Sister of Lombard man freed by Taliban in hostage swap ‘stunned, very happy’ after 3 a.m. call from Biden
Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran and a civilian contractor in Afghanistan, was abducted in 2020. His sister in Lombard had pushed for years to get his release.
Charlene Cakora’s cellphone rang on Monday at 3:36 a.m.
On the other end was President Joe Biden, calling from Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. He wanted to tell the Lombard woman that her brother, Taliban hostage Mark Frerichs, was being released after being held hostage in Afghanistan for more than two years.
“He was really brief and sweet and just basically said that my brother is pretty much lucky to have me as a sister,” Cakora told the Sun-Times.
“I’ve been having my phone next to me and had little sleep for the past two and a half years. I’m alert to the phone every time it rings — even during the day, I’ve got it with me all the time, and I’m not like that,” she said.
“I was just in awe. I was stunned, very happy, very happy, but right now we just need time to process this,” she said from her Lombard home, an American flag and a POW/MIA flag waving in the wind in her front yard.
Held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since Jan. 31, 2020, Frerichs was part of a prisoner swap Monday for an Afghan drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, who had been serving a life sentence in U.S. prisons.
“I spoke with Mark’s sister today to share the good news and express how happy I am for Mark’s family,” Biden said in a statement. “Bringing the negotiations that led to Mark’s freedom to a successful resolution required difficult decisions, which I did not take lightly. Our priority now is to make sure Mark receives a healthy and safe return and is given the space and time he needs to transition back into society.”
Frerichs, 60, graduated Glenbard East High School in 1980. He served six years in the Navy, where he trained to be a diver. After the Navy, he worked as a general contractor, first in Iraq, then Afghanistan. He was living in Afghanistan for about 10 years — finishing work on a municipal water project — when he was lured to a trap in Kabul and kidnapped in early 2020.
Noorzai, according to the Justice Department, was a Taliban financier and drug lord, who had been in U.S. custody for 17 years as part of a life sentence for heroin trafficking.
Sister works behind the scenes
After her brother’s capture, Cakora began pressuring both the Trump and Biden administrations to trade Noorzai’s release for her brother’s freedom.
“We were close, still are, always have been,” she said of her relationship with her brother, who’s two years older.
A Biden administration official said the talks leading up to the deal were not easy.
“We undertook months of tough negotiations with the Taliban for Mark’s release,” an official said.“And it became clear in the course of those negotiations that the release of Bashir Noorzai ... was the key to securing Mark’s overdue freedom. We consulted with experts across the U.S. government who assessed that Noorzai’s return to Afghanistan would not materially change any risk to Americans emanating from the country or the nature of the drug trade there.”
How the swap went down
Biden OK’d the deal in June, but it took time to work out details for the swap, particularly “over the past few days,” the official said.
That’s when Noorzai was released from prison and flown on U.S. government aircraft to Kabul International Airport after Biden granted him clemency. The swap of the two men took place at the airport. That same plane then flew Frerichs to Doha, Qatar. Later on Monday, Frerichs was flown to Germany for “medical checks,” a White House official said.
During a briefing on Frerichs’ release, a Biden administration official said “our understanding is that Mark’s health thankfully appears stable, solid. [He] ... has been offered a range of support options after his time in captivity.”
A good night’s rest
Although she had spoken to the president, as of Monday afternoon Cakora had not yet reached her brother.
“I haven’t even talked to him, and he hasn’t even had 24 hours to process being on safe lands right now, so he’s still trying to process this,” she said.
But she said it has been a happy and exhausting day.
“I think I can sleep tonight,” she said with a laugh.
As for what her brother plans next?
“It’s all up to Mark, what he wants to do,” she said.
Duckworth: ‘We do not leave Americans behind’
Illinois Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, both Democrats, had also been pressuring the White House for Frerichs’ release.
“I’m thrilled that his family, who have long been Mark’s champions, will get to reunite with him,” Duckworth said in a statement. “I applaud President Biden, who I spoke with personally about the need to get Mark home, for taking the steps necessary to prove that we do not leave Americans behind.”
Said Durbin in a statement, “The tragic and cruel use of him as a hostage has finally come to an end. I want to thank President Biden and his team for their tireless effort to secure Mark’s release and regular engagement with us and his family along the way.”
Will this deal encourage more hostage taking?
A Biden official said Monday that “it’s just a sad fact that human beings have been held and treated as bargaining chips and as pawns for decades, really for centuries, to secure various political ends.And that’s appalling, but it is a fact that we need to grapple with when we have the type of commitment that our government does and this President does to bring our people home.
“And if anyone takes away from this the notion that — that this sort of thing is anything but rare or painful for a President to approve, then they’re not listening to what the President is saying and they’re not looking at the sheer number and the sheer rarity of this.”