Cover Story

Sheltered, now

Safely out of Afghanistan, eight freed aid workers tell of their harrowing last night in captivity

Issue: "No time to celebrate," Dec. 1, 2001

They huddled and prayed for safety as explosions of U.S. bombers shook their prison building; the women in the group at one point shared a room and a single toilet with 50 other women; and their captors frequently moved them to thwart possible rescue efforts.

But for the eight multinational Christian workers of German charity Shelter Now International (SNI) imprisoned in Kabul since early August on proselytism charges, it was the "endless hours of waiting with no information or outside contact" that rattled them most, recalled American Heather Mercer following their rescue on Nov. 15.

The night in captivity after the fall of Kabul to the Northern Alliance may have been the worst. Some Taliban soldiers the eight had never seen before herded them into a van already stuffed with grenade launchers, other weapons, and ammunition, and sped south toward Kandahar.

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Leader of the prisoners George Taubman, a German who had worked for SNI in Afghanistan for 16 years, was deeply troubled. "We knew that if we ended up in Kandahar, we probably wouldn't survive there," he told reporters later. The two Americans in the group, Miss Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 30, later told a packed press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, what happened next. "We sang, we read the Bible aloud, and we even laughed" to relieve the tension, Miss Curry said.

After three hours, their captors decided to stop for the night-a brutally cold one. They pulled into a field, next to one of the many metal freight containers that dot Afghanistan's landscape. They locked the eight aid workers inside, ignoring the protests of Mr. Taubman and others about the cold.

In the hasty evacuation, the workers had left many possessions behind. The women had brought their burqas ; only two or three had grabbed a blanket. "We froze all night," Mr. Taubman said later.

The soldiers continued their journey on the next morning, Tuesday, Nov. 13, but had driven only a short distance when a U.S. plane dropped bombs nearby. They quickly headed into Ghazni, a town about 60 miles south of Kabul. They locked the workers in a filthy jail to wait until the planes left the area.

The aid workers ate breakfast, then launched into their customary morning prayer meeting, Miss Mercer said. Suddenly, she said, there was a commotion outside, and shooting. She peeked out the window and saw Taliban soldiers running away.

Within 15 minutes things quieted down, she said. Half an hour later, men began pounding on the door. Miss Mercer and her co-workers assumed it was the Taliban returning to fetch them. But when Mr. Taubman opened the door, armed local men from the town were standing there, and one of them smiled and announced, "Freedom!"

The locals, like many of the other tribes of the south, had decided to rebel and join the opposition against the Taliban. They led the aid group to an office in a nearby building. As they walked, Miss Mercer said, people began pouring out of their homes, waving and cheering at the foreigners. Some women shed their burqas-an act punishable under Taliban decrees. And some hugged the female aid workers. "People everywhere were rejoicing," Miss Mercer told reporters. "This was the new Afghanistan."

Later, the rebels took the freed captives to their commander's home. His wife helped them freshen up, fed them, washed their clothes, and made a place for them to sleep. It took another day of negotiations involving the commander, a Red Cross contact in Pakistan, and U.S. military officials to arrange a rescue.

In the early hours of Thursday, Nov. 15, townspeople led the aid workers to a landing strip. The men lit a small fire to help guide helicopter pilots to the area. Someone said a larger fire was needed; the female workers ran and got their burqas and threw them on the blaze.

Three special forces helicopters swooped out of the darkness and spirited the eight away to a secret base in Pakistan. A plane flew them almost immediately to Islamabad and their respective embassies, where hot baths, favorite foods, new clothes, and other welcome-back goodies (including hair appointments for the women) were waiting.

At the Islamabad press conference, the two women told of life in Afghan prisons while waiting for the Shariah legal system to grind to a conclusion. They said that they were treated well, and their guards referred to them as "sisters" and vowed to protect them.

They hinted that six women living together in a small room can get on each other's nerves, "but we always forgave each other." Yet all said prayer, Scripture, and the strong sense of God's presence got them through each week.

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