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Afghanistan: Man Felt 'Duty' To Deliver Korean Hostages To Freedom

Five of the released hostages on August 29 (AFP) August 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Haji Zahir Kharoti is an Afghan tribal elder from Ghazni Province who served as a mediator between the Taliban and the Afghan government during the six-week South Korean hostage crisis.

Kharoti played a key role in establishing the face-to-face talks between South Korean negotiators and the Taliban -- talks that led to the release of the last 19 hostages on August 30. Moreover, with the exception of the two South Korean men killed by the Taliban, Kharoti personally drove all of the hostages to freedom in his own car -- transporting them in small groups from the hands of their captors to officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Asmatullah Sarwar interviewed Kharoti about the experience immediately after he had delivered the last group of hostages to freedom.

RFE/RL: As a result of your efforts, the Korean hostages have been transported to freedom. How do you feel about this now that they are free?

Haji Zahir Kharoti: I'm very happy. In fact, my goal was to do work that benefits the Afghan people, the government, and all Afghans. I have heard in recent days that some Afghans doing business in South Korea -- and even some Muslims praying in the mosques there -- have been confronted by Koreans asking how Afghan Muslims can take hostages. And I've heard that Afghan Muslims in Korea have had shoes thrown at them because of this.

That is why I felt pain about what was happening and felt I had to do something to help them. We did this for the sake of those Afghans who have been confronted in South Korea. I felt this was my duty -- to do my best to solve this problem.

RFE/RL: You knew from the start that this was a dangerous task because you have had to have the trust of both sides -- the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan. Were you afraid of being accused by one side or the other of having a bias?

Kharoti: I was in contact with the government of Afghanistan -- especially Afghanistan's National Security Department. And they gave me permission to do this job. That's why I was involved with this. The first time I was going into Taliban controlled territory, I had the support of Afghan tribal leaders. And through these tribal leaders and elders, I could contact the Taliban and talk to them directly.

[The Taliban] spoke with us and listened very well to what we were saying. They were really cooperating with us. They are human. They are Muslims. They didn't create barriers to communication. And [the Taliban] also gave me permission to resolve this problem in the best way. And I told them that I am doing this for the sake of the people of Afghanistan. I told them I was in contact with the government of Afghanistan. And they said I had permission to talk with the government as well.

RFE/RL: In the beginning, the Taliban was demanding the release of Taliban prisoners. But the Afghan government refused. The government refused to even talk directly with the hostage takers. What was the reaction of the Taliban at that time, and how did they eventually agree to release [21 of the 23] South Korean hostages?

Kharoti: [At the end of the crisis] I was talking to the South Korean negotiators in person and then speaking with the Taliban by telephone. The Taliban finally understood that the South Korean government had no influence over the Afghan government about the release of Taliban prisoners. Therefore, they came to the realization that there was no reason to pressure the Korean negotiators on this issue. They also realized in the end that it was not good that they had abducted women. It is against Islam. Therefore, they decided in respect of Islam to accept another deal with the Korean government negotiators.

RFE/RL: When you were speaking to the Korean negotiators, which language did you use? Which language did the Koreans use when they spoke with the Taliban? Were they talking through a translator?

Kharoti: The representative of the government of [South] Korea in these negotiations was speaking to us and to the Taliban in Persian. Sometimes he was speaking to the Taliban in English as well.

RFE/RL: Who was supervising the negotiations?

Kharoti: We sometimes spoke outside of the headquarters of the provincial reconstruction team [PRT] headquarters [in Ghazni Province]. The Koreans were staying there. [At first] they were coming out to my car [outside the compound]. We would sit in my car and talk. And sometimes I was going inside the PRT to speak with them. Once the Koreans were speaking directly with the Taliban [at the local headquarters of the Afghan Red Crescent Society], nobody was inside the room except those two sides. I sat outside of that room while those talks were going on. Red Cross and Red Cresent officials and I were not involved in [the face-to-face] talks [between the Taliban and the South Koreans].

RFE/RL: What was the behavior of the Taliban like when you were involved in the earlier negotiations -- especially in mid-August, when they released two South Korean women who were ill?

Kharoti: They were behaving very well when they released the ill South Korean women. They had very good manners. They were very polite. In the last group of Korean women to be freed, there was one woman who had been given a Muslim name by the Taliban -- Halema. She was speaking in Persian. She had spent two years in Afghanistan with time in Mazar-e Sharif, so she spoke Persian. At the moment that this last group of women was being released, these women and the Taliban were saying goodbye to each other as if they were members of the same family. It was very good.

RFE/RL: When they were going to be released, we saw that all of these ladies were carrying similar handbags. Was it a gift to them from the Taliban?

Kharoti: No. But the Taliban did give each of them a colorful veil made of silk. And one of the Korean hostages -- a man -- was using his mobile phone to film the moment when the Taliban gave these silk veils to the women.

RFE/RL: How did you get the idea to serve as a mediator in this hostage crisis?

Kharoti: My family was feeling very sad for these hostages. This is our family history. We are always trying to be mediators and to help resolve tribal problems, family problems, and the release of prisoners -- problems like this. I always help people. I am a businessman. I have a trading company. We are doing reconstruction work. And I am also buying and selling real estate. I have given people rides in my own car when they were in need without asking for money. I do this for God's sake. And that's why I had the idea to help resolve this crisis.

RFE/RL: When these hostages were released, you drove them in your car in small groups to the Red Cross headquarters in Ghazni Province, what was that experience like?

Kharoti: The first two ladies, when they were freed and we told them they would be handed over to the [South] Korean government, they were happy and they were laughing. And when they faced the journalists and the officials from the Red Cross, they just started crying. They cried very much. They were very happy. The second, third, and fourth group -- when they were released -- they also were happy. But they weren't as ecstatic as the first two ladies.

The Afghan Insurgency

The Afghan Insurgency

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