Free after more than three months in Taliban prisons on charges of preaching Christianity, two American aid workers told journalists early today that they were well treated by their Taliban jailers, but saw other women prisoners beaten bloody for leaving their husbands.
Americans Dayna Curry, 30, and Heather Mercer, 24, were among the eight Shelter Now International workers snatched out of Afghanistan early Thursday by U.S. military helicopters. Wendy Chamberlin, the U.S. ambassador in Islamabad, described the operation as a "daring midnight rescue" early Thursday.
To help guide the helicopters to the rendezvous site in Afghanistan, the six women in the group set fire to their burkas, the head-to-toe covering that women were required to wear under Taliban rule. Until the bonfire was lighted, the U.S. special operations helicopters had difficulty locating the landing site.
On Thursday, Curry and Mercer shared private time with their parents, took hot baths, had their hair done and enjoyed their favorite food as guests of the U.S. ambassador.
During a press conference today Mercer said the worst part of their imprisonment came during the last three weeks when Afghanistan was under heavy bombardment.
"We went several weeks without contact with the outside world," Mercer said. "This was during the heaviest bombing. Our prison was shaking and all we could do was sit in the hospital and pray with all our hearts."
But both American women said the they were well treated by their Taliban jailers.
Curry said they were well fed, "even abundantly."
"The Taliban had taken care of us, even calling us 'our sisters,' " Curry said. "One of the guards even told us that he loved us."
The women said that while they were treated well, other prisoners, including women, were not.
"We saw women beaten until they were bloody for leaving their husbands," Mercer said.
Poised and self-assured during the press conference at the American Cultural Center here, the American women became most emotional when they discussed their strong Christian faith.
In the end, Mercer said the most impressive moment in the whole ordeal was coming out of the Ghazni jail and finding Afghanistan under different rulers. She said they knew something was happening because they could see Taliban fleeing through the streets from a jail window.
The women's flight to freedom began Tuesday night, when Northern Alliance forces entered Kabul, the Afghan capital. A group of Taliban soldiers told the two women they had to leave immediately.
"We were in bed," Curry said. "Then these strange men . . . with lots of Kalashnikovs said, 'You have to leave right away.'
"They put us in this van. We were sitting on rocket launchers. . . . Tanks were coming out with us. All these people were fleeing the city."
Curry and Mercer asked the men where they were taking them.
"They said we had to write a letter to our families and ask for money and that was the only way we'd get out," Curry said. "That's the only time I felt in danger. . . . Heather got out a Bible and read different scriptures."
Late Tuesday night, Taliban forces stopped in an oil field, Curry said. They placed the group in a metal shipping container where the aid workers spent the night without blankets or food.
"It was freezing," Curry said. "That was one of my worse nights. I was in a fetal position all night."
Mercer said that the next morning they were transferred to another jail, which was in Ghazni, about 50 miles south of Kabul. Within five minutes, Americans began bombing the area.
About fifteen minutes later, Mercer said she heard a banging on the prison door.
"We thought it was the Taliban coming back and this was the end of the road," she said. "We just sat in a room praying that God would deliver us."
Soldiers burst into the prison. To reassure the aid workers, the men shouted that they were members of the Northern Alliance affiliated with the late military commander, Ahmed Shah Masoud. A soldier with ammunition belts slung over his shoulder shouted: "You're free! You're free! The city's free! The Taliban has left!"
Later, the imprisoned aid workers learned that the men were actually local residents who had broken away from the Taliban, said Georg Taubmann, the German leader of Shelter Now's office in Kabul, and one of the eight foreigners detained. Taubmann said the liberators had overcome opposition from another local group that wanted to hold the aid workers for ransom.
"When we got out of the prison," Taubmann said, "everybody came out of the houses, clapping. They didn't know there were foreigners there. They were hugging us, celebrating us. It was like a big celebration for all of these people."
The Christian aid workers said local people protected them while American and Pakistani military officials were organizing the rescue mission.
In a news release issued Thursday night, Taliban officials disputed this account of the rescue, claiming that they had already arranged for the aid workers' release with the help of the Libyan government.
But Chamberlin said this was not true.
"They were released not by the Taliban but by the people," she said, "the people of Afghanistan who have broken away from the Taliban and who stormed the jail."
When the campaign against the Taliban regime began, President Bush listed the release of the eight aid workers as one of the nonnegotiable conditions of the anti-terrorism effort, along with the hand-over of Saudi militant Osama bin Laden.
But Bush said he had been worried that the aid workers might be accidentally killed in a bombing raid. He said the U.S. military had been working on a secret rescue plan.
The Shelter Now volunteers were arrested along with 16 Afghan employees in Kabul. The Northern Alliance said the Afghan employees were released in Kabul on Tuesday night after the liberation of the capital from the Taliban.
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Tempest reported from Islamabad and Corwin from Los Angeles.