Under the Radar

Getting Some Outside Perspective in 'Serial' Episode 4


Reporter David Rohde was also a prisoner of the Haqqanis.

After a break for the holiday, Serial returned last week with an episode that delved into what happened to Bowe Bergdahl after his second escape attempt. Short version: they kept him in the dark and in a collapsible, six-sided cage for most of the remaining 4 years of his captivity.

In an attempt to get some perspective on his captors and the experience, Koenig tracks down reporter David Rohde, who was held captive by the Haqqanis for seven months. He managed to escape before they held Bergdahl, but his experiences give some context and background for the American soldier's description of his ordeal.

Rohde was captured alongside his driver and interpreter, so he had a much better understanding of what was going on around him. (Remember: previous episodes established that Bergdahl didn't speak the language and never really communicated with his captors.) Plus Rohde was a civilian and nowhere near the prize that the only American POW of the war in Afghanistan would be.

Rohde knew the country and the culture and wasn't blindfolded, so he knew that he was being held in Pakistan. He also had some knowledge of the Haqqanis, a Taliban-affiliated group that are also several other things at the same time. As Koenig explains, "The Haqqanis are a family-run operation and they’re not one thing. They’re Islamic nationalists, they’re a militant group, and they own businesses. A New York Times story compared them to the Sopranos of the Afghanistan war.”

Rohde describes his captors as being obsessed with the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and they constantly told him that he was getting better treatment was better than men held in those facilities. The reporter theorizes that Bergdahl got such rough treatment in part because of Rohde's successful (and embarrassing) escape.

Leaving aside the circumstances of his capture, Koenig reports that DoD officials believe that otherwise Bergdahl's survival and relative mental health upon release would be considered he huge success story for the U.S. military. He never broke, he didn't lose his mind and he collected bits of intelligence throughout his captivity.

The episode wraps up with Bergdahl's description of a half-hearted escape attempt based on an attempt to rust the bars of his cage at some weak weld points. When his efforts prove fruitless, the prisoner says he just gave up and waited out the last 18 months of his captivity.

Big fans of the podcast will want to listen to David Remnick's interview with Sarah Koenig from The New Yorker Radio Hour (audio embedded below).  Koenig talks about why making a podcast is different than traditional journalism and digs into her relationship with Mark Boale's production company Page One, why she's never spoken directly to Bergdahl and dances around what she knows about Page One's ultimate financial arrangements with Bergdahl. She's definite that Bergdahl is not getting paid by Serial for use of the interviews.


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