- The Washington Times - Friday, November 16, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan When the eight Christian aid workers were locked in a steel shipping container, freezing and praying, they wished for God to deliver them from the Taliban and the wilds of eastern Afghanistan.
Two Americans, along with two Australians and four Germans, had already suffered three months of misery in a Kabul jail while they awaited trial.
The six women and two men faced a death sentence by stoning, firing squad or being buried alive if found guilty of trying to convert Afghans from Islam to Christianity.
All eight members of the German-based Shelter Now International aid group, who were arrested in the beginning of August, denied the charges.
According to Islamic tradition, any Muslims who they might have convinced to renounce their religion also faced death sentences.
The Christians included Americans Heather Mercer, from Vienna, Va., and Dayna Curry; Germans Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek, Silke Duerrkopf and Georg Taubmann; and Australians Diana Thomas and Peter Bunch.
They had hoped for mercy and a fair trial on those charges. But before dawn on Tuesday, they were suddenly roused and bundled into vehicles that sped south from the Afghan capital under a cold, starry sky.
In Ghazni, 50 miles south of Kabul, their vehicles skidded to a halt. Their Taliban guards cryptically gestured toward a steel shipping container.
Inside the room-sized container, they shivered from cold, hunger and exhaustion while clinging to memorized passages from the Bible and their own inner spirit.
"It was terribly cold. We had no blankets. We were freezing the whole night through," Mr. Taubmann, one of the Germans, told reporters.
Without warning, the Taliban took them out and forced them into a nearby jail, which was more wretched than any of their former confinements.
"It was a terrible place," Mr. Taubmann said. "I think it was the worst place. We arrived at nine o'clock [a.m.]. Right when we came, the [U.S.] bombardment started."
They sank deeper into despair. But after two hours, local Afghans spotted the Taliban strangers and attacked.
The Taliban fled, allowing the locals to secure the area. When they opened the jail, they were surprised to find the imprisoned Christians.
"They just opened the doors. We actually were afraid the Taliban were coming and taking us to Kandahar. We were really scared," Mr. Taubmann said. "We walked into the city [Ghazni] and the people came out of the houses and they hugged us and they greeted [us]. They were all clapping. They didn't know there were foreigners in the prison. It was like a big celebration for all those people."
A commander contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by cell phone.
"We received a call from the local military commander in Ghazni informing us that he had rescued the aid workers and asking us if we could provide some assistance in terms of arranging transportation or contact with their governments," said ICRC spokesman Bernard Barrett. Word was passed on to the U.S. military.
That night, they were guarded by the soldiers in a field near Ghazni until three U.S. special forces helicopters picked them up in the "predawn hours" yesterday morning.
Desperate to be seen, the two American women burned their Afghan head scarves to create enough light to attract the helicopters.
"They said they had one lantern a small lantern and the helicopter couldn't see them," Tilden Curry, father of Dayna Curry, told a Nashville, Tenn., television station.
The choppers took the freed workers across the border to Chaklala air base on the outskirts of Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
"It was like a miracle," Mr. Taubmann said.
Tired, but physically healthy, the eight were expected to recuperate in Pakistan before entering religious retreats in Germany and elsewhere.
Australian Peter Bunch, 57, told relatives back home that he was elated to finally be free.
"Initially, I was quite concerned but he cracked some bad jokes and I knew then it was my dad," said Mr. Bunch's son, Aaron. "You never stop hoping but it is a huge relief that our hopes have come true," Aaron told reporters in Australia.
The Taliban yesterday claimed credit for arranging with the Red Cross to accept the eight prisoners, saying anti-Taliban fighters attacked Ghazni and made it impossible for the Taliban to complete the deal.
Relatives and others didn't know who to praise, so they thanked everyone.
"The Taliban could have executed them, so I suppose we have to be grateful for that," Diana Thomas' brother, Joseph, said. "I've got to give the Taliban some credit."
U.N. officials in Islamabad said in addition to the foreigners, 16 Afghan employees of Shelter Now International emerged from Kabul's infamous Poli Charki prison either by breaking out or being freed by Northern Alliance forces. The 16 also faced death sentences.
"The Americans, they have been hugging their parents, they have been taking a hot bath, they have been eating their favorite meal, they have been to the beauty parlor and had their hair done, and they have been sharing a totally joyous day," said Wendy Chamberlin, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
"We have not heard any complaints from them," U.S. diplomat David Donahue said after visiting them for two hours at the embassy. "I think all of them looked well, physically and emotionally."

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