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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Wife of American held hostage by the Taliban fears time is running out

Ryan and Anna Corbett, along with their three children, were among the thousands of American passport holders who fled Afghanistan during the U.S. military withdrawal in August 2021. They had a matter of hours to pack up their lives into five carry-on suitcases.

“To suddenly decide what could fit in and what couldn’t was just awful,” Anna Corbett, 43, said in a recent interview with CBS News. “We loved living there.”

For almost 12 years, Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul had been home. The family moved there from Minneapolis in 2010, putting down roots, raising pets and welcoming their son, Caleb, who was born in Afghanistan in 2011. He and his two sisters were homeschooled by Anna, who had long shared an interest in travel and service with her husband.

“I had a lot of good times there,” Caleb, now 13, said. “Just hanging out with my Afghan friends. It was good.”

“I love the people there and I love the country. It’s beautiful there,” he added.

For the first few years, Ryan worked with local NGOs. In 2017, he founded Bloom Afghanistan, a business consultancy focused on strengthening Afghanistan’s private sector. He taught business and helped Afghans get microloans to buy livestock and auto rickshaws.

“He learned Pashto, and had a lot of relationships, and really enjoyed helping men find their way forward and find ways they could make their country better,” Anna said.

In August 2021, as Kabul rapidly fell to the Taliban and the family waited to evacuate through the French embassy, Anna, a dual French-American citizen, said she found the city “completely different.”

“No more women, just Taliban men at roundabouts,” she said. “It just was so strange. It was like, ‘I don’t recognize this place anymore.'”

Almost exactly a year later, on Aug. 10, 2022, Ryan Corbett was back in northern Afghanistan on a business trip when he and three of his colleagues were arrested by the Taliban. Anna hasn’t seen her husband since.

Ryan’s return To Afghanistan

After they first settled in New York, the couple wrestled for a time with whether Ryan should return to Afghanistan. The Taliban were running the country, and the State Department had warned Americans not to travel there, citing the risk of kidnapping and potential violence against U.S. citizens.

But Ryan’s business was still operational, and he felt compelled to support his local staff.

Asked by CBS News why Ryan chose to risk traveling, Anna replied, “He had a business visa. He had been living there since 2010. He knew the language. He knew the culture.”

“He did not want to abandon his employees and shut that down just for his own comfort,” she continued. “So it was really for the Afghans and for his staff that he returned.”

In January 2022, after extensive deliberation, Anna and Ryan agreed he should take a short trip to renew his visa, which was close to expiring.

“When he went to the [Taliban government’s] Ministry of Commerce, they said, ‘This is such a great business. We love what you’re doing,'” Anna recalled.

Encouraged by the positive reception, Ryan made a second trip to Afghanistan that August. On Aug. 10, while traveling in the northern part of the country with three colleagues — a German citizen and two Afghans — Ryan and the others were taken by the police to local headquarters.

“Ryan texted me, ‘I’m at police headquarters, but it’s no problem. They’ll understand what we’re doing. It’s no big deal,'” Anna said. “I got nervous right away, of course.”

For the first 36 hours, Ryan kept in touch with Anna. She said he was told by Taliban officials that he and his German colleague could be released, but the Afghan nationals would not be.

“Ryan’s the kind of guy who will not just abandon others,” Anna said. “And he and the other man with him said, ‘If you don’t release all four of us, we’re not going to go. And they weren’t ready to release the two Afghans at that point, and so Ryan and his colleagues stayed.”

“They had no idea how long this would drag out,” she said.

“I wish he had been released immediately, but he did the right thing,” Anna said, through tears. “I’m proud of him for standing for the two Afghans who were with them and not abandoning them.”

Their detention in the north took place just days after a U.S. drone strike in downtown Kabul killed Al-Qaeda’s then-leader, Ayman al-Zawarihi, on July 31.

Asked if she thought there was any connection between the two events, Anna said, “I don’t know. I really don’t know.”

The two Afghan nationals have since been released, as has Ryan’s German colleague. Ryan, meanwhile, marked 16 months in an Afghan facility run by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), this December.

Taliban intelligence officials told CBS News that Ryan was accused of anti-state activities. It is a common accusation made against Westerners, and one Ryan’s family says is baseless.

Fears for Ryan’s life

Ryan spent weeks in solitary confinement before being moved to one cell he shared with four other prisoners, including British national Kevin Cornwell, who was released by the Taliban in October, after being held by the GDI for nine months.

In a phone interview with CBS News, Cornwell said the guards moved prisoners around frequently “to keep us in a state of the shock of capture,” he said. “They don’t want you to get comfortable, and they also want to intimidate you.”

Prisoners were required to request access to toilets, and were often told demoralizing things — including that they would spend years in captivity because they had been forgotten, according to Cornwell and other people familiar with the conditions.

