Aid worker turns 30 in Kabul

Monday, November 5, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Dayna Curry celebrated her 30th birthday Sunday -- and marked her 93rd day in a jail in Afghanistan along with seven other foreigners accused of preaching Christianity in this devoutly Muslim country.

Her mother, Nancy Cassell of Thompson's Station, Tenn. -- waiting in neighboring Pakistan -- said she had sent a package with a cake and candles for Curry that should arrive soon at the two-story prison where her daughter is held in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Abdurahman Hottak, the Taliban's consulate department chief, said packages from the loved ones of all eight prisoners would be delivered. "That's good news," said Cassell, contacted by telephone. "There are just a whole bunch of small things for them to have fun with."

At the prison, surrounded by high dirty-white cement wall and barbed wire, the windows have rusted steel bars. The gate to the compound is gray steel, with a small opening that requires anyone entering to hunch over.

But the guards, sitting on broken chairs at the entrance to the detention center, are friendly. There is a steel bed as well, but without a mattress. One of the guards, Amir Jan, smiles and says the prisoners are in good health.

"They are very good, strong. Sometimes they are singing. They get only good food from the restaurant and they don't even drink the water here. They get mineral water from the market," says Jan, wrapping himself in the traditional woolen shawl worn by most Afghan men during the cold winter months.

The pounding of the U.S.-led aerial bombardment can at times be heard from the Kabul prison.

Curry and another American, Heather Mercer, are both employees of the German-based Shelter Now International organization. They were arrested on Aug. 3. The others -- four Germans and two Australians -- were arrested two days later. They were charged, along with 16 Afghan employees of Shelter Now International, with propagating Christianity.

Curry's mother, Cassell, said she hoped someone would be able to get letters out from her daughter. She hasn't heard from Curry since Oct. 22, when the workers' Pakistani lawyer, Atif Ali Khan, returned from Afghanistan with letters.

John Mercer, of Vienna, Va., the father of 24-year-old Heather Mercer, said it's worrisome to be out of touch with his daughter.

The elder Mercer, who spent two weeks in the Afghan capital, was evacuated from Kabul, along with Cassell, on Sept. 13 ---- two days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because the U.S. government feared for their safety.

It broke their hearts to leave behind their children, whom they saw for the last time on the evening of Sept. 11.

Mercer's mother, Deborah Oddy, had arrived that day and saw her daughter only once before being evacuated. She too is in Pakistan keeping a vigil for her daughter.

Mercer said he pleaded with the Taliban to free his daughter and take him instead. They didn't respond. Contacted by telephone on Sunday, Mercer said he has received no news of his daughter in two weeks.

The Afghan Supreme Court has requested the lawyer return to Afghanistan to press ahead with the trial, but the families have been told little else. Mercer said the lawyer apparently has some safety concerns.

Meanwhile, family members of the imprisoned aid workers maintain their vigil from neighboring Pakistan -- worried for the mental as well as physical well being of their loved ones in jail.

"We are holding up OK, but everything is such an unknown. We haven't talked to anyone there . . . it's been a long time," said Mercer. "It is unnerving not having any regular communication."

He worries about Heather, the youngest of the group. Last month a doctor was taken to see her. Her fears had gotten the better of her, Mercer had explained earlier. Oddy said her young daughter carries a heavy worry not just for herself but for her parents, who lost Heather's younger sister to disease one year ago.

"We have buried two children, John and I," Oddy said earlier. An infant child also had died.

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