Be Not Afraid

These are the brilliant words of the Pope when visiting Soviet Union the first time, and in the words of this prisoner. Brig, Soren and Reidar, you will also be free soon. Be Not Afraid.

A Hostage’s Guide to Isolation

What I learned about survival as a Taliban prisoner.

By Jere van DykApril 7, 2020 1:14 pm ET

I spent 45 days in Pakistan as a hostage of the Taliban in 2008. A college friend recently sent a note asking if I had any suggestions as to how people can physically and mentally cope with their coronavirus-induced confinement. Here’s what I told him:

Be calm. Try not to be afraid.

Set a regimen. Get up early. Use that time to pray, meditate or exercise.

Don’t eat too much. It will make you listless. Try not to sleep during the day. It’s a form of escape. Don’t live in the dark. Natural light is best. We lived in darkness. I was always seeking the light.

Keep your mind active and, as best you can, positive. Read only good books. I know one hostage who read the Quran. He isn’t religious but it comforted him. I studied Pashtu in the afternoons for maybe an hour with my main jailer. It made my brain work hard and I felt good afterward, and it gave him power and made him feel good and smart and it brought him closer to me, I felt, bettering my chances to stay alive.


In captivity everything becomes primal. A hierarchy develops. You become territorial, no matter how small your corner. The same, I believe, would happen in a home, even in a loving family. Don’t seek power; give it to others if necessary. Be humble. Seek to get along with everyone, because everyone is afraid, and when people are afraid they can become irrational. If you can’t go to the store and there’s not enough food, give some of yours to others. It will draw you closer, and you will feel strong.

Try to accomplish something: reading part of a book, learning new words, even of a foreign language, doing more push-ups, playing the piano, whatever it is, every day. Write letters. They are more intimate than emails, and you’ll feel good. I know of a hostage who wrote a letter to his parents before he died. We all have two lives, he wrote. The second one begins when you realize that you only have one.

Help one another and you will find warmth. I know of a hostage who became the leader in a large cell of men from different counties, because he helped others, in part by quiet strength.

Keep a journal. It helps you free yourself and become relaxed. It is a form of therapy. You will find that you are stronger than you think. Shakespeare wrote that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Try to think like this.

Stay away from the computer as much as you can. I liked being away from the tyranny of emails. It gave me a sense of freedom.

John McCain said there were no atheists in the Hanoi Hilton. They found comfort in prayer. So did I, and others. It gave us strength. I know a hostage, who, in the midst of a hard moment, forgave his captors. “I had no choice,” he said. He knew that if didn’t, he would suffer in deeper ways.

I know another hostage who wanted mainly to talk about mock executions. It was the fear of pain that bothered him most. Above all, don’t be afraid. It will help you stay healthy.

In the end you will be closer than before. You will become stronger for having gone through this, and it will make you feel quietly proud and, most important, grateful.

Mr. van Dyk is author, most recently, of “The Trade: My Journey Into the Labyrinth of Political Kidnapping.”