As the third episode of Serial’s second season suggests, Sarah Koenig and her team are not beating around the bush with the show’s Christmas-week episode. “Escaping” is all about Bowe Bergdahl’s first year as a captive of the Taliban, a year bookended by two major escape attempts. The differences between Bergdahl’s initial escape and the second highlighted in the episode are drastic — the first comes from an unprepared prisoner of war making a slapdash run for freedom, while the second comes after months of planning, waiting for the opportune moment.
Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly considering the length of Bergdahl’s captivity), neither attempt is successful, but they begin and end a year of Bergdahl seeking freedom from what has become his temporary new normal.
Koenig describes Bergdahl as someone who, from the start, plotted to escape. That was never his doubted goal as his story unfolds, despite the abuse he says came his way. (Interestingly, when contacted, the Taliban confirms to Koenig these escape attempts did occur, but, as was the case in previous episodes, there are major rifts between Bergdahl’s telling and theirs as to the particulars.)
The first flight for freedom came after Bergdahl noticed all of his captors would exit into another room for tea when a car arrived with water, as he explains it. So when this event occurred again, he unshackled himself, undid the lock on the door, and broke out.
Bergdahl made a dash for freedom, running shoeless across jagged rocks away from his captivity. He passed by a few houses, kids screaming as they saw him, a woman noticing this white male running by, and finally he noticed a group of men in the distance. At the third house he came by, Bergdahl says he climbed onto the roof, incidentally getting caught in a mud puddle. But the men eventually found him, forcing him to come down and return.
The escape attempts took approximately not more than 15 minutes or so, but the severe aftermath would linger for months to come as Bergdahl tells it.
Beaten, blindfolded, and eventually moved, Bergdahl was chained spread eagle (and still blindfolded) to a bed. He was allegedly allowed to go to the toilet twice a day, while showering and washing his clothes came once every three weeks. He remained in that position for three months, and his body suffered the consequences. He developed diarrhea that would last him three years, infection spreading from ankle to forehead, and they eventually had to move one of his arms to his side so that he could sit up and stave off some of the soreness.
Isolation and sickness became the two constants in his life, as food, beatings, and questions came at irregular intervals.
And as Bergdahl tells it, the question sounded scatterbrained, but whether that was intentional remains unknown. He would be asked everything from logical queries about American tactics and intelligence to random questions about whether all American women were prostitutes. There was a seeming mistrust in their questioning from what Bergdahl tells and Koenig has gathered, and even the Taliban publicly admit he gave them little of importance in terms of information.
Yet that didn’t make him useless to their cause. They recorded videos with him, many of which Bergdahl claims were filmed but never released. Some were, however, and they are, in effect, propaganda tools in which Bergdahl was forced to participate. And those videos made Bergdahl’s fellow soldiers angry, even though he explains he was doing everything he could to not cooperate with his captors.
The videos included Bergdahl saying the United States government was lying about the true number of soldiers killed in the war, while Bergdahl himself had to say on camera he was being cared for extremely well.
Bergdahl’s videos are where the code of conduct comes into Koenig’s telling. To many soldiers, Bergdahl was disregarding the code, believing he should do everything he could to not cooperate. Of course, had he not participated, it would have meant certain death, and Koenig acknowledges there is a precedence for an understanding among military officials that soldiers should not give up their lives while resisting captivity.
Bergdahl explains how he tried to indicate his resistance to fellow soldiers. In a July 2009 video, Bergdahl says he was captured while lagging behind a patrol — something that simply is unfathomable in such a war zone. Bergdahl was intentionally lying, hoping his fellow Americans would recognize that as a sign he was not a Taliban sympathizer (something Koenig certainly believes considering his major escape attempts).
When Bergdahl wasn’t filming videos, however, he says he was spending much of his time plotting his escape and accruing as much information as he could. He would take stock of every aspect in his vicinity, hoping he could one day provide useful information for his capture. And he did, as Koenig says Bergdahl’s debriefers commented on his extreme willingness to cooperate and provide worthy intelligence.
When he wasn’t cataloguing information, he was trying to determine where he was and how he was going to escape. He’d use any context clues he could to orient himself while preparing for another break. He collected a length of PVC tube from his first captivity house, befriended an otherwise vicious guard dog, collected a nail in the mud for cleaning and digging, and even collected a key that, when used correctly, could unlock the padlocks to his rooms and bindings. Mini-escapes were attempted, but his best chance came when Bergdahl was moved to what he deemed the Mountain Fortress.
Bergdahl says he was kept in a second story room, which included a bar-free window (by this point his captors supposedly viewed him as so weak that extra precautions were not always being taken). Here, he put together a makeshift rope out of his bedding and chains, using the PVC pipe and a wooden stake found in the room as a crossbar.
And he escaped. Bergdahl made it out in what he calls the best moment of his five years aside from his ultimate rescue. When Bergdahl found himself free of his latest imprisonment, however, he was caught in high desert terrain without much in the way of cover. His objective, aside from finding Americans, was to move as far way as possible from the fortress to spread their search party thin. He began walking to what he hoped was Pakistan, but the difficult terrain and signs of life forced him to keep adjusting his route.
At one point, precaution left him, and he stepped off a cliff — a fall Bergdahl describes as long enough that he got over the initial shock of the fall and couldn’t believe he was still falling while still in the air. Bergdahl landed on his left side, causing many injuries that would prove a hindrance later on. Yet initially, his adrenaline seemingly kept him going, as he dug a hole and built cover to shield himself.
In the coming days (and just how many days is another matter of He Said/They Said. Bergdahl says he was gone for nine days, while the Taliban claims it was only two or three. His debriefers, Koenig explains, settled on eight and a half days.), Bergdahl explains there were a number of close calls. Yet despite the risk, Bergdahl says he would have much rather died out there than from decapitation, a form of death he was forced to watch in numerous videos from his captors.
Eventually, the search party came upon him as he was preparing a brace for his leg at the top of a mountain. He was caught, but allegedly only abused to a point initially, possibly because his captors saw any more might kill him. They cleaned him up and returned him to captivity, where he was threatened that another escape attempt would end in his execution.
Bergdahl spent his last night before being recaptured watching as American drones flew through the sky, yet with no way to contact him. He saw the stars, he saw signs of home, and he saw freedom.
And those looking to get him away from his captors will soon begin to ramp up their efforts, Koenig teases in the next episode, but that comes just at a time when the United States realizes it needs to get out of this war.
Note: Serial won’t return until after the New Year, on Jan. 7.