War over in Afghanistan, but contractor from Illinois is still held captive. His anguished family asks: ‘When does it get to be Mark’s turn?’
Mark Frerichs loves carpentry and is good with his hands.
A U.S. Navy veteran and Lombard native, Frerichs, 59, found a way to make a living doing what he loves in Afghanistan when he moved to Kabul 10 years ago as an independent contractor working on public works projects.
“He always seemed so proud when telling me about the projects he was working on,” his sister, Charlene Cakora of Lombard, told the Tribune.
Frerichs has been held captive by the Haqqani network, a militant group affiliated with the Taliban, for the past 19 months after he was kidnapped on Jan. 31, 2020. Frerichs was taken captive by someone who met with him in Kabul on the ruse that they would hire him on a project, according to his family and U.S. officials. The captors delivered Frerichs to the Haqqani network in Khost, a province bordering Pakistan.
The U.S. government designates the Haqqani network as a terrorist group.
Since then, his family members have spent an anguished 19 months trying to get him home. They watched the chaotic last days of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, knowing that the end of the war likely meant an end to any chance of a U.S. rescue mission to save Frerichs.
“It has been scary for us watching the U.S. military leave Afghanistan,” Cakora told the Tribune by email. “We want the soldiers to come home safely to their families. We want the people who helped the U.S. to be safe. But we want Mark home too.”
The family is in regular contact with the U.S. State Department and the FBI, but feels that the government has not made Frerichs a priority while in talks with the Taliban.
A spokesperson for the State Department said the agency continues to press the Taliban for Frerichs’ release, saying the efforts “will not stop until Mark comes home.”
“Mark’s safety is extremely important to the United States, and we have made that clear to the Taliban in no uncertain terms,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
In the family’s view, the U.S. had the greatest leverage to make a deal to return Frerichs home during peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, that concluded in February 2020, about a month after the kidnapping. But the agreement, which stipulated a timetable for the U.S. pulling out of Afghanistan, was signed on Feb. 29, 2020, by then-President Donald Trump with no mention of Frerichs.
“We have waited patiently for 19 months as two administrations have told us they are doing all they can,” Cakora said. “We’ve learned that neither of them have made Mark a priority. When does it get to be Mark’s turn?”
According to The Associated Press, Navy SEALs did try to find Frerichs after his kidnapping, raiding a village and detaining some suspected members of the Haqqani network. Intelligence officials also tried to track the cellphones of Frerichs and his kidnappers.
Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, both Illinois Democrats, wrote to President Joe Biden last month asking him to request the National Security Council convene a meeting of Cabinet-level officials to develop a plan to bring Frerichs home.
“Securing the safe release and return of potentially the only U.S. citizen being held hostage in Afghanistan is an urgent matter that the United States Government should prioritize,” the senators wrote in the letter.
Cakora misses her brother, who she said liked to make people laugh and tried to help people who have been affected by war. She keeps a map of Afghanistan on her wall that she studies, and she thinks about her brother every day.
The family affectionately called him “Magic Mark” because he has enjoyed performing magic tricks since he was a kid.
“My brother is a good guy,” she said.
Last month, Cakora wrote an open letter to Sirajuddin Haqqani, acting interior minister for the Taliban and son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, founder of the Haqqani network, to ask for help in bringing Frerichs home. The letter was published by Newsweek on Aug. 23.
Cakora asked Sirajuddin Haqqani to publish a video of Frerichs to show proof of life, and to make an offer to the U.S. to trade Frerichs for Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan drug lord who was arrested in 2005 after traveling to New York. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2009 for drug trafficking.
The Taliban have asked for Noorzai’s release.
“We have been trying to find a way to bring Mark back to our family and we believe you are the key to it,” Cakora wrote in the letter. “As a sister, I am appealing to you to show leadership by releasing my brother, and I hope my government will do the same with Bashir Noorzai.”
Cakora knows that Noorzai has committed serious crimes, but she said he has served 16 years in prison.
“If that is the only way to get Mark home, we support trading him for Mark,” she told the Tribune.
Cakora still holds onto hope that her brother will come home. She asks Biden to treat Mark as he would if it was his own son who was kidnapped. Biden’s son Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015, was an Iraq War veteran.
“We are only asking that President Biden do for Mark what he would do if this was his son,” she said. “He is an American, a Navy veteran.
“Bring him home.”