Facts of Life

WASHINGTON—When Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, heard the news that two of its members were freed in Afghanistan along with six other foreign aid workers, the reaction was immediate.

Senior pastor Jimmy Seibert thrust his arms into the air and shouted, “Thank you, Lord!”

“It is more exciting than we could have imagined,” said Seibert. “The great thing I learned is that prayer works.”

Church members Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, along with Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas, and Germans Georg Taubmann, Katrin Jelinek, Margrit Stebner and Silke Durrkopf, were airlifted to freedom Nov. 14 by U.S. military helicopters. They had been held captive in Afghanistan for three months for preaching Christianity.

The Taliban militia had agreed to release the aid workers but left them behind as they fled from Northern Alliance rebels, paving the way for their rescue, senior Bush administration officials said.

Three U.S. special forces helicopters picked up the aid workers in a field near Ghazni, about 50 miles southwest of Kabul, at about 4:40 p.m. EST Nov. 14, Pentagon officials said.

The aid workers were flown to Pakistan. Upon arrival at a Pakistani air base just outside Islamabad, Curry hugged her mother, Nancy Cassell, while Mercer embraced her father, John Mercer, Associated Press reported.

“It was an incredible moment to see my mom standing there, and to be able to go and hug her,” Curry said at a press conference in Islamabad Nov. 16, Associated Press reported.

Mercer and Curry thanked government and aid officials who helped free them. “The men who came and rescued us did a fabulous job—I don't think Hollywood could have done it better,” said Mercer.

The women also discussed their time inside Afghanistan, describing weeks of waiting inside Taliban prisons without any contact with the outside world.

When the United States began bombing Oct. 7, they could hear—and feel—the assault on Kabul.

“Our building was shaking, our prison was shaking, all we could do was sit in the hallway and pray with all our hearts that the building wouldn't be damaged in any way,” Mercer said. Added Curry, “I just know that it was through the prayers of the people that we were able to come out alive.”

Presidential Pleasure

After arriving in Islamabad, Curry happily told reporters, “The first thing we did was get our hair done, because it was a mess.” On Nov. 15 the young women attended a party at the German embassy, and they also received a 10-minute phone call from President Bush.

The president hailed the U.S. military for its role in the dramatic turn of events.

“I'm thankful they're safe, and I'm pleased with our military for conducting this operation,” Bush said Nov. 15 at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Bush had rejected several attempts by the Taliban to use the aid workers as bargaining chips.

Bush also commented on the phone conversation he had with both Curry and Mercer.

“They both said to say thanks to everybody for their prayers,” Bush said, Associated Press reported. “They realized there is a good and gracious God. Their spirits were high and they love America.”

The Taliban had agreed to turn over the aid workers through the International Committee of the Red Cross, two senior administration officials said. The Red Cross was going to get them in the hands of U.S. troops. But before the exchange could be accomplished, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance overran Ghazni, prompting the Taliban and the workers’ guards to flee.

Bush said only that the International Red Cross and other “people on the ground” facilitated U.S. troops’ ability to rescue the imprisoned aid workers.

He said the rescue ended one chapter in the five-week-old U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, but the mission remained to topple the Taliban and root out Osama bin Laden and his Al-Queda network.

In Nashville, Tenn., Dayna Curry's stepmother, Sue Fuller, told a reporter she was elated at her step-daughter's release.

“I'm so excited that we're going to see her soon and that she's safe,” Fuller said. “I just think, you know, she trusted that God would take care of her and get her out of there safely, and it's happened.”

The eight workers are employees of the German-based Christian organization Shelter Now International. They had been held since Aug. 3 on charges of trying to convert Muslims—a serious offense under the Taliban's harsh Islamic rule.

Taliban Supreme Court judges had indefinitely postponed their trial, saying they feared their anger at the United States over the air strikes could hamper their ability to make a fair ruling in the case.

Prayer for Afghanistan

Curry and Mercer said after their release that they would like to return to Afghanistan and resume relief work once the country is stabilized.

Said Mercer, “We pray that the world continues to keep its eye on Afghanistan.”