When the Taliban Takes the Girl Next Door
Holly Otterbein | Philadelphia Magazine | October 2016
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.
Writer bio: Holly Otterbein, a Temple University graduate, is a senior writer at Philadelphia Magazine. She wrote for the City Paper, Daily News, and WHYY before joining Philly Mag in 2015.