When the Taliban Takes the Girl Next Door
In the early morning of July 4, 2012, Caitlan Coleman sent a short email to her friends.
“Our flight leaves at 4 p.m.,” she wrote. “Only God knows exactly where it will lead or what all can be accomplished, seen, experienced or learned while we travel. So we put ourselves in His hands.”
Caitlan had grown up in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania, a place without a single stoplight, with a population of 2,130. Now, at the age of 26, she was hours away from leaving it behind to embark on a journey to the other side of the planet. Caitlan, who has long chestnut-colored hair, big brown eyes and fashionably strong eyebrows, and her husband, a burly Canadian named Joshua Boyle, had decided to hike across the steppes of Central Asia. They dreamed of eating exotic foods, meeting the locals and doing aid work.
The people close to Caitlan had long ago gotten used to how her wanderlust dragged her to faraway places, and she always penned long letters from the road that helped keep their anxiety at bay. Still, a few of her loved ones thought this trip was a bad idea. But she vowed she would only go to the “safe ’stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. “They weren’t supposed to go to Afghanistan,” says Caitlan’s mother, Lyn Coleman. “They promised us they wouldn’t go.”
Caitlan said she had return tickets for December.
At first, Caitlan sent emails to her tight-knit group of friends in York County every couple of weeks, from Internet cafes in Asia. She told stories about hanging out with dogsledders, befriending cats at hostels, eating freshly slaughtered goat in the countryside.
But by late September, the notes dried up. Even when Julia Newberger-Johnson sent Caitlan photos of her newborn son — the two had been friends since high school, when they met at a Catholic church in town — Caitlan didn’t write back.
Later that fall, Julia finally got an email. But it was from Caitlan’s sister. “She asked me if I’d heard anything,” Julia says. “She told me she was afraid they’d been kidnapped. It didn’t feel real.”
All of Caitlan’s friends and family have a story like this — of the moment when they realized she might not be coming home. They tell them the way people talk about where they were the morning of 9/11. Julia’s sister-in-law, Lindsay McAdam, got word that Caitlan was missing when she was on her way to see the latest Hobbit movie. “I froze mid-step and stood there, right in the middle of the sidewalk,” she says. “I didn’t want to believe it.”
In 2013, the Coleman family learned something far worse than anyone could have imagined: Caitlan and Joshua had been kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
None of the words in that sentence made any sense to people who knew Caitlan. The Taliban kidnapped soldiers and journalists. It didn’t kidnap women from the middle of nowhere in Pennsylvania. And what the hell had Caitlan been doing in Afghanistan?
Even now — even after four years have passed, and the Associated Press and CBS and Serial have covered bits and pieces of what happened to Caitlan — it’s hard for her friends and family to accept. Today, Julia is sitting in a diner in New Freedom, Pennsylvania, sporting a brunette bob and an emerald green blouse. She pokes at Breakfast No. 1, a $3.79 plate of eggs, home fries and toast. “At first, it didn’t really hit me,” she says. “It just didn’t feel real, so I kind of put it to the back of my mind. But for some reason, when they put out the last video, it just felt a lot more real. Seeing her like that is really hard.”
She’s talking about a video of Caitlan that surfaced online this August — the third clip of the couple that’s emerged. In it, Julia’s friend is in a hijab, pleading for her life. She begs the United States to do something the Taliban wants — otherwise, her captors will kill her. “I know that this must be very terrifying and horrifying for my family to hear that these men are willing to go to these lengths,” she says, “but they are.”
Caitlan lived 10 minutes down the road from where Julia and I are eating breakfast on this overcast day in August. If you saw this town, you’d understand why it’s hard for Caitlan’s friends to believe what’s happened. It’s a land of cornfields and 4-H clubs and high-school football. It’s a land where bad things aren’t supposed to happen.
I know. I grew up here. Caitlan and I actually share many of the same friends, including Julia and Lindsay. In fact, I saw Caitlan at a baby shower for Julia just four days before she left for Asia. I’ve tried to remember something substantial about her from that day — a real, genuine anecdote — but I can’t. All I recall is that she was unusually quiet. What I didn’t know, what none of her friends knew, was that Caitlan was also pregnant at Julia’s shower. She would go on to have her baby boy after being kidnapped by the Taliban. She would then give birth to a second son, while still in captivity, in 2015.
