spoke of the frantic efforts on her end. A mother of seven whose family seat is in the Panjwaii district that has proven exceptionally hostile terrain for Canadian soldiers, Ishaqzai explained the agony of deciding whether to quit the government or further risk her eldest child.
The decision came down to this: if she acquiesced to the demand, all it would take for total Taliban victory is a series of further kidnappings of the children of legislators.
The Taliban's fallback demand – the release of seven senior Taliban commanders – was also declined by the Karzai government. And when Ishaqzai learned through intermediaries that money might grease the wheels of release, she went to President Hamid Karzai.
"The president refused. He understood the predicament. But the government is not willing to feed the Taliban with its own funds," said Ishaqzai. "We were alone."
Midway through their captivity, on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, another band of Taliban fighters arrived in a rage. Five of their own had been lost that day in a clash with U.S. soldiers. They wanted revenge – and it was to be taken out on Parlawan – Barakzai's childhood friend, the Kandahar cop.
"They brought me from an isolation room, removed my blindfold and held me at gunpoint. I saw Parlawan on his knees, with his hands bound behind his back, pleading with them, saying, `I will not be a police officer any more. Forgive me.' One very big Talib I had not seen before told him to shut up and then he sliced Parlawan's neck and stomach wide open. They bled him. After he died they cut his head off and put it inside his stomach.
"They said, `Now you will go to hell and our martyrs will go to heaven.'
"And then they handed me my own mobile phone and said, `Call your mother. Tell her.' I reached her and cried, `Give them what they want.' And they pulled the phone away. This was the only time I spoke to her."
The body of his beheaded friend was dumped on a road with his identity papers and a note saying, "This is what happens to Afghan policemen." Authorities returned the body to the family for burial.
Barakzai now estimated his chances of survival at little more than zero. As the days unfolded, he began to verbally challenge his captors, most memorably the night another Taliban crew arrived.
"This night there were five foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey and Pakistan. Because I speak some Arabic and Turkish I was brought out to help translate," he said.
"The Saudi man boasted to me, `I have assets back home. I am worth $1.6 million in Saudi Arabia. But I am here because it means nothing compared to jihad.'
"I said to him, `You may believe in jihad, but these other Afghans don't. They are hungry, they have no jobs and they do crime, like mafia, just for money. If they had your money you would be standing here alone.' The Saudi man got angry and walked away."
In the final days, an internal Taliban struggle took place over control of the last three captives, with one camp advocating execution and another preferring cash. The more moderate group prevailed – a group led by what Barakzai's mother calls "a good Talib." Instead of killing her son, he was set free, along with his uncle, Haj Ahmed, and their electrician friend, Kaleem. Barakzai prefers the full names of the other hostages be withheld, lest they also be targeted.
Neither Barakzai nor his mother knows which branch of Taliban has revived its interest in the family – the ideologues or the cash-seekers.
"The way they spoke to me on the phone, it seems the interest is political. If my mother is with the government, maybe they think I can become the propaganda prize against it," he says. "But in one of the calls, they said they will pay me $4,000 if I can tell them when important people will be driving the road to Kandahar. So maybe it is politics or maybe it is just money."
Barakzai's mother has been making the rounds of the embassies in Kabul to see whether there is any hope of getting her son refugee status overseas. She hasn't yet knocked on Canada's door.
"As a government official I am protected – as much as any government official can be with the situation the way it is," she said. "But Mustafa has to look over his shoulder every minute of the day ... We just want to get him to a safe place. And pray they will leave the rest of the family alone."
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