How does one pass the time while a chained captive in a dusty hole in Afghanistan? Journalist Mellissa Fung, who was on assignment in 2008 with CBC News when she was kidnapped while exiting a refugee camp, prayed—a lot. She also smoked—12 cigarettes a day, carefully meted out over a 24-hour period: half a cigarette at the top of the hour, the other half at the bottom of the hour. Fung also contemplated the lives of the many refugees and orphans she had met—children like Eid with the pink headscarf, who wailed with grief when she was forcibly separated from Fung. Even held captive, with her life hanging in the balance, Fung realized she was better off than many of the refugees she had encountered.
Fung’s captivity ended 28 days later when Afghan intelligence secured a prisoner swap. Afghanistan and its people, however, haunted Fung upon her return to Canada, and her book, Under an Afghan Sky: A Memoir of Captivity, was written in part to try to reconcile with the ordeal.
Fung spoke about her harrowing odyssey to a crowd of more than 200 on April 29 at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver. The event—organized by Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan—showcased Fung’s 15-minute documentary, “Return to Afghanistan,” which aired on CBC’s The National this past December. “A lot of people thought I was crazy to go back,” says Fung. However, dismayed at the negative coverage about Afghanistan dominating the Western media, Fung wanted to return to tell “good stories” about the country. Fung pointed to the remarkable statistics: more than 10 million children in school, with more than 40 percent of these girls, in comparison to rampant illiteracy under Taliban rule.
Fung related other stories about the people of Afghanistan, remarking upon one orphan Afghan boy whose face was severely disfigured by burns. At one time, such a boy would have been an ideal target for Taliban recruiters, but he was determined to focus upon getting an education. If educational opportunities had been available to her captors, Fung said, perhaps they “wouldn’t have been doing what they were doing.”
Education has become a powerful tool to improve the standard of living for Afghan families. NGOs like Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan have implemented literacy and teacher-training programs that have significantly helped the Central Asia nation recover from a protracted civil war. However, said Fung, Afghanistan still needs support from Western nations to ensure that the tremendous gains that have been made aren’t lost, due to a still-precarious economy and security concerns about Taliban insurgency.