Excerpt from “Bowe Bergdahl: The Homecoming from Hell,” an exclusive video interview that first appeared on The Sunday Times.
When two former hostages of the Taliban come face to face, words don’t come easily—there are none that can fully convey the trauma of captivity. You know what the other has experienced. Which is why, when I was finally granted the only face-to-face interview in the world with the former American POW Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl—who was captured by the Taliban and held hostage for five years after walking off his army base in Afghanistan in 2009—I seriously considered turning it down.
In 2008, while on assignment for Channel 4, I was kidnapped by the same group that held Bergdahl—the Haqqani network, who operate across Afghanistan’s southeastern border—and held hostage for three months in the tribal areas of Pakistan. I was locked in a dark cell, blindfolded and interrogated, and threatened with death on an almost-daily basis. But this was only a taste of what Bergdahl endured. I barely made it, and I had the companionship of a cellmate who could translate on my behalf. Bergdahl endured five years in solitary confinement, three of them locked in a cage. If my experience was a sojourn into purgatory, Bergdahl’s must have been closer to hell.
Despite his horrific ordeal, Bergdahl’s return to the US in June 2014 was the opposite of a hero’s welcome. The US army immediately assigned a two-star general to investigate why he deserted his post. The following March, Bergdahl was charged on two counts: one of “desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty”, and one of “misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.”
The long-awaited court martial had been due to start October 23, 2017 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But in a sudden twist, Bergdahl pleaded guilty to both charges earlier that month. A military judge will now pass sentence and decide whether the 31-year-old will spend any more time incarcerated. He could face life in prison and a dishonorable discharge from the army. When I emailed him following his guilty plea, he replied: “It’s going to be a tough few months ahead.”
We first met in March last year. After months of negotiations with his lawyers to arrange a brief meeting for a BBC documentary I was making—and a blanket “no” from his lawyers for an interview—eventually Bergdahl contacted me directly and agreed to meet me at his base in San Antonio, Texas, where he has been stationed since July 2014, on administrative duties, awaiting his court martial.
This was the first time he’d spoken to a journalist in person, although a taped telephone conversation he’d had with a film producer, Mark Boal, had recently aired on the popular American podcast Serial. He was nervous, and decided we should talk in an old tool shed on a farmhouse a few miles from the base—he didn’t want to be seen talking to a journalist by his colleagues, many of whom consider him a traitor. He usually has an armed guard for his own protection, but he told me he felt safe without them at this farmhouse. And so we sat, just the two of us, in the freezing cold for three hours, surrounded by ropes hanging on the walls and rusty saws perched on wooden shelves — as eerie and evocative a place as any for two former hostages to meet.
See the full interview at The Sunday Times.