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Canadians Abroad: Melissa Fung, Journalist

November 15, 2008

CBC journalist Melissa Fung must wince whenever she sees one of those newspaper articles that begins, “Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you must already know about…” It was Fung’s misfortune to actually spend four weeks imprisoned in a cave in Afghanistan, courtesy of a criminal gang who wanted a ransom. Her ordeal was scrupulously kept out of the media until it was over.

Fung told the whole story in a recent interview. She had gone out to a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, to talk to displaced people from parts of Kandahar Province where Canadian forces had been operating. During her visit to the camp a car pulled up and disgorged two “guys with big guns”, one of whom promptly grabbed her. She hit one of them, got stabbed in the shoulder for her pains, and then found herself on the floor of the car and on her way into captivity.

The men claimed to be Taliban, although she didn’t believe them, and treated her decently enough under the circumstances. They cleaned her wound, fed her juice and cookies, let her hold on to some of her possessions, and provided dubious medicine when she tactically feigned sickness. According to her kidnappers, they would have simply chained a male prisoner and left him alone in the cave, but this only happened to Melissa Fung during the final week of her captivity. Prior to that, she was unchained, but constantly guarded. Eventually they let her go, without any ransom being paid.

Fung’s story illustrates some interesting aspects of the situation in Afghanistan. It’s perhaps worrying that she was seized so close to Kabul, since it shows how little security exists even near the capital. However, her kidnappers were decidedly amateurish. At one point they wanted to take a video of her talking, in order to prove her identity, but they didn’t have a video camera. They seemed terrified that they would be discovered, by the real Taliban if not by the law, and their “gang” was a family business in which the father of one of the kidnappers handled all the ransom negotiations. Afghan intelligence eventually secured Fung’s release by arresting some family members and negotiating an exchange. All this is a reminder that many of our problems in Afghanistan arise from simple criminality, rather than the bloodthirsty business of jihad.

Fung seems to have handled the whole misadventure with admirable tough-mindedness, insisting at the end of the interview that she felt “pretty good” and just wanted to get back to her normal life. One article came awfully close to scolding her for endangering herself, but in my opinion this attitude is misguided. We need more Canadians who are willing to go out into the world, get off the beaten path, and inevitably accept a certain level of risk. The things they will accomplish, the hard-won knowledge and experience they will bring back to share with the rest of us, can only enrich and strengthen the nation.


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