Saturday, May 28, 2011

Against Her Will: Mellissa Fung's Under the Afghan Sky

Long before reading the details outlined in her book, Under the Afghan Sun (HarperCollins, 2011), I had always admired the reports of CBC-TV journalist, Mellissa Fung. Whether she was reporting on the harrowing events around the Robert Picton murders case, or examining the plight of some unfortunates in Toronto, Regina or Vancouver, Fung always seemed to bring compassion to her reporting. Many times, I wasn't sure whether she was just shy (odd for a TV reporter), or merely preferred to let the people she was presenting tell their own story. She offered up many perspectives while narrating the imagery, but she frequently filed full reports without doing a “stand-up” (literally standing in front of the camera talking to us) during her pieces. In other words, Fung didn't appear on camera. For me, this made Fung rather unique among TV journalists. This compassion is front and centre in Under the Afghan Sky. Sometimes it works; sometimes it is misplaced.

Since she seemed to prefer letting the people she was reporting on to have the spotlight, it must have been extremely difficult when, in October 2008 Mellissa Fung, became the story. In October, she was assigned by the CBC to do a five-week stint embedded with Canadian troops in Afghanistan. While visiting a refugee camp to interview people, whose lives had been disrupted or destroyed by the ongoing conflict, she was kidnapped by four men. Her natural instincts (and training – all reporters are given some sort of defensive training when they go into war zones) were to fight back. During the struggle, she got stabbed in the shoulder and hand (wounds that bled a lot, but were ultimately not too serious). After being forced to travel by vehicle, motorcycle and then foot, Fung found herself in a remote part of Afghanistan. During all this, Fung's instincts as a reporter began to kick in. She constantly questioned the men, especially Khalid (or that's what he called himself) because he seemed to understand English the best. Where were they going? When was she going to be released? Why were they doing this?

Mellissa Fung
At first Khalid claims they are Taliban (if true, Fung's life would be in serious danger right from the start), but his vague answers to Fung's incessant questions made it clear they were, as he finally sayed “other Taliban,” meaning they were just a group of thugs taking advantage of the chaos in Afghanistan to kidnap foreigners and then hit up their families or companies for money ($100,000 is a figure bandied about for Fung). After an afternoon in a bullet-riddled home, they force Fung into a hole underground. She was told by Khalid that the one big difference between a female hostage and a male one is that Islam dictates that a woman was never to be left alone (males can be – there is a strong suggestion that Khalid and his gang have kidnapped people before). One of the men then stayed with her in the dusty, dingy, claustrophobic hole at all times. At first, they don't bind her, because with the combination of a 'guard' and the fact the hole's entrance was covered over by a board, dirt and probably a rock, escape is unlikely.

Paul Workman
Except for one brief sojourn outside late in the narrative, the rest of the book takes place in this filthy milieu (which made me think this book should have been titled Under the Afghan Ground). This is where one of the book's weaknesses emerges. Now, I understand why this happens, because when there was little to do to pass the time, repetition was bound to emerge in Fung's life and the book. So, in page after page, we go over variations on a theme where over the course of 28 days, Khalid; the non-English-speaking Shafirgullah; and on one horrific night, the corpulent Abdulrahman, alternate as her guard underground. She detailed the smoking of Afghan cigarettes (they need to be licked on both ends, she tells us often, to prevent the ash from falling out); the eating of overly sweet cookies and drinking juice (her only sustenance for 28 days); trying to teach English to the increasingly belligerent Shafirgullah; her praying to God (since she is Catholic she repeatedly says the rosary) and they to Allah; constant requests (especially to the increasingly sympathetic Khalid) to be let her go; worrying about how her parents and sister were reacting; and the writing of letters to friends and loved ones in the journal she kept. Now, don't get me wrong. She is a good writer so this material is never dull, but it does pile up after a while (not unlike, I imagine, what it must have been like for her) thus restricting the narrative. On more than one occasion, I felt a few days could have easily been skipped since nothing new was presented (but then I would think, “she didn't get to 'skip' those days, so why should the reader?”). Fortunately, her boyfriend, CTV reporter Paul Workman, who was also in Afghanistan at the time, wrote letters to her during her confinement telling her what was happening in the outside world. His letters are reproduced here, and at first they do fill in gaps about what was happening regarding winning her release. But clearly after a time the negotiators cut Workman out of what was happening, so his letters to her become (very touching) love notes and nothing more.

She was also a bit naive in her attempts to give a balanced report. One example was when Shafirgullah repeatedly tried to convince Fung to convert to Islam:

“I nodded. I promised myself I would try to learn more about Islam when I got out of this place. And it wasn't just because I was trying to appease my captor – I was genuinely curious. I wanted to know where it said in the Koran that it was okay to kidnap someone and force them to convert. Although, I reminded myself, Christians did much worse during the Crusades.”

Sure, fine, they did. But it was also 700 years ago. What was happening to Fung was happening in the 21st century.

There were also some harrowing passages. For example, these “other Taliban” were terrified of the real Taliban who, from time to time, were heard passing over the hidden tunnel/hole. The Taliban seem to know someone was being held around the area as a tapping, trying to find the hole’s entrance, was heard on more than one occasion. Fung relates that if she was found by the Taliban, her initial captors might be killed, or forced to give her to them, thus perhaps sealing her fate. Even more disturbing was something she deals with very, very briefly (and it is not something she ever mentioned in her extensive interviews with Peter Mansbridge on CBC TV or Anna-Marie Tremonti on CBC Radio): she is raped by Abdulrahman. It is clearly something she didn't wish to address, but bravely, if ambiguously, does so.

Mellissa Fung just released
Her strength as a storyteller (something I've always admired in her TV reports) was also revealed especially the one time she thought she was being set free (a few days before she finally was). Khalid and Shafirgullah finally take her out of the hole and walk her, blindfolded, out of town. The plan seemed to be to let her go, so they walk up, up, up into a mountain near the place she was being held (it was suggested that Kabul – her touchstone for freedom – was on the other side of it). Her descriptive powers, freed from the confines of the hole, are transformative. Her comments on the clear, night sky bring much needed 'breath' not only into her, but also into the story.

Regardless of the weaknesses in the book, they are not that bothersome. Under the Afghan Sky confirms one thing I thought about immediately after her release. Mellissa Fung is incredibly brave, resourceful and filled with a strong will to live (even though she repeatedly mentions she is ready for death whenever it is her time). It was the combination of all three that got her through the ordeal that she shares with us in her good book. It was not something I'd ever want to experience, and I have no idea whether I would have the strength to come through it as intact as she seemingly did.

 David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of DeathYou can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.


  1. Hello David,
    Interesting that the quotation you selected about Fung wanting to learn about Islam, was the quotation that to me made her lose her credibility as a journalist, reporting on Afghanistan. How could she _not_ know about the religion that forms such an intrinsic part of their society? The fact that she doesn't distinguish the teachings of the religion with the cultural interpretations is a huge blind spot in her understanding. Also, her attempts to challenge and debate her captors, based on her own ethnocentric view of the world, reveal either a willful blindness or a bizarre naievete. While I have sympathy for her experience, she doesn't seem to the depth necessary to really deprive meaning from her experience. Only half way through the book, so I'll see...

  2. sorry that should say "derive" not "deprive"...

  3. I enjoyed reading this book. Even though almost all of it was centered around her 28 days in that hole in the ground I did not find it a boring or tedious read. I thought it was a fascinating story of courage and bravery. Concerning that disgusting corpulent captor, his attack on her that night was more horrific and disgusting than that stinking hell hole Mellissa had to tolerate. What an ugly thought to have to live with.