Series: First person
‘I was imprisoned by the Taliban’
I was 23 when I set out and had no intention of coming into harm’s way. It was the adventure and the joy of seeing the world which promtped me to do it. What happened was perhaps a little too dangerous even for a bohemian like me, but somebody up there must have smiled.
I strayed into Taliban territory in Herat, 138km from Kabul. The Taliban, taking me to be a spy, put me in a dark dungeon for 24 days before I could prove my innocence. I could have lost my head, quite literally. This is the first time I have told my story to anybody.
I have always had a yearning for adventure, since I was a young boy in the mangrove forest of Sunderbans, east India. I come from a poor family but that did not deter me from pursuing my education, and I graduated in two disciplines: zoology and fine arts. When I entered my 20s, I developed an interest in the study of HIV/Aids which had by then become a killer epidemic in India. I lectured in schools and earned a living but, deep inside, I knew I had to do something different. I had to see the world and spread the message of harmony and Indian culture.
I have loved bicycles ever since my dad bought me one, during a time of great financial difficulty, when I was a kid. So I went ahead and bought a new bicycle with gears, a new knapsack, some exercise books and simply set off without as much as a goodbye to my family.
In 2004 I reached the capital city of Delhi and met with various people, eventually getting an appointment with the then external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee. He encouraged me in my world tour and even organised my passport and visas and whatever government clearance was needed to undertake the journey. He also gave me £300 to help with costs. Little did I know what lay ahead of me when I set out.
In 2006, after travelling across most of India, I reached the country’s north-eastern tip and the villages of the province of Assam. That’s where my bad luck started. I was held captive by the secessionist United Liberation Front of Asom for five days and only released when the ultras were convinced that I was not a government spy.
My journey continued uninterrupted across 33 countries – until last month. I reached Afghanistan and was looking for help because it was obvious I knew nothing of Herat, a town in the west of the country. Suddenly a group of burly men, clad in traditional Afghan clothes and turbans, with bearded faces covered by scarves, surrounded me and started asking me questions. Did I know anything about Islam? Was I a Hindu? Had I read the Holy Koran? What was I doing in Herat?
The questions were rapid but I did not understand a word because they were talking in Pashto. They became impatient and furious and beat me up. I remember just lifting my hand in surrender, and kneeling down, praying to them for mercy. But I could not answer them because I did not understand their language. They blindfolded me and took me to their hideout which took half an hour to reach. I had no idea where it was. I just remember the semi-arid land.
After this, and again after much questioning, I was dumped in a dungeon which had no light. I was given no food save for some rice and a morsel of beef. I had to survive on that for a few days. At times, they beat me up in frustration for not understanding their commands.
However, I got lucky when I chanced upon one of my captors who spoke English in monosyllables. It was from him that I came to know that I was being held by the Taliban. I knew then that I was to die.
One day I was asked to cook and my luck again turned for the better. Coming from India, I had what I thought was a natural talent for cooking hot, spicy dishes – particularly mutton. I did precisely that, except there was no mutton so I had to make do with beef, something we Hindus consider untouchable and a sacrilege. But there can be no bigger religion than life itself, I told myself.
I cooked hot, spicy food for them the way we have in the Sunderbans. They were very happy and told my interpreter that I seemed to be a safe guy. In the meantime, I had talked more with the interpreter and through our short exchanges, I managed to make it clear that I was simply a man who was on an adventure and had no intention of harming their cause.
The interpreter must have passed this on because I was set free after 24 days. The first sunlight which hit my eyes almost blinded me. It was hot outside and I had bruises all over. My bicycle had not been destroyed. I was again blindfolded and driven away from the area where I had been held captive, but not before my friend gave me a packet containing some dry fruit. I treasured it but at the same time, I felt a chill down my spine when I realised how close I had come to death. I had heard so many stories of Taliban torture.
I just wanted to tour the world and set a record. I intend to set the record of covering 191 countries by 2020. I entered Afghanistan through Pakistan and had no trouble. I am now in Croatia and the Indian Embassy people people revel in my Taliban tales.
But all I want now is to see my family. I was so close to death that my bohemian ways have gone. I know I have to complete my record first but I would have loved to tell my story to my family back in the forests of Sunderbans.
• Somnath Debnath was interviewed by Kolkata freelance journalist Anthony Dias.