For 8 relief workers, terror, hope and freedom at last

Liberation is sudden after 3 months as captives

War On Terrorism : The World

November 16, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - It was Monday in Kabul and a night's worth of bombing gave way to strange silence.

Georg Taubmann was certain that freedom had come.

Held captive three months by the Taliban for preaching Christianity - a crime punishable by death in Afghanistan - Taubmann and seven other aid workers, including two American women from Texas, learned that the Northern Alliance was on the edge of town.

"We were so excited to get out," Taubmann said yesterday. "We heard already that troops were coming in."

Kabul was liberated, but the aid workers were not.

"The Taliban came in and took us away, took us in vehicles and wanted to take us to Kandahar," the German recounted. "We knew that if we ended up in Kandahar we would probably not survive."

Terror one minute, followed by hope the next filled the aid workers' lives the next few days.

Finally, liberation

Early yesterday, U.S. Special Forces helicopters came through the pitch-black Afghan night to rescue them, taking two Americans - Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer - two Australians and four Germans to an air base outside Islamabad.

After debriefings, they were whisked to their respective embassies here in Pakistan's capital. They remained cloistered behind high walls all day as they set about rediscovering their lost lives amid family and friends.

President Bush spoke yesterday morning with Curry and Mercer, and praised their return.

"Their spirits were high, and they love America," Bush said at Crawford High School, near his Texas ranch.

`A totally special day'

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, spoke yesterday with the Americans, who will hold a news conference today.

"They've been hugging their parents. They've been taking a hot bath. They've been eating their favorite meals. They've gone to the beauty parlor and had their hair done," Chamberlin said. "They're enjoying a totally special day."

Curry and Mercer, friends from Baylor University, joined Shelter Now International, a Germany-based relief group.

On Aug. 3, the women, along with Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas, and Germans Taubmann, Katrin Jelinek, Margrit Stebner and Silke Durrkopf were arrested by the Taliban.

Their alleged crime: Christian proselytizing. Sixteen Afghan aid workers who were also taken into custody have been released.

Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. response. The Taliban Supreme Court indefinitely postponed the aid workers' trial, saying anger over the punishing airstrikes might make it difficult to render fair judgments.

From outside Afghanistan, though, it appeared that the Westerners were being held hostage. On Monday, that seemed definitely to be the case.

The road south

Taliban troops loaded the aid workers into trucks and sped south toward Kandahar. Fifty miles en route, in Ghazni, the convoy stopped for the night.

"They put us all in a steel container," said Taubmann, the only ex-prisoner to speak at length yesterday. "We had no blankets, nothing almost, because they said they will bring us to a nice, different area, and we were freezing the whole night."

Shipping containers dot the Afghan countryside, remnants of the country's once-booming smuggling trade. But they have also been used in previous wars by Taliban and Northern Alliance troops as places to stuff - and suffocate - prisoners.

The containers were unlocked Tuesday morning. The aid workers were transferred to a Ghazni jail. Just then, anti-Taliban forces fired their artillery on the city. Taubmann heard footsteps coming toward his cell.

"They just opened the doors, and we actually were afraid the Taliban were coming and taking us to Kandahar. We were really scared." But these weren't Taliban, they were friendly troops.

What came next proved equally shocking.

"We walked into the city and the people came out of the houses and they hugged us and they greeted us. They were all clapping," Taubmann recalled. "They didn't know there were foreigners in the prison. It was like a big celebration for all those people."

An opposition commander in Ghazni contacted the Red Cross, spokesman Bernard Barrett said yesterday, which then phoned the U.S., German and Australian embassies.

Anti-Taliban militiamen protected the aid workers until the helicopters arrived early yesterday morning. To illuminate the darkened landing zone, the women burned their burqas, the head-to-toe robes that the Taliban force all women to wear.

"There were a number of good-hearted Afghan citizens who helped rescue them and arranged the daring, late-night raid by the U.S. military," Chamberlin said. "It was wonderful."

The hostages appeared in good health yesterday, smiling and laughing and smiling again as they marched past reporters.

"They're rational and they coped very well," said Australian diplomat Alistair Adams. "They've been in detention nearly three months and they're showing remarkable resilience."

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