The cell was “like an underground car park, with no windows, just a door, and no ventilation,” according to Cornwell, who said he witnessed Ryan having dizzy spells and being unsteady on his feet on numerous occasions.

Cornwell, who suffered twice from sepsis during his detention and required hospitalization, said the group was fed a high-fat diet consisting of fatty lumps of goat meat and oil, and small amounts of bread. “If you’re lucky, some days you’ll get kidney beans and some days you’ll get chickpeas,” he said. The group only rarely received a piece of fruit.

Though their guards were instructed to allow prisoners 20 minutes of sunlight a week, Cornwell said even that rarely happened, with time outside often limited to 20 minutes a month. Sometimes, he said, certain guards would not allow Ryan and two other prisoners to remove their blindfolds while in the sun.

“I’ve heard reports of Ryan fainting, of discolored extremities,” Anna said, according to accounts from other released Westerners who had interacted with Ryan.

She also said that an accident at the age of 16 had left Ryan with a collapsed lung, making him very prone to pneumonia. “So I’m really scared that in these winter conditions, being held in a damp and cold basement, that his health would deteriorate extremely quickly,” she said. “I’m really scared for his life.”

A Taliban intelligence official told CBS News that Ryan’s health was “fine,” and that he was being held in a “guesthouse.” The official claimed he has daily access to sunlight, goat and sheep meat, newspapers, magazines and a small gym, which are not offered to other inmates. CBS News has not verified those claims.

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s appointed envoy to the United Nations, also told CBS News, “We don’t torture or mistreat anyone in custody.”

According to his family, Ryan has only been visited once in person, by officials from Qatar — which stepped in to provide diplomatic representation after the U.S. severed ties with the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan — almost a year ago, in January 2023. In May, nine months after he was first imprisoned, Anna said she received her first phone call from Ryan. It lasted six minutes.

The second call came just days ago, only after she began to publicly tell her — and Ryan’s — story.

“I want him back alive”

Living in a new neighborhood in New York, where her children began attending public school for the first time, Anna said she struggled for more than a year with the weight of her secret.

“I was sad that my neighbors were assuming that [Ryan] had left us, that we were divorced. And when people asked me questions, I had to respond, ‘He’s on a business trip — a never-ending business trip,'” she said, her voice catching. “It was so difficult to keep it quiet.”

Caleb, her son, tried writing a letter in Pashto to the Taliban, appealing for the release of his father.

“I just wanted to do something small, because I want to do everything that I can to get my dad home,” he said. “I miss him, and every day counts.”

“I talked about Afghanistan and about how I liked it there. And then I talked about how my dad didn’t do anything wrong and that they should release him because he was just trying to help the country,” Caleb told CBS News.

Anna said the letter was sent to the Taliban officials holding Ryan, and that it was received, but that the family has to date received no response.

In September, more than a year after he was imprisoned, the State Department determined that Ryan had been wrongfully detained. The designation makes available certain diplomatic and intelligence tools to the U.S. government, including the potential for prisoner swaps. It also gets Congress involved. For Anna, the long wait for that designation was agonizing.

Sources familiar with the process said part of the delay had to do with internal deliberations over whether making the designation would legitimize the Taliban as a governing entity in a way the U.S. has not been willing to do.

Anna said it was never made clear to her what made the process take so long, but that she was grateful when it finally happened.

Still, as the weeks passed and she heard nothing from her husband, she worried the Biden administration was not doing enough to advocate on Ryan’s behalf. She also worried there were more official interactions between the U.S. and the Taliban on other issues, while that her husband’s case wasn’t being forcefully raised.

Last September, an American engineer, Mark Frerichs — who had been detained by the Taliban for more than two years — was freed in an exchange for Haji Bashir Noorzai, who was in federal prison for drug trafficking.

A State Department readout of meetings between U.S. and Taliban officials in July 2023 noted that the U.S. officials had “pressed for the immediate and unconditional release of detained U.S. citizens,” but Anna’s concern grew when there were subsequent engagements in the fall and there were no updates on Ryan’s case.

Going public “was a big fear for a long time,” she said. “I did not want to make it more dangerous for him by speaking of it. So we were willing to be quiet for that.”

“I’m choosing to speak publicly now because he has been held so long,” she said. “I want him back alive for our family,” she said.

On Nov. 14, Anna testified publicly for the first time before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, telling the panel her husband had been kept in “deplorable and inhuman conditions,” and that he had been charged with no crime. She said she feared for his physical and mental health.

Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, told CBS News the Corbetts were an “amazing family whose kindness and passion for helping others is obvious.”

“Ryan does not deserve what is happening to him, and I will never stop advocating for his release,” he said.

