A failed escape attempt by the only American soldier held by the Taliban has left him facing his third Christmas in captivity.
Bowe Bergdahl, 25, from Idaho, made a daring break for freedom by jumping from the first-floor window of the mud-and-brick home in which he was being held in Pakistan, say Taliban commanders.
He ran for cover in forested mountains nearby, but his captors — from the notorious Haqqani network — launched a manhunt as soon as they realised he had got away.
Bergdahl evaded capture for two nights and three days as he searched desperately for villagers who might be able to offer him protection and send word of his whereabouts to American officials, but there were few civilians in the area, which is regularly targeted by missiles launched from US drones.
Bergdahl’s captors eventually found him almost naked and covered in leaves in a shallow trench that he had dug with his bare hands.
He was weak and exhausted, having had no food or water during his entire time on the run, but was nevertheless able to put up a vicious fight.
“He fought like a boxer,” a militant called Hafiz Hanif was told — it took five insurgents to overpower him.
In Bergdahl’s home town, outside the coffee shop where he worked before joining the army, residents have tied yellow ribbons to the trees to remind everyone that he remains a hostage. His parents, Jani and Robert, seem almost certain to be spending another Christmas without him.
“The absence of Bowe has left a void in their family and they hope to have him safely returned to them as soon as possible,” said Colonel Timothy Marsano, who acts as a spokesman for the family.
Militants loyal to the senior Haqqani commander, Mullah Sangin Zadran, seized Bergdahl in southeast Afghanistan in June 2009.
Taliban fighters who were involved in his capture agree with the American military’s version of events — that Bergdahl had walked off his base in Paktika province before running into an insurgent ambush.
However, in the first of five videos that militants have so far released of him, Bergdahl says he was caught after falling behind on a foot patrol.
A Taliban commander who claimed to have been involved in Bergdahl’s capture told The Sunday Times that the American had built up a strong rapport with his captors.
He had learnt Pashto and converted to Islam, the commander said.
So good was this relationship that Bergdahl’s captors sometimes allowed him to hunt birds and rabbits in the mountains with an old British rifle.
The Taliban commander said he had even heard that the American was providing training to the insurgents on how to fire weapons, lay ambushes and build bombs. In return, the commander said, his captors took off his shackles at night. “But he tricked us,” said another commander by the name of Haji Nadeem, who spoke to this newspaper. He added: “He always wanted to escape.”
It was one night in late August when Bergdahl took advantage of the newly relaxed security to make his bid for freedom, but the story did not emerge until last week when it was told on The Daily Beast website.
A militant from the North Waziristan area who was interviewed by the website said he had first spotted Bergdahl in June, walking with a group of armed fighters along a stony path on a high mountain trail. The soldier apparently sported a beard and was wearing the traditional tribal clothing like his captors.
“That’s the American military prisoner,” a companion told the militant, named Hanif.
Hanif saw Bergdahl again a few months later, sandwiched between two armed fighters in the back seat of a pickup truck driving through North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley.
Now that he is back in captivity, Bergdahl is once more restrained at night. As was the case during the first few months, he is also moved frequently between villages to avoid detection by US forces.
Drone strikes have killed several senior Haqqani militants this year in the tribal area where Bergdahl is being held. Some militants believe his captors may be willing to make a deal with the Americans for his release, because they are scared that he may be killed in one of these airstrikes.
“There’s a fear that a drone could hit the golden [goose],” a Taliban source told The Daily Beast.
Jani and Robert Bergdahl declined to comment on their son’s escape attempt, or the fact that this Christmas will be his third in captivity, but Marsano said: “Any news about Bowe — especially during this holiday season — that indicates he is in good health is welcomed by the family.”