But then again, no one ever imagines something like this could happen to someone they know, to a friend, a daughter. We never think that someone we love will end up in a video released by the Taliban. And perhaps that — the inability of most people to believe something so horrifying could touch their lives — helps explain why the American public is so grotesquely indifferent to the fate of two children and their young mother from York, who must live each day with terror the rest of us can scarcely imagine.
THERE ARE ONLY a few things we know today about how Caitlan and Joshua vanished.
The couple was abducted in the fall of 2012 near Afghanistan’s war-torn capital, Kabul, and officials believe they’re currently being held in Pakistan. They’ve been in captivity for four years now. For reference, U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the longest-held POW since the Vietnam War, was imprisoned for five.
The men who took Caitlan and Joshua are part of the Haqqani network, a Taliban affiliate that’s in the kidnapping-for-ransom business. The New York Times once called them the “Sopranos of the Afghanistan war.”
No one had any idea Caitlan and Joshua, who was then 29, would be traveling to Afghanistan when they left. The first time anyone heard about their change of plans was on October 8, 2012, when Joshua sent an email to Caitlan’s parents saying they were in an “unsafe” place in Afghanistan. On October 9th, a withdrawal was made from their bank account for the last time, in Kabul.
The Taliban told reporters this summer that Caitlan and Joshua are “in good health” and in a place where they can move around and exercise. But there’s no way of knowing if that’s true. When the Haqqanis kidnapped Bergdahl, they beat him repeatedly with copper wire, spit in his food, kept him alone in the dark in a six-foot-wide cage, and refused him medical care even though he had severe diarrhea for years.
The Haqqanis may have tortured Bergdahl in part because he tried to escape mere days after being captured. They treated former New York Times journalist David Rohde, who was held for eight months, notably better. But even if they’re handling Caitlan and Joshua humanely, there are other concerns that keep their friends up at night: Caitlan has a liver condition that requires her to undergo regular medical treatment, which may not be available wherever she’s being held. And then there’s the fact that she’s gone into labor twice in captivity.
That’s another part of this ongoing nightmare that came as a complete surprise to Caitlan’s friends — that’s made them feel as if they might be living inside a screenwriter’s head. Caitlan’s parents found a sonogram of their grandson only after she’d disappeared. “She didn’t tell anyone,” says Lindsay. “We would have tried to talk her out of going. I kick myself. I should have told her, ‘Don’t do it.’”
As far as hard facts go, that’s basically it. The Obama administration has made only a handful of public comments about the couple. It recently changed the way it deals with all hostage situations, but details have been few and far between. The latest statement from the U.S. government, issued in August, simply said that officials were examining the newest video of the couple and “continue to urge for their immediate release on humanitarian grounds.” The FBI, the Department of Defense, and a new federal organization known as the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell have all declined to discuss Caitlan’s case with Philadelphia magazine.
The press hasn’t done much to help bring attention to Caitlan’s cause. Despite the made-for-Hollywood twists and turns — an all-American sweetheart gives birth twice after being kidnapped by the Taliban, and now her sons are growing up under the boot of terrorists — most news articles written about Caitlan are one-and-done. They detail the videos and little else.
To be fair, journalists have to be careful while reporting on hostages: What they write could impact potential negotiations. That may have discouraged some outlets from covering Caitlan’s plight, but it doesn’t completely explain why she’s gotten so little attention. Even when, at a Senate hearing, a decorated war hero raised hell about the way the Obama administration has handled Caitlan’s case — and alleged that the FBI retaliated against him for telling a member of Congress about it — reporters wrote only a few he-said, she-said stories, then moved on.
Caitlan, like the war in Afghanistan and the fight against the Taliban, has been forgotten. The public has stopped reading, stopped caring. The press, in turn, has stopped reporting. Not even the presidential candidates talk about Afghanistan. Today, the focus is ISIS and Syria; tomorrow, it will be something else.
“It doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and I have no idea why,” says Lindsay. “It’s just messed up. She’s a person. She has a family. She’s not just this ‘kidnapped American woman.’ I keep reading that, and I’m like, that’s not who she is. She’s Caity. She’s this amazing, brilliant, wonderful woman.”