Sources familiar with the matter said that the Taliban are currently holding as many as six Americans, including Ryan. Some have been taken hostage recently, within the past few months. Two other Americans have, like Ryan, been deemed wrongfully detained.

“The Taliban are evil terrorists who commit unfathomable atrocities and take Americans hostage,” McCaul said. “We should be honest about who the Taliban are and stop pretending that they will ever be our friends.”

“I am concerned the Taliban continues to take American hostages because they have never been held responsible by the Biden administration for any of their many egregious crimes,” he added.

In a statement, National Security Council Deputy spokesperson Kate Waters said the Biden administration “remains fully committed to doing everything we can to bring home Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad, including Ryan Corbett. For months, senior officials from the White House and State Department have met with the Corbett family to keep them updated on the Administration’s tireless efforts to bring him home. We will continue to do so, and we will continue the ongoing efforts to bring Ryan Corbett and all other wrongfully detained Americans home.”

“We also continue to warn Americans, as we have for years, and especially since our withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, that they should not travel to Afghanistan,” Waters said.

“They’re listening”

Weeks after her congressional testimony, just before Thanksgiving, Anna had her first-ever meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who she said assured her Ryan’s case was a top priority for the administration. Blinken pledged to personally discuss the matter with Qatar’s foreign minister, who could in turn raise the matter with the Taliban.

“He was very responsive and I’ve spoken with a lot of different people in the different branches of government,” Anna said. “I do have to say that, as I observe what is going on in the world, especially recently with the Gaza hostages who have been released — and I’m very happy for their families, very happy — but I do see what the government can do when they set their mind to something.”

Several days after going public, and after her call with Blinken, Anna received a second phone call from Ryan, this one lasting 10 minutes. She could hardly believe it — she’d been told before a call was coming, only to never have it happen.

“It’s really hard to talk to your husband of almost 20 years for such a short amount of time,” Anna said. “It’s extremely emotional, and made me miss him more.”

Caleb, who was with Anna when the call came through, said it was “hard.”

“They’re listening,” he said, referring to the Taliban. “And I have to be careful what I say.”

“I think what is troubling to me is that conversations are increasing with the Taliban,” Anna said. “It seems like efforts are being made to strengthen that relationship. And in the meantime a wrongfully detained U.S. citizen has only had 16 minutes of call with his family and is still detained in a basement in Kabul.”

But she said the recent call with Ryan left her feeling that she made the right choice in telling his story.

“It was actually really encouraging to hear from him,” Anna said, “and to see that maybe, going public, sharing this story, is making a difference for him.”

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said the United States “has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas.”

“U.S. officials have continuously pressed, including in meetings with Taliban representatives, for the immediate and unconditional release of Americans detained in Afghanistan, noting that these detentions are a significant obstacle to positive engagement. For privacy, safety and operational reasons, we won’t speak publicly to their cases.”

“Secretary Blinken is personally focused on bringing home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas,” the official continued. “He has met with the families of wrongfully detained Americans whenever possible, and met virtually with the family of Ryan Corbett in November.”

Hope for a holiday reunion

Anna has hung five stockings in the family’s home ahead of the holidays, daring to hope Ryan could be back home in time for Christmas.

“We miss him so much and we already had to celebrate Thanksgiving twice without him,” she said. “Now Christmas a second time would be awful.”

With palpable emotion, she recounted the many milestones the family had missed spending together. Her daughters had turned 16 and 18, and one has begun preparing for college. Caleb shot his first buck, which he knew would make his father, an avid hunter, very proud.

Meanwhile, Ryan, Anna said, had turned 40 “in the cell alone, without his family.”

“We marked the day with friends, and we had presents for him that he can open when he comes,” she said.

On Tuesday, the State Department confirmed that Tom West, the State Department’s Special Representative and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Afghanistan, met with a Taliban representative while he attended the Doha Forum in Qatar.

“American detainee releases, including Ryan Corbett, were central to the discussion,” a spokesperson said of the meeting.

A tweet by Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen made no mention of detainees, but called the talks “candid.”

While her family awaits additional updates about Ryan, Anna said she had committed herself full time to advocating for him publicly. She said she had followed the recent news of other hostage releases with a mix of searing personal pain and joy for other families’ good fortune.

“I wonder what would happen if this were President Biden’s family?” Anna at one point wondered aloud. “What more could be done? I’m very concerned because Ryan’s health is deteriorating, and he needs to be released.”

“Ryan is a U.S. citizen who’s been wrongfully detained and it does not make sense to move on with any policies or any strengthening relationship with the Taliban until this is resolved,” she said.

The Corbett family has created a website, www.freeryancorbett.com, where visitors can learn more about their family and Ryan’s situation.

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