'Very, very happy': Sister got call from president saying Lombard native was released by Taliban

Charlene Cakora devoted "every day" of the last 31 months to setting her brother free.

Her anguish has turned into a wave of relief. American hostage Mark Frerichs, a Lombard native and civil engineering contractor who was abducted in Afghanistan in January 2020, was released by the Taliban on Monday in exchange for a convicted Taliban drug lord who had been held in U.S. federal prison.

Cakora, of Lombard, said she got the news when her cellphone rang at 3:36 a.m. Monday and President Joe Biden was on the line, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

"I was just in awe. I was stunned, very happy, very happy," Cakora said, adding that the call from Biden "was very brief, just getting to the point, because, you know, he was at the queen's funeral," referring to the final day of services for Queen Elizabeth II in London.

"But he was really brief and sweet and just basically said that my brother is pretty much lucky to have me as a sister," she said.

Frerichs, 60, had been working on civil engineering projects at the time of his Jan. 31, 2020, abduction in Kabul. He's believed to have been lured into a meeting to discuss a new project and then taken against his will to Khost, a stronghold of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network near the Pakistan border.

He was accompanied Monday by the administration's special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and was in stable health, a U.S. official said. His ultimate destination was not immediately clear, though a Qatari Foreign Ministry official said Frerichs would soon head from Doha, the capital of Qatar, to the U.S. Frerichs was reported to have stopped at Germany first for medical checks.

"I've been having my phone next to me and had little sleep for the past 2½ years," Cakora told the Sun-Times. She said she's always been close to her brother, who's two years older.

"We never gave up hope that he would survive and come home safely to us," Cakora said in a statement issued Monday.

She thanked President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin for their efforts to obtain his freedom.

Duckworth "got personally involved - advocating tirelessly within our government to get him home," Cakora said in the statement.

Duckworth voiced "profound relief that Mark Frerichs, a Navy veteran who served our nation honorably, is now safely back in American hands after being kidnapped in Afghanistan more than two and a half years ago."

"I'm thrilled that his family, who have long been Mark's champions, will get to reunite with him," Duckworth, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, said in a statement. "I applaud President Biden ... for taking the steps necessary to prove that we do not leave Americans behind."

During a briefing with reporters Monday, senior Biden administration officials said it became clear in the course of negotiations with the Taliban that the release of Bashir Noorzai, a convicted drug trafficker sentenced to life in U.S. federal prison, was key to securing Frerichs' freedom.

"My brother is alive and safe because President Biden took action," Cakora said in her statement. "There were some folks arguing against the deal that brought Mark home, but President Biden did what was right. He saved the life of an innocent American veteran."

Frerichs was taken hostage a month before the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020.

"Initially the Trump Administration gave away our leverage to get Mark home quickly by signing a peace accord with the Taliban without ever having asked them to return Mark first," stated Eric Lebson, a former U.S. national security official who has advised Frerichs' family.

"Mark's family then had to navigate two administrations, where many people viewed Mark's safe return as an impediment to their plans for Afghanistan," Lebson said in a statement.

Cakora thanked "the countless people" at the State Department, FBI and National Security Council, and said the efforts of Ambassador Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, "to raise Mark's profile in both the Trump and Biden Administrations were important factors in today's result."

A video of Frerichs pleading for his release, a brief recording published by The New Yorker in April, provided the first public confirmation that he was still alive.

Duckworth at the time expressed support for a prisoner swap.

"Bashir Noorzai cooperated with our government by providing intelligence and helping us recover weapons from the Taliban for years and, as an elderly man in poor health, he is unlikely to return to any position of operational significance for the Taliban," she said in April.

U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, a Downers Grove Democrat, praised the "consistent advocacy of President Biden, Sen. Durbin, and Sen. Duckworth to ensure his safe return."

Durbin said in a statement that Frerichs' release was long overdue.

"The tragic and cruel use of him as a hostage has finally come to an end," Durbin said.

Cakora told the Sun-Times she had not yet spoken to her brother, and his next move is his decision.

"Right now he's on safe ground, and it's up to him what he wants to do," she said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lombard native Mark Frerichs, a civil engineering contractor, was kidnapped in Afghanistan on Jan. 31, 2020. Courtesy of Charlene Cakora
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