“DARWIN’S LAW AT WORK.”
“I would rather the U.S. spend its money and effort to feed the hungry children in this country than to spend it trying to free these two idiots.”
“If we get them back, they would probably travel to Syria for their next little getaway.”
The comments about Caitlan and Joshua are some of the most vicious things I’ve read online — and that’s saying something in 2016.
And perhaps that, too, has something to do with why Caitlan has been forgotten. The anonymity and abrasiveness of the Web has calloused Americans, made us quicker to judge and slower to empathize, especially with imperfect people who are thousands of miles away. There’s a little bit of Internet troll inside each of us nowadays, which makes you wonder what would have happened to Caitlan if she’d been kidnapped decades ago. Would we have cared more?
That’s not to say I’ve never wondered how someone could do something as boneheaded as travel on a whim to Afghanistan. How couldn’t I? But after talking to Caitlan’s friends and family members over the past couple months, I find it’s not so hard to understand why she, in particular, could make such a huge mistake.
Those close to Caitlan describe her as big-hearted, relentlessly optimistic, adventurous, funny and flawed. The stories about her acts of kindness stick out most: She never forgot to send Christmas cards and thank-you notes. “I know it sounds kind of cliché, but she was just a really good person,” says Julia. If you had a bad day, she’d drop her plans to be by your side. “I went through a breakup when I was friends with Caity,” says Lindsay. “She was the one who would try to cheer me up and get my mind off of it.”
Her mom, Lyn, says Caitlan was always generous: As a 10-year-old, she went door-to-door to raise money for the poor in Haiti. “The first person she asked slammed the door in her face, but she kept going. … If she had extra money, she wouldn’t necessarily spend it on herself. She would spend it on those who were in greater need.”
Caitlan is quick with jokes, friends and family say, but not the kind that hurt: “Her humor doesn’t target people,” says Meghan Rogers. Instead, it’s goofy and childlike. She’d poke fun at movies, à la Mystery Science Theater 3000. She’d call her friends and boldly proclaim, “I’m bathing. I hope that doesn’t offend you!” And she could make you laugh “even if you were kind of upset or angry with her,” says Lyn.
She was a devout Catholic. She made things: cookies, soaps, short films. She was a travel junkie. “When she was young, we would take trips out West,” says Lyn. “But she was never interested in going to the big tourist areas. She always wanted to know what normal life was like for people.” As a young adult, she’d save money from her grocery-store job to regularly visit Toronto, which she thought of as “the most amazing place in the world, this mecca of culture,” says Meghan. She actually got to know Joshua online after a friend she’d met in Canada put the teenagers in touch and they bonded over a shared reverence for Star Wars. Eventually, the couple backpacked together, and got married in Central America in 2011.
“She had this curiosity about everything,” says Meghan, “and she deeply felt that everyone in this world was equal.”
Her friends and family admired that she was so tolerant — it’s not the default worldview in my hometown. But Caitlan’s loved ones say she was naive, too, and overly trusting. “She always tried to see the best in people,” says Julia, “and I guess that’s part of why they ended up where they are.”
I didn’t know Caitlan well; I only bumped into her a few times in town. But what I’ve learned about her since reminds me of many young women from rural Pennsylvania, who are at once ruggedly individualistic, brave and innocent. It’s not difficult to see why Caitlan was dewy-eyed: She was homeschooled as a kid, and grew up in a small, insulated town. I made a lot of mistakes when I left southern York County, too, oftentimes alongside a boy — and if I’m being honest, some could have gotten me killed.
A note from Caitlan dated September 6, 2012, gives a closer look into her mind-set while she was in Central Asia: “I enjoy getting to know some of the most unique, quirky people I have ever met, and learning from them. It really gives you a different perspective on the world. We in the U.S. are taught to fear it … to the point that the U.S. State Department website’s current ‘travel advisory’ is advising people to simply not travel outside of the U.S. … but it’s a whole different world outside.”
Amazingly, Caitlan wrote that just a week after telling friends that she had crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan into Tajikistan at night in the “strangest, sketchiest ride yet”: After flagging an early-morning taxi, she and Joshua were driven to a farmhouse where they were made to wait by a guide for another 18 hours until they could leave Kyrgyzstan in a caravan of other travelers. Always positive, she summed up the experience this way: “All turned out to be okay. … They didn’t try to demand any more money from us, and we were able to get some dinner.”
