- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Heather Mercer of Vienna, Va., is the kind of person who is always giving to those around her encouraging them, leading them and serving them. She once gave a shoeless impoverished woman on a street in Austin, Texas, her own shoes and walked away barefoot. Compassion, mixed with a zest for living, is characteristic of her. Perhaps that is why she felt pulled to help people a world away women and children in Afghanistan who were starving for food and for some spiritual alternative to the oppressive, hardline Islamic regime of the Taliban. Now, she and seven other aid workers for the German-based relief group Shelter Now are trapped in a jail in Afghanistan. They have been threatened in turn with death and used as pawns by the Taliban to prevent the United States from bombing. Now, they are waiting for the Taliban's verdict as the bombs fall around their jail cells in Kabul. The United States has bombed Taliban training camps and arms bunkers. It has stopped terrorists from having access to their financial assets. But in at least one Kabul prison, the Taliban still reigns.

Miss Mercer, 24, and a fellow Baylor University alumnus, Dayna Curry, 29, of Thompson Station, Tenn., were arrested Aug. 8 on charges of spreading Christianity at the home of an Afghan family where private conversation had turned to religion. They have wrongly been written-off by some as "missionaries" who should have known the cost of talking about their faith. Instead, they should be commended for their bravery. Shelter Now is a relief agency that provides street children with food and gives nourishment and shelter to families impoverished by the Taliban regime, which has helped kill off the men in Afghanistan's civil war and forbidden the women from working or leaving their homes. Shelter Now has been allowed to work in the region for more than 20 years. During the time the Taliban has been in power, the aid agency has been mindful of its rules and culture, said Udo Stollte, the head of Shelter Now in Germany.

Regardless of whether the Taliban deems their private conversations in the home of an Afghan family a violation of its repressive laws, Miss Mercer and Miss Curry's bold gifts of service to the Afghan people must not be forgotten by the U.S. administration. American consuls have not visited the women since Sept. 13. Now their lawyer, who has seen the women several times, has not even been informed by the Taliban when there will be a verdict, a State Department official said. In recent correspondence with her mother, Miss Mercer said the bombing around her cell was so intense that her whole cell was rocked.

It is easy to forget two young women who have risked their lives to help the poor of Kabul when every day there is a new bombing mission to carry out. But lives forgotten could be lives endangered and another victory for the Taliban.

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