A `Hollywood rescue' after terror and tedium

Aid workers recall their months in Taliban captivity

November 17, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - For 22 hours over three days, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry were interrogated by their Taliban captors, who demanded to know why the Americans were talking about Jesus in the land of Allah.

The Texas women then spent three months shuffling between Kabul prisons, not knowing whether a Kalashnikov-toting Talib would be the last person they would meet.

Some nights, they would crawl under prison cots as U.S. bombs crumbled Kabul. Some days, they watched imprisoned Afghan women "beaten until they bled."

All the while Mercer and Curry prayed: for their lives, for their captors' souls, and for Afghanistan, which they'd come to love, but left behind.

Mercer, Curry and six other Christian aid workers escaped Afghanistan on Thursday with the help of Afghan people and U.S. helicopters. Yesterday, the Americans recounted to reporters their tales of terror, tedium, kindness and hope in war-stricken Afghanistan.

"The last 3 1/2 months have probably been the greatest [period of] terror of my life," said Mercer, 24. "But it's also been the greatest privilege of my life, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

The Americans, along with four Germans and two Australians, were arrested Aug. 3. Sixteen Afghans were also taken into custody. All worked for Shelter Now International, a German relief agency.

They were charged with attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity, a serious offense under the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law.

If found guilty, the aid workers could have been put to death.

"Eighty percent of the charges against us were false," said Curry, 30. But she had copied a book about Jesus for one family and showed them a "Jesus film," which piqued the curiosity of the Taliban's religious police.

A Pakistani lawyer pleaded their case, but the proceedings dragged. August crawled into September, and the attacks on the World Trade Center postponed justice. September inched into October, and Taliban officials said the war against Afghanistan precluded a fair trial.

The Westerners stewed. The six women usually shared a small room. ("We learned how to forgive," Curry said.) Like prisoners everywhere, the aid workers learned to cope.

They exercised daily. They washed clothes and cooked meals. They read books and played cards provided by their lawyer. They sang Christian songs. They killed flies.

And they prayed.

"Emotionally, it was a roller coaster," Mercer said. "There were days all of us despaired, not knowing if we'd ever come out. ... Really the only way we got through it [was] by faith."

The Taliban insisted they remain quiet during the five-times-a-day Muslim prayers. Mercer, Curry and the others were well-fed, even supping on food provided by a prison commander's cook.

"What touched me the most is when guards told us we were like their sisters. And I couldn't believe it when one guard said that he loved me," Curry said. "It really made us feel like they would take care of us."

The charity, though, didn't extend to all prisoners.

"Probably one of the hardest things was seeing the discrepancies between the way we were treated and the way Afghans were treated," Mercer said. "It was pretty atrocious. Women were beaten until they bled. Women were arrested because they ran away from their husbands who beat them."

Finally, Tuesday, as the Northern Alliance edged into Kabul, the prisoners were hustled to a blue van and driven out of town. The aid workers sat atop rocket launchers inside the van as they drove toward Kandahar.

Three hours later, in Ghazni, they stopped for the night. The Taliban locked the prisoners in a metal shipping container where Mercer said she spent the night "in a fetal position trying to get warm."

The next morning, the Taliban marched the aid workers to another prison where they were served breakfast. Within five minutes, the bombs fell and the prison walls shuddered.

The Christians prayed. Mercer saw soldiers fleeing. Fifteen minutes later, somebody banged on their cell door.

"A man came in with reams of ammunition around his neck and said, `You're free. You're free. The city's free. The Taliban have left.'" Mercer recalled.

Outside, a liberated Ghazni celebrated. People cheered their good fortune and the Westerners. Music, prohibited by the Taliban, played. Some women shed their burqas, requisite body covers under Taliban rule.

A commander of the local mujahedeen, the victorious Afghan militia, took the aid workers to his home where they ate, slept and had their clothes washed.

That evening, after much trepidation and consultation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Westerners were driven to a darkened field and told to await the American helicopters.

"We were pretty petrified and not sure exactly what was happening," Mercer said. "We did not want anybody else to know we were there. We tried to make some way to make the helicopters see us. We found matches and set our head covers on fire on the tarmac.

"The rescue was impressive, albeit a very dangerous one," she said. "It really was a Hollywood rescue. These men from the American military did an amazing job."

The ex-prisoners were ferried to an air base outside Islamabad where family members waited. Everybody went to their respective embassies.

Mercer and Curry, who met at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, got their hair done and bought makeup. The German Embassy threw a party that evening. President Bush talked by phone for 10 minutes with the Americans.

They will fly to Germany tomorrow for a 10-day Shelter Now retreat. They'll then return to the United States. But they'll never quite leave Afghanistan.

"Our hearts are committed to the Afghan people," Mercer said. "All of us want to continue to serve the Afghan people, whether it's inside the country or outside the country."

Curry said: "Afghanistan needs prayers. Afghanistan needs a miracle. [And] with those prayers, something amazing will happen to this nation."

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