Heather Mercer (Photo by Esther Haven)

Where were you on 9/11?

Remembering 9/11 | The head of the aid group Global Hope had been arrested by the Taliban and was in captivity in Afghanistan

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

Heather Mercer had been in Afghanistan for less than five months when the Taliban arrested her, along with Dayna Curry and six others who worked for the German aid group Shelter Now, on Aug. 3, 2001. The Taliban accused the group of seeking to convert Afghans to Christianity, arrested 14 Afghans they said were converts, and threatened to kill all of them. Mercer, now 34 and head of the aid group Global Hope, was still in captivity on 9/11.

Our captors showed up at our cell mid-morning on Sept. 8 and told us we were being taken to court for trial. What? We did not have a lawyer and still did not even know the charges that had been filed against us. My friends and I were loaded into a van and then followed by a caravan of armed soldiers to what we later learned was the Afghan Supreme Court. By the end of the day we were formally charged with proselyting Afghans, a crime under Islamic law punishable by death.

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For my fellow captives and me, prayer became our only option and our greatest comfort. I awoke on the morning of Sept. 11 feeling numb. I had a permanent case of anxiety as I fought through the endless moments of the day wondering when this nightmare would end. Sept. 11 was to bring one bright spot, though. My mother and her husband were to arrive in Kabul from the United States. I sat in the prison courtyard, gazing at the sky, anticipating their arrival.

The Taliban appeared about 2:30 p.m. to escort Dayna and me to the interrogation room for a supervised visit with our parents. As I turned the corner of the hallway, I saw my mother, her chador dangling around her shoulders as she struggled to keep it properly wrapped around her head. I was thrilled to see her, but I feared for her safety, her husband's, and my dad's. I hugged them and Dayna's mom, and for a brief moment I felt safe. We held hands and tried to comfort one another. As the Taliban ordered my parents to leave after about 30 minutes, my dad squeezed my hand and said, "I will not leave here without you, except that they force me to leave. I love you."

I knew that all of this was much harder on my parents than it was on me. Leaving me behind was one of the most helpless moments of their lives. We grieved not knowing if we would ever see each other again, and little did we know that within minutes of our visit, the world as we knew it would change forever.

Our parents were escorted to the UN guesthouse where they stayed during our captivity. Without cell phones, internet, or television, they had felt disconnected to the happenings of the outside world and finally sat down to watch the news on satellite television. Every channel was broadcasting a confusing site-the World Trade Center on fire. What was happening? Who in the world could do such a thing? It did not take long for our parents, with government backgrounds, to figure out that these plane crashes were no accident. These were horrific and unprecedented acts of terror, and it took only milliseconds for them to realize that they had just left their daughters in a prison operated by the very men who would orchestrate it. Events quickly went from bad to worse as they were notified by the international diplomatic liaisons working to negotiate our release that everyone had to evacuate within 24 hours.

We returned to our cell after meeting our families and returned to our daily routine of clothes washing, journal writing, and Bible reading. Shortly before dusk, one of our captors entered our cell with a confusing report that two planes had crashed into each other over Washington and New York. He said 400 people had died and that America believed Afghanistan was to blame. His information didn't make sense, and I couldn't understand why we were hearing about this particular plane crash from one of our Taliban captors.

As night settled over our prison, our team tried to sleep. The nuisance of thousands of flies filling our cell always made sleep difficult. But at 2 a.m. I awakened to the most explosive sound. "What was that?" I shouted out to my sleeping teammates. The oldest member of our team sat up disgruntled and said, "I think that was a bomb." Immediately there was gunfire, red rockets shot like fireworks through the sky, and the rumbling of helicopters shook the ground. I was about to be sick, but the 35 or so Afghan women whom we shared the compound with were still sleeping soundly, unmoved by an almost regular occurrence, Taliban and opposition groups fighting. Afghanistan was at war again, but we did not know why.


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