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Afghanistan: U.S. Aid Workers Jailed By Taliban Describe Their Ordeal, Surprise Release

  • Charles Recknagel

Eight Western aid workers who were held three months by the Taliban on charges of preaching Christianity in Afghanistan have arrived in Islamabad after being freed this week by forces tied to the Northern Alliance. Today, the two American women who were part of the group spoke at a press conference in the Pakistani capital. They described their detainment and how they were released.

Islamabad, 16 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The two American women, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, are among eight members of the German-based charity Shelter Now who were detained by the Taliban in Kabul in August on charges of proselytizing.

All eight members arrived in Islamabad yesterday after anti-Taliban forces broke them out of a prison south of Kabul and U.S. military helicopters flew them across the border to Pakistan. Since their arrival, the two Americans, two Australians, and four Germans have been meeting with diplomats from their respective embassies and, now, are beginning to tell their story to the media.

The clearest picture yet of the aid workers' experiences emerged in a press conference given by the two American members today at the U.S. cultural center in Islamabad. The two women, each flanked by relatives, gave a detailed and emotional account of how they were detained, held, and finally rescued, punctuating their statements with frequent expressions of thanks that they emerged from their ordeal unharmed.

If they had been convicted by the Taliban of the charges against them, they could have faced the death penalty. Sixteen Afghan employees of Shelter Now who also were arrested with the aid workers broke out of a separate jail on 12 November as the Taliban retreated from Kabul.

Thirty-year-old Dayna Curry began her account by describing the aid workers' final days in captivity. She said that as the Taliban abandoned Kabul on the night of 12 November, she and her companions were moved from their place of detention to a jail south of the capital.

"We were in bed [in our cells] and they came to our door -- these strange men we had never seen before, with lots of Kalashnikovs -- and said 'You've got to come with us right now. And so we hurried and put everything we could on, [and] they put us in this van, and actually we were sitting on rocket launchers and other equipment [that the Taliban] were taking out [of Kabul] and we started driving down the road toward Kandahar.

"There were tanks coming out [of the city at the same time] and all these people were fleeing -- the Talibs were fleeing out of the city -- and we asked them 'Where are you taking us?' and 'What are you doing with us?' and they said that [we needed] to write a letter to our families and ask for money and that was the only way we were going to get out of this, if we paid for it."

Curry says that during that hasty departure from the city the aid workers felt truly in danger: "We felt we really were, probably, in danger [for our lives]. Before, the Talib really had taken great care of us, even called us their sisters and even one jailer told us he loved us as sisters. But at this moment we were really afraid and we knew that the only way we were going to get out of this is if God intervenes."

She says that evening they did not reach their destination, so their Taliban guards placed them in a freight container in an open field. After a freezing night, they were driven further south to the town of Ghazni, and put in jail there.

But the aid workers say that almost as soon as they were put in their new jail, there was an anti-Taliban uprising in Ghazni by local mujahedin commanders who also stormed the prison.

Twenty-four-year-old Heather Mercer, the second American woman, described their release by the mujahedin commander as moments of utter chaos: "When we arrived at the prison we were handed over to some other Taliban jailers. They served us breakfast, but within five minutes they started bombing the city and the prison was shaking and we weren't sure what was going to happen next. But we had breakfast and then we started one of our daily prayer meetings and in that moment we heard all kinds of commotion outside in the city. Guns firing, rocket launchers going off, bombing in the city, and all of a sudden we looked out the window and we saw all of the Taliban just running madly through the city, fleeing.

"After about 15 minutes of seeing men run from the city, it became really peaceful and it was really quiet for maybe 30 minutes, and then all of a sudden we heard down at the front prison door men coming back and banging down the prison door. And we thought that it was the Taliban coming back and that this was the end of the road. And all of a sudden an opposition soldier comes in with reams of ammunition around his neck and he just starts screaming 'You are free, you are free, the city is free, the Taliban have left.' And I think all of us were in complete shock."

The aid workers said the mujahedin commander then contacted staff of the Red Cross who alerted Western governments. The ordeal ended when U.S. Special Forces evacuated the eight by helicopter from a dark airfield at night. To mark the landing spot, the aid workers said they burned some clothing, including the head scarves, or burqas, the women were wearing.

The two American women said that despite the chaos of their last days in Afghanistan, most of the time that they were in confinement they were treated well by their Taliban captors. They were well-fed, allowed access to a Pakistani lawyer, and, prior to 11 September, were able to receive brief visits from family members over one five-day period.

But they said they were fearful that they would not get a fair trial because their statements to the court were frequently altered by prosecutors after they made them. Mercer said that when she saw the list of charges against them, she was completely "flabbergasted because 80 percent of them were completely false."

Asked what caused their arrest by the Taliban, the aid workers said they were imprisoned after having conversations about religion with an Afghan family that lived near the charity's building in Kabul. According to Heather Mercer: "We found ourselves in this situation just through having a relationship with an Afghan family. We often dialogued about faith. They wanted to share about theirs (Islam), they asked us questions about our own. And so that is how we found ourselves in this position."

Curry also said that she had given a book that contained stories about Jesus Christ to an Afghan family and had shown some Afghans a film about Jesus. The aid workers all have denied the Taliban's charges that they were seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Both the American women said that although they were frightened by their experiences, they remain committed to helping Afghans and will continue to work on their behalf. They also said that they are grateful if their captivity helped focus additional world attention on Afghanistan and upon the Taliban's restrictions upon individual freedoms, particularly for women.

The two women said they now plan to spend a week and a half in Pakistan with their visiting family members to recuperate from their experiences before they return to their homes in the United States.

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