It’s quickly established where “Serial,” the popular podcast focusing its second season on the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, got the name of its second episode, “The Golden Chicken.”
That’s how a member of the Taliban described Bergdahl as a prized captive. Mujahid Rahman, whom producer Sarah Koenig identified as one of the Taliban who helped hide Bergdahl in the days following his 2009 capture, claimed the group designated Bergdahl a guest to keep lower Taliban members from killing or abusing him.
At one point, Rahman said they even attempted to cheer up Bergdahl by demonstrating a ceremonial dance in a grape orchard. Bergdahl denied that ever happened, according to the podcast. (The Statesman was not immediately able to confirm the spelling of Rahman’s name, which Koenig said was a pseudonym; a Reddit poster believes he’s the same man journalist Sami Yousafzai interviewed for a Newsweek story in 2011.)
Bergdahl, of Hailey, walked away from his unit in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured, held for five years by a group affiliated with the Taliban before he returned to the U.S. as part of a controversial prisoner swap in May 2014. Now, he faces a full military court-martial, charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
Related: Listen to the Idaho Statesman/KBSX companion podcast, “Speaking of Serial”
In its first episode of the season, “Serial” listeners heard directly from Bergdahl through recordings of interviews the soldier conducted with filmmaker Mark Boal in the months following his return to the U.S. Thursday, Koenig added reporting from Yousafzai, an Afghanistan-based reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast whom Boal’s production company hired to find out what happened right after Bergdahl’s capture. Through his notes and an interview Koenig did herself with Rahman — one of Yousafzai’s sources — she pieces together the story of the Taliban’s initial capture of Bergdahl: How they said they found him, held him, and moved him across Afghanistan and ultimately into Pakistan.
Yousafzai’s sources start by describing rumors they heard of a U.S. soldier taking photos and asking questions near a local village. They said Bergdahl put up a fight when captured, that they moved him often, changed clothes often, and tried to treat him as a “guest.” To hide from U.S. troops swarming the region to search for Bergdahl, the Taliban captors took a route that initially carried them west, away from their eventual destination of Pakistan. Then they circled around and headed for the border; once they crossed, it would be harder for U.S. troops to follow them.
Bergdahl asserted he only cautiously made efforts to escape in the first week, but failed.
“Doesn’t matter how many kung fu movies you watch, doesn’t matter how long you’re a martial art fighter or whatever, you have to be realistic when you’re facing those type of people, you know,” he said. “You know, these people do things: They have no hesitation, no problem, killing you. They will kill you just for the amusement of being able to shoot you.”
Bergdahl also told Boal he tried to explain to his captors why he left his post.
“That came out more or less in a version that was more suitable for the situation. I told them I basically was fed up with the commanders. You have to remember this is kind of going through, this is being filtered, to the point that, you know, I’m trying to get guys who barely speak English to understand what I’m saying,” Bergdahl said. “So the story was basically along the lines of, I told them I stood up to American commanders because they were... disrespectful, but that didn’t work because they didn’t understand what ‘disrespectful’ was, so I said ‘rude,’ and they seemed to understood what ‘rude’ was for some strange reason.”
Koenig also looks at the logistical problems the U.S. military had in seeking Bergdahl out. The operations to seek Bergdahl were highly conspicuous, whereas the Taliban could move quickly and quietly. And, she details how morale dropped drastically for troops looking for him. Some even expressed wanting to kill Bergdahl for leaving his post.
The episode starts with a nod to Monday’s big news: that Bergdahl’s case will proceed to a full military court-martial. Boal’s interviews addressed this as well: Bergdahl said he wouldn’t likely accept a plea deal in such a situation because he would never get to explain himself.
“It’s almost as if those military officials who have come into close contact with Bowe are ready to forgive him, while the Army as an institution continues to be furious,” Koenig said.
Next time on Serial, Koenig will look into Bergdahl’s first year as a captive, and his attempts at escape.
Listen with us
We’re following along with Season 2 of Serial as it revisits the case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Each Wednesday, reporters with the Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio will host a companion podcast, “Speaking of Serial,” discussing Bergdahl’s case, Serial’s reporting and what happens when an Idahoan becomes the center of international news.