A Taliban Hostage's Story: Educating Children Who Have No Teachers

Nov 1, 2014
Originally published on November 3, 2014 1:02 pm

A compelling Facebook photo shows an old man wearing spectacles and a shawl. He's standing in front of a cracked mud wall. Most of his face is filled by a huge, dusty-looking white beard. He looks tired and sad.

Only the man's family and friends would know that he is not, in fact, a weather-beaten mountain tribesman, but the vice chancellor of one of the most distinguished universities in Pakistan.

This picture of professor Ajmal Khan, posted on the Web by his supporters, was printed by a newspaper when he was freed, after spending four years as a hostage of the Taliban.

Now, two months later, the vice chancellor is back at work, running the Islamia College University in the city of Peshawar. His immaculate appearance shows no hint of his ordeal; his beard is now trimmed. As he tells the story of his captivity, he is twinkly-eyed, soft-spoken and engaging.

Hostages who are fortunate enough to be released tend to return home with compelling stories. Many of these describe horrifying degradation and abuse.

Khan suffered fear, uncertainty and the loss of freedom, but he says his captors treated him with respect and did not physically harm him.

The Taliban has a long record of attacking educational establishments. Yet Khan says the militants allowed him to run an impromptu school for a while — though his pupils were almost all boys.

Khan was abducted in September 2010 as he was being driven to work. He had just left his house when a car pulled up in front. A man got out, walked up to Khan's vehicle, tapped on his driver's window and pulled out a pistol.

Very quickly, militants surrounded the car, brandishing pistols. "By then, I knew it was something terrible," he says.

The militants bundled Khan's driver into the backseat next to Khan. They climbed in, pulled burqas over the heads of their new captives, and began driving.

"As they sat with us, they injected something into our shoulders. I just felt the prick," he recalls. Drugged, he and his driver were asleep in less than 10 minutes.

When Khan awoke, he was in the mountains in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, an area that was, for years, a sanctuary for Islamist militants.

'They Knew Almost Everything Regarding Me'

Khan says the Taliban spent more than a month carefully planning his abduction. He thinks they chose him because of his ties with one of their enemies — the political party then running the provincial government in northwest Pakistan. Khan, father of five daughters, says the militants seemed to know all about him.

"They knew almost everything regarding me," he says. "They had a complete history — my family, daughters, the number of children I had."

"It was very difficult at first, very difficult," Khan adds. He spent much time in prayer.

In the years that followed, the vice chancellor was moved from hideout to hideout at least 20 times (His fellow hostage — the driver — was released in 2012). Khan remembers the constant sound of U.S. drones — and the worry, too, that he would be hit by a missile targeting his abductors.

In some places, he was locked in a room in a house. In more remote mountain areas, he was allowed out, under guard. On one occasion, in the hills of Waziristan, he came across two small boys herding sheep and goats.

"I asked them, 'Do you go to school?' " Khan says. "Their reply was, 'Yes, we used to. But now ... schools are there, but there are no teachers because we are in a war!' "

The boys told him they still had their school books at home. Khan invited them to come the following day to the house in which he was imprisoned. He would teach them, he said.

"They were very happy! You could see the light in their eyes," Khan says.

Word of the vice chancellor's tiny school quickly spread around the mountains. More and more boys, sons of local herdsmen, showed up, until he had more than 30 pupils. Khan says one little girl came for a couple of days, asking for religious education, but soon stopped attending.

Lessons Of Math, Science And Captivity

He taught the boys mainstream subjects from the government curriculum: math, science, Urdu, Islamic studies, even English.

Khan says the kids were aware he was a hostage. One boy, about 10, was particularly unhappy about Khan's captivity.

"And he says, 'This is not according to Islam. This is something against Islam, and you are doing something very wrong,' " he says. "A brave little boy."

Khan says he sometimes asks his pupils whether, if he was ever free to go home to Peshawar, they'd like him to enroll them in school there. The kids' replies reveal much about the benighted world into which they were born.

"Some of them would say, 'Yes, we would come,' and others would say, 'Will the government be happy with us?' " Khan says. "They would say, 'I hope they don't put us in jails.' "

The vice chancellor's school finally closed when news began to circulate that the Pakistani military was about to move into the area. The Taliban moved Khan to an even more remote mountain hideout.

Khan says throughout his captivity, his Taliban guards were regularly switched. Yet he was able to observe and question these young, uneducated Pashtun men. He says their motivation is primarily religious. "They thought this is what God asked," he says.

For most of his captivity, Khan was held by Taliban from the Mehsud tribe. He was with them when a feud broke out, and wound up in the custody of a splinter group that decided to let him go. He doesn't think any ransom was paid for his release.

Pakistan's armed forces are now in the fifth month of an offensive focusing on the same areas of the tribal belt in which Khan was held hostage. They claim to have killed more than 1,100 militants, and to have destroyed many hideouts and arms caches. There's a growing consensus in Pakistan that the Taliban is on the run.

Khan cautions against drawing too many conclusions. He doesn't think the militants' war with the state is over, and points out they could easily regroup.