Still, many think Caitlan would never have been in Afghanistan had it not been for her husband. On paper, Joshua doesn’t look all that different from many other millennials: He was an aspiring writer who had studied English at the University of Waterloo and worked service jobs to get by. But friends say he’s one of the smartest, most unusual people they ever met. He was fascinated by politics, Islam and the Middle East. Alex Edwards, a friend since 2002, says Joshua “spent hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours” writing Wikipedia articles on those subjects and others. Meghan, who studied Arabic in college, says he adored practicing the language with her.
Joshua was also charitable, Alex says: In an online game they played, “He was always the first one to figure new ways to exploit the rules for his own advantage, but he donated large quantities of in-game currency and assets to new players.” According to friends, he was also very persuasive, which may explain how he and Caitlan ended up in Afghanistan. “Given that they had traveled through much of Central Asia already … maybe they just decided, ‘Hell, why not?’’’ says Alex. “Josh had long been interested in Afghanistan … and it’s not like they were going to get another chance to visit.”
Another bizarre twist in this tale is that Joshua was so curious about Islam and the region that he once became intimately connected to a Muslim man who was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. The short version: As a young Mennonite who was passionately anti-war, Joshua became obsessed with Omar Khadr, a Canadian who had been captured at age 15 in Afghanistan and incarcerated without a trial for 10 years. Joshua eventually met the Khadr family and acted as their spokesman. Alex insists that Joshua advocated for Omar “just because he thought it was the right thing to do. … His first concern in life has always been helping others.” Later, Joshua married (and quickly divorced) Omar’s older sister, Zaynab.
All of this has made it more difficult to engender sympathy for Caitlan and Joshua. But U.S. officials say their kidnapping had nothing to do with Joshua’s ties to the Khadrs, which they called a “horrible coincidence.” Friends say Joshua got involved with the family in the first place because he was a dedicated pacifist and activist. “If things were different, and I was the one being held hostage, Josh wouldn’t rest until I was free,” says Alex. “He’d stage sit-ins. He’d put up posters. He’d dedicate his life to it. That’s just who he is.”
A fellow traveler named Richard Cronin bumped into Caitlan and Joshua in a hostel in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, shortly before the couple left for Afghanistan. He wrote on his traveling blog that he had never seriously thought about traveling to that country until he talked with Joshua:
“Over the course of a conversation that ran long into the night, he planted in my head a strong desire to go. We started talking about Lawrence of Arabia and the explorer Richard Burton. He asked me if I admired those explorers. … ‘Wouldn’t you like to be like one of them?’” Joshua offered other reasons to go: “When’s the next time you will be in Central Asia? And chiefly, the window is closing and the security situation will only deteriorate when the American troops leave.”
Cronin took off for Afghanistan a few days later with a friend. When they made it back safely, he waited for Caitlan and Joshua at a hostel in Dushanbe.
“Every time the door opened, we hoped it would be them,” he wrote. It never was.
“I FAILED THEM. I exhausted all efforts and resources available … but I failed.”
Jason Amerine, 45, is a retired Green Beret soldier and Army colonel who is so admired for his heroics that a toy manufacturer made an action figure of him. But in 2013, he was tasked with a mission he wasn’t able to complete: leading a secret Pentagon team to bring back Bowe Bergdahl, Caitlan, Joshua, and other hostages in Pakistan.
As soon as the case hit his desk, he realized a terrifying thing: “Nobody had tried to free Coleman or the other civilian hostages.”
That wasn’t even the worst part: Amerine says the agencies that played a role in rescuing hostages — the FBI, the Department of Defense, the State Department — weren’t coordinating effectively. At one point, Amerine was working on a deal that would have exchanged one Afghan warlord with ties to the Taliban for Bergdahl, Caitlan, Joshua, their son and other hostages, but it fell apart. “Our nation lacked an organization that could synchronize the efforts of all our government agencies to get our hostages home,” he told a U.S. Senate committee in 2015.
