Freed Taliban hostage Timothy Weeks says he never gave up hope he would be rescued during three “long and tortuous” years in captivity in .
Speaking publicly for the first time since his release as part of a complex prisoner swap almost two weeks ago, the Australian teacher thanked all those who helped secure his freedom, and said he had formed extraordinarily tight bonds with some of his captors.
The 50-year-old Australian academic had spent long periods held in the dark, in tiny, windowless cells at unknown locations after he was abducted at gunpoint outside Kabul’s American University, with American Kevin King, in August 2016.
His release on 20 November followed six previous unsuccessful attempts by US Special Forces to free him, and months of fraught and unpredictable negotiations, led by US officials, with the terror network.
Freed Taliban prisoner Timothy Weeks returns to Australia
Emerging from a dust cloud under the blades of a Black Hawk helicopter, a US Navy Seal took Weeks under his arm as he led him to freedom.
“From the moment I sighted both Black Hawk helicopters and was placed in the hands of Special Forces, I knew my long and tortuous ordeal had come to an end,” he said in Sydney, flanked by his sisters, Jo and Alyssa Carter.
“Out of a big dust cloud came six Special Forces and they walked towards us and one of them stepped towards me and he just put his arm around me and he held me and he said, ‘Are you OK?’ And then he walked me back to the Black Hawk.”
Moments earlier, as Weeks left the custody of his Taliban guards, he hugged some of them as they wished him well.
Weeks learned to speak Pashtun in captivity and said he was treated well. He said he understood both he, and the guards charged with holding him captive, were pawns in a larger conflict.
“For me they were soldiers and soldiers obey the commands of their commanders. They don’t get a choice. They were there because they were ordered to come and look after me.
“I don’t hate them at all. And some of them I have great respect for and, and great love for almost.”
Weeks said some of the US-led rescue missions came perilously close. “A number of times they missed us only by hours.”
One mission in April almost cost Weeks his life as his captors took him into an underground tunnel in the early hours of the morning, telling him Daesh (Islamic State) had arrived, when in fact it was the Navy Seals “right outside our door”.
As machine-gun fire raged above, Weeks was pushed backwards into the tunnel, losing consciousness.
In exchange for the release of Weeks and King, three high-profile Taliban prisoners were freed, including Anas Haqqani, the younger brother of the militant group’s deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is also head of the hardline Haqqani network.
The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said the decision to agree to the swap was a hard choice but one he felt compelled to make in the interest of the Afghan people. Even once negotiated, the deal was problematic, with a number of false starts and last-minute postponements, before it finally went ahead, with the Taliban prisoners flown to Qatar.
Thanking those involved in his release, including the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the US president, Donald Trump, Weeks said he had been profoundly changed by the experience.
“The time that I spent as a hostage with the Taliban has had a profound and unimaginable effect on me,” he said.
Visibly emotional, he said: “At times I felt as if my death was imminent and that I would never return to see those that I love again but by the will of God I am here, I am alive and I am safe and I am free. There is nothing else in the world that I need.”
Despite the gravity of what he endured, Weeks said he never lost hope.
“I had hope the whole time. I knew that I would leave that place eventually,” he said.
Weeks, from Wagga Wagga, arrived back in Australia on Thursday night after being transferred from a US military base in Germany, where he underwent medical checks.
King, the American held hostage alongside him, is still undergoing treatment.
Weeks said he felt “great joy” that peace talks between the US and Afghan governments and the Taliban had recommenced.
“I pray that they will be successful, and that they may enable the return of stability and security to the country of Afghanistan, and the region.”
He appealed for privacy for his family, saying the ordeal had especially taken a toll on his father. He added that he hopes to return to academic study in the future but will take a well-deserved holiday first.
The experience has left him feeling “stronger”, with a belief that he can get through anything.
“It’s given me a great sense of hope and a great sense of confidence,” he said.
Alyssa Carter said the emotional family reunion after almost 1,200 days was “incredible”, while Jo Carter said what her brother had been through was “unimaginable”.