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Pakistani Academic Recounts His Time In Taliban Captivity

Ajmal Khan
Ajmal Khan

A distinguished academic has resumed his position as the vice chancellor of a university in northwestern Pakistan after spending four years in Taliban captivity.

Students and faculty welcomed Ajmal Khan with a rousing reception when he returned to work on September 9. Khan was kidnapped by armed men while being driven from his residence to the Islamia College University campus in the northern city of Peshawar on September 7, 2010.

He told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that armed men suddenly surrounded his car and then injected him and his driver with something that left them unconscious. He said they were in an unknown location when they awoke.

Khan has aged during his captivity. The bespectacled professor, now in his early 60s, sports a well-trimmed gray beard, a look that is in stark contrast to the clean-shaven professor who disappeared four years ago.

He says the abductors neither manhandled nor tortured him during his captivity. Soon after his kidnapping, Khan's captors turned him over to families from the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan.

"I wish to convey my warm regards and great feelings to the Mehsud tribesmen who kept me like a family member and took good care of me," he recalled.

The Taliban were very lenient with him because he is widely respected in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the neighboring tribal areas for his life-long services to promoting education in these regions. His kidnapping was widely condemned, and students and teachers protested his abduction in dozens of rallies across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Khan said one of his favorite activities while in captivity was to teach the children of his Taliban captors.

One day he saw two children on the street and asked them why they weren't at school. The children replied that there were no teachers in their schools because of fighting in the region.

"I told them that they should come to me so I could teach them," he said. "Eventually, there were some 32 children and I was teaching them English language and mathematics," he said.

In late August the Pakistani military claimed that Khan had been freed after a successful military operation in the tribal areas where a large-scale campaign is underway to establish the government's authority over the North Waziristan, which is the Taliban’s stronghold.

The Taliban, however, disputed the claim. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released a video, which showed three Taliban members allegedly freed by the Pakistani security forces in exchange for Khan.

Back with his family and relatives, Khan tells remarkable stories of generosity and hospitality from his time in captivity.

"A woman used to send me milk every day, and one day her teenage son came with a message: 'my mother wants to know how much money the Taliban want for you,'" he said. "[The boy told me that his mother said] 'I am ready to sell all my goats and cows to pay the Taliban to buy your freedom.'"

Khan says he will never forget the love he received from the people of Waziristan who cursed his Taliban captors.

"Many people used to bring milk, yogurt, and butter, while others gave me cash to show their hospitality and respect," he said. "I could not resist lest I bruise their sense of hospitality."

The years 2010-2013 are known for a sharp rise in drone attacks in Waziristan. Khan says that drones were always lurking over their heads. TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud and his deputy Wali Rehman Mehsud were killed by NATO missiles during Khan's captivity.

"I was relieved when I heard on the radio that the U.S. president had issued instruction to avoid hitting areas inhabited by women and children." he said.

Khan says his only window to the outside world was radio broadcasts, particularly those of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal and Voice of America’s Deewa Radio in Pashto language.

"Not only me, but most people in the tribal areas listened to them daily," he said.

Pakistan’s underdeveloped tribal areas have no newspapers and the country's private television stations are unavailable due to Taliban restrictions and unreliable electricity supply.

Khan says he would often request people going to the regional capital, Miran Shah, to bring him some newspapers. What they came back with was usually two or three months old.

His captors provided him with some of the books he requested. "One time the Taliban chief Maulana Fazlullah came to Waziristan and I requested some English language books," he recalled. "Sometime later I was provided with some English books about different prophets and religious teachings."

Back at work, Khan says he will now endeavor to provide modern education in the tribal areas and will open new colleges in Waziristan.

"I want to work towards realizing the dream of the founding fathers of Islamia College University, who envisioned it as a source of modern education for the tribal areas," he said.