It’s crazy to think that something as mundane as bureaucratic dysfunction may be part of the reason Caitlan is rotting away. And, sadly, her experience isn’t unusual: Critics say Bergdahl languished in captivity partly due to government ineptitude. In fact, the country’s hostage recovery efforts were apparently so flawed in 2015 that the U.S. accidentally killed Warren Weinstein, an American contractor who was being held hostage by Al Qaeda, in a drone strike.
Amerine went to California Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican on the Armed Services Committee, to push for reform. But he hit another snag: Amerine says the FBI, which was supposed to be leading civilian hostage recovery efforts, retaliated against him, telling the Army he’d leaked classified information to Hunter. In 2014, a nine-month criminal investigation ensued — and during at least part of that time, he says, no one in the Department of Defense was working on Caitlan’s case.
Something Hunter told me may explain, in part, why the media hasn’t covered Caitlan more. He says the FBI told her family that “if they posted anything on Facebook, they could sue them.” Amerine also claims that federal investigators threatened Caitlan’s father, saying that if he didn’t stop talking to Hunter, the family “would stop getting supported by the FBI.” Lyn vehemently denies this. “The FBI has never threatened or intimidated us. We’ve been treated with great respect and support,” she insists. Still, the Colemans have rarely talked to the press: “We chose to maintain a low profile.”
The FBI wouldn’t talk about Amerine’s claims. But he eventually got his good name back: He was cleared of wrongdoing and retired with one of the highest decorations in the military, the Legion of Merit.
There’s at least a sliver of good news in all of this: Amerine’s fury, as well as criticism from the Weinstein family and others, eventually led to reform. In 2015, the federal government created the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. Essentially, it puts all of the government agencies working to free hostages in the same room — and gives a special envoy direct access to the Secretary of State.
Since the changes, more than 70 hostages have been freed, according to the New York Times. There are more than a dozen left out there, including Caitlan’s family.
But even if the feds are now operating smoothly, unique challenges stand in the way of freeing Caitlan. She’s thought to be in Pakistan, where, experts say, the United States has been leery of launching recovery missions since the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The terms of Bergdahl’s release also could have given the Taliban unrealistic expectations: He was traded for not one but five Taliban members. Further complicating matters is the fact that the Obama administration’s policy, at least on paper, is to not negotiate with terrorists: It doesn’t do ransoms or prisoner exchanges. (Many European countries, by contrast, routinely pay ransoms.) When Obama strayed from his own rules in order to free Bergdahl, he faced endless criticism from the public and Congress. Few will admit it out loud, but bringing Caitlan home is politically fraught.
CAITLIN’S LOVED ONES aren’t sure what to think nowadays. They’re caught in a place where they can’t mourn, but they also don’t know whether it’s realistic to have much hope. They look at what happened to Weinstein and worry. When they talk about Caitlan, they go back and forth between past and present tense: She was? Or she is?
“It’s like she’s dead, but she’s not at all dead. You can’t grieve for her,” says Meghan. “It almost feels like she’s in a stagnant place, but she’s not. She’s been living her life for the last four years. We just haven’t been a part of it.”
There’s a terrible loneliness to their pain — only a fraction of a fraction of a percent of Americans can relate. “People don’t know what to say to me, and I don’t know what to say to them,” says Lyn. “Every day, I am overwhelmed by my loss.” Some close to Caitlan have stopped telling outsiders about her. “People don’t believe you,” says Lindsay. “It happens in TV shows and movies all the time, but it doesn’t happen to you. It doesn’t happen to your friend.”
All the proof of life that the public has seen in the past two years is the latest video. In it, Caitlan is at least 50 pounds lighter than before. Her wavy brown hair is covered by a black headscarf, making her big, doe-like eyes and strong brows even more striking. Joshua has a long, scraggly beard, and he’s also lost a great deal of weight.
Their captors are desperate, Caitlan explains on the video. The Afghan government has started executing Taliban prisoners, and it recently detained Anas Haqqani, the brother of the network’s leader. If something isn’t done to stop the slayings, Caitlan says, the Haqqanis will murder her: “They’re willing to kill us. Willing to kill women, willing to kill children, to kill whomever.”
Somewhere off-screen, there are two little boys. Then, as quickly as she appeared, Caitlan’s gone.
Published as “When the Taliban Takes the Girl Next Door” in the November 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.