He argues the long-term answer to Islamist militancy is for Pakistan's government to provide a counter-narrative to its ideology. His tiny, temporary school suggests that this is an idea that the children of Pakistan's mountains are happy to embrace.

"The state is not doing its bit," Khan says, "Education is the only solution."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Every hostage lucky enough to get out alive tells an extraordinary story. Most of these stories are horrifying. All of them shine light on the people who held them captive. NPR's Philip Reeves visited a man recently who was freed after spending years as a prisoner of the Taliban in Pakistan. This hostage's experience was rather different than most.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Professor Ajmal Kahn was abducted on his way to work. He'd just left home when a car pulled up in front of him. A man got out, walked up to Kahn's car and tapped on his driver's window.

AJMAL KAHN: This fellow, suddenly, he drew his pistol. There was a handkerchief tied to his neck, and he pulled that up as if to hide his face.

REEVES: Within minutes, the Taliban were everywhere.

KAHN: From all four sides, there were men with pistols in their hands. By then I knew it was something terrible.

REEVES: The gunman climbed into Kahn's car, pulled a burqa over his head and began to drive.

KAHN: As they sat with us, they injected something into our shoulders. I just felt the prick. As I looked at him, he just pulled it out. I think it must've taken hardly 8 to 10 minutes, then we just dozed off.

REEVES: When Kahn woke up, he was in the heart of Taliban country - the mountains of Pakistan's tribal belt. Kahn is vice chancellor of a prestigious university in the city of Peshawar. He's a twinkly-eyed man in his late 60s with five daughters. Kahn says having his life suddenly snatched away was...

KAHN: Very difficult in the beginning, very difficult because this whole scene used to come in front of you and then your kids and family and all.

REEVES: That was back in 2010. Khan thinks the Taliban chose him because of his links to one of their enemies - the political party then running the provincial government. He says he wasn't just randomly kidnapped.

KAHN: They knew almost everything regarding me. They had a complete history - my family, doctors, the number of children I had.

REEVES: Kahn was moved from hideout to hideout at least 20 times. Sometimes he was locked in a room in a house. In more remote places, he was allowed out under guard. High in the hills of Waziristan, he came across some kids.

KAHN: I met these two little boys raising their sheep and goats - must have been 8, 9, 10 - and I asked them, I said do you go to school? And their reply was yes we used to, but no because the schools are no more there. The schools are there, but there are no teachers 'cause we are in a war.

REEVES: The boys still had their schoolbooks at home.

KAHN: And I told them OK, tomorrow from the next morning you can come over and I'll try and help you in your studies. They were very happy. You could see the light in their eyes.

REEVES: Word of the vice chancellor's school quickly spread. Soon he was teaching more than 30 kids. A Taliban leader told Kahn the militants didn't object to schools, so long as they are segregated. His guards let him carry on. His pupils were all boys, the sons of sheep and cattle herders. A little girl did actually show up for a couple of days, asking for religious tuition only, but she soon stopped coming. Kahn says the kids knew he was a hostage. One boy of about 10 was particularly unhappy about this. When a Taliban commander and his men dropped by, the boy accosted them.

KAHN: This is not according to Islam. This is something against Islam. This is - you're doing something very wrong and he started arguing with them. He was a brave little boy, brave little boy.

REEVES: Kahn says the boys were hungry to learn. He taught the mainstream subjects from the government curriculum - Maths, Science, Urdu, Islam, even English. He'd asked the children whether, if he was ever freed and allowed to go home to Peshawar, they'd like him to enroll them in a school there. In their secluded world, that's a tougher question than it sounds.

KAHN: And some of them would say yes we will come, others would say will the government be happy with us, and they would say I hope they don't put us in jails. So I said why would the government put you in jails?

REEVES: The vice chancellor ran his tiny school for about eight months. Then word got around that the Pakistani army was about to roll in. The Taliban moved Kahn to an even more remote mountain hideout, and his school closed. During his four years as a hostage, Kahn's guards kept changing, but he says he was able to observe these young, uneducated men from the Taliban, and to ask about their motivation.

KAHN: They thought that is what God wanted them to do, so that's why they were doing it.

REEVES: They certainly didn't seem to be doing it for economic gain. These Taliban foot soldiers weren't paid, says Kahn.

KAHN: They would get their food, once or twice a year they used to get clothes, their boots, of which they were very fond - these joggers.

REEVES: Oh, the trainers?

KAHN: The trainers - we call them the joggers, something like this but all white. And they used to be fascinated when they used to get their new boots, very happy.

REEVES: For most of his captivity, Kahn was held by Taliban from the Mehsud tribe. He was with them when a feud broke out - one of several recent splits within militant ranks. Kahn wound up in the custody of a splinter group that decided to let him go. He doesn't think any ransom was paid for his release. Kahn's now back at his post as vice chancellor of the Islamia College University in Peshawar.

In the nearby mountains, Pakistan's army is in the fifth month of a big offensive, aimed at crushing the Taliban. Kahn believes the best way to extinguish militancy once and for all is not with guns. The government should do what he did and actually educate the young people of Pakistan's mountains.

KAHN: I think the state is not doing its bit. Education is the only solution to it.

REEVES: Boys and girls. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.