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Melissa Fung, CBC reporter who was kidnapped in Afghanistan.
Melissa Fung, CBC reporter who was kidnapped in Afghanistan.

How Mellissa Fung survived 28 days of captivity in Afghanistan Add to ...

"Want to see?" Mellissa Fung asks girlishly.

Sitting in the boardroom of her Toronto publisher, she thrusts out a hand to show a knife puncture. "And here," she continues, yanking her light blazer off her right shoulder to reveal another knife wound.

But while the CBC-TV journalist, who became the story when she was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2008 and held captive for 28 days, is willing to reveal her physical scars, she is more reluctant to talk about the psychological ones that are still part of her life.

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"I thought it might be cathartic," she says about writing her memoir, Under an Afghan Sky. "But it wasn't," she adds after a pause. "If I had to do it again, I probably wouldn't write the book again."

The 38-year-old reporter, who divides her time between Toronto and Washington, where her partner, Paul Workman, is CTV bureau chief, is a small bundle of grace, courage and vulnerability.

Her book describes details of her captivity that she hadn't previously discussed - that she was sexually assaulted by one of the captors with a knife held to her throat. When she was debriefed in Kabul after her release, she was asked if she had suffered sexual abuse. "I said no," she says quietly. "I lied."

She didn't want to be seen as a victim, she explains. But her initial silence also came from her defiance as a female journalist. "It doesn't make you equal. You don't want to be seen as susceptible to something that one of my male colleagues wouldn't be."

In the first draft of the book, she didn't include the sexual assault. "But as a writer and as a journalist, it didn't feel honest not to put it in."

She also realized that as a Western woman, she had a responsibility to talk about it. "It's not just about me," she says, her voice wavering with emotion. "It happens every day to so many women in Afghanistan. [But]they don't think of rape or sexual assault as a crime there, and a woman who speaks out about it is put in jail for committing adultery. So who am I to hide that when I can talk freely about it here?"

Her abduction happened during her second assignment in the country, where she was reporting on the thousands of Afghans who had been forced to flee their homes when fighting intensified in the south. She and her fixer, Shakoor, were in a refugee camp in the north outside of Kabul, where many had relocated.

Suddenly a blue car careened up to the camp entrance. Three armed men emerged. Within minutes, she found herself pinned to the floor of the car, the barrel of a Kalashnikov pointed in her face. She was bleeding from her hand and shoulder where one of the captors had knifed her when she swung a fist at his nose.

After being forced to hike through the mountains for several hours, she was shown a crude opening in the rocky soil - the size of a manhole, she says - and told to climb down into the crawl space below. "No," she said. "I'm not going there." She sat down, refusing to budge. She pleaded with them. One of the men picked her up under her armpits and threw her down the shaft. Through a small tunnel at the bottom of the eight-foot deep hole, she entered a small space, roughly six feet long, three feet wide and five feet high. That would be her home for almost a month. There was a toilet bucket, a small alarm clock, a watering can, and a light bulb attached to an old car battery.

She barely ate. Her captors offered her sweet cookies, juice, occasionally some bread and rice, an apple. She smoked. She slept. She accepted the possibility of death. And she prayed. She had attended an all-girls' Catholic high school in Vancouver, where her parents had immigrated from Hong Kong with her - then 4 - and her younger sister. Her captors had allowed her to keep her rosary, which she fingered routinely as she repeated the Hail Mary prayer in the darkness.

The book loses some of its drama as she recounts endless days and nights spent in the stench of the hole, interspersed with unsent letters Mr. Workman wrote to her and journal entries she had to reconstruct after the fact since she wasn't allowed to take them. But the portrait she draws of the humanity of her captors is astonishing.

Khalid, the one seemingly in charge, emerges as a flawed, misled and somehow sweet young man of about 19. He is angry when he learns of the sexual assault of Ms. Fung by a man who had guarded her one night. He ensures the man doesn't return. He worries that she is not eating properly and smoking too much. His girlfriend prepares her French fries, when she tells him it's a favourite food. He promises not to kill her and tells her she is like a sister to him.

When he and another man lead her to the release point, he tells her, "You do not hate me, okay?" She tells him she doesn't. She expresses forgiveness. "I wanted people to know that they're not evil," she says in conversation. "They're just human beings struggling their way through their world. I grew to like Khalid. It wasn't the Stockholm syndrome," she quickly adds. "He was just a young kid."

In the end, she was released without any exchange of money. Her kidnappers were a petty band who ran a hostage business of sorts. Known to the authorities, family members of one of the kidnappers were arrested as they attempted to enter Pakistan. Ms. Fung's release was a trade for the mother's promised freedom.

For a long time after her return to Canada, Ms. Fung suffered nightmares. She didn't like to hear the Islamic call to prayer, nor could she utter the Hail Mary. "Now I just talk in my head," she explains. Has her faith changed? She offers a puzzled look: "I don't know."

Her experience as a captive upset her religious beliefs. "How can I be praying and my captor be praying at the same time. That's incongruous to me. Who are we praying to?"

Despite the hardship of reliving her experience through writing, she feels it has allowed her to close that chapter of her life. "I don't want this experience to define me." She has expressed the desire to return to Afghanistan, where she firmly believes that the military effort is worthwhile. "So many Afghans want to be more progressive … and if they have hope, we can't give up on them." The CBC has so far not allowed her to go back. "I've been kind of grounded," she says, disappointed. "Perhaps because I'm a higher risk."

But isn't she afraid? The look she returns is cool and calm. In a soft voice, she replies, "No. I'm pretty strong, Sarah."

 

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