New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell was kidnapped by the Taliban and held for four days in Afghanistan, along with his translator Sultan M. Munadi. Munadi and an unnamed British soldier were killed in the British-led rescue.
Farrell filed this devastating account of their four-day imprisonment and rescue the day he returned.
I was struck by the following moment, which occurred soon after the initial capture:
Once away from immediate pursuit, they transferred me to a waiting car and drove into the dusty back roads of Char Dara District at high speed. “Russian?” one asked me, a question that seemed so out of recent historical context that it made my heart sink.
I see this as an example of the turning point before the turning point: a subtle signpost of foreshadowing that contains in microcosm what lies ahead. It’s like a little crystal ball in the story, there to foretell the future by containing inside it in miniature everything that’s about to happen.
In this instance, Farrell’s being rapidly driven away from safety by his captors, knowing his chances of surviving diminish the further they go. When his captor, his enemy, thinks he’s Russian (the enemy of twenty years ago), he’s overwhelmed with the feeling that he’s been captured by people who don’t know anything about which war is happening or who they’re fighting against. As it turns out, these captors will spend the next four days moving from house to house with seemingly no plan, no purpose, before finally bringing the brunt of the British military on them all, losing two good men their lives. And they don’t even know who they’re fighting against, or why.
All of this is neatly foreshadowed in the captor’s “Russian?” comment — and Farrell’s heart-sinking reaction. If I were dramatizing this story, I would careen towards this moment jarringly, out of control, then dwell on this “Russian?” beat to underscore its sickening, foretelling quality. Just an extra couple viscous beats too long, making it snag the pace the way it does Farrell’s heart. And then speed up the chase again, now with Farrell having caught a glimpse of what lies ahead.
The turning point in a story is an important structural support, giving us something to build to, react to, creating new energy and direction for the story. However, these mini turning points before the turning point — these moments of foreshadowing — can have the same effect without changing the course of the story over-all. Like a twig propping the outer edge of the tent leading up to the tentpole. When Farrell heard the word “Russian?” he knew his story had just changed for the worse, but it took the next four days to watch it unfold until the real turning point when he was rescued and saw his friend killed in front of him.