Rescued aid workers burn burqas to be seen

Friday, November 16, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- In a dramatic nighttime evacuation, six aid workers set fire to their all-encompassing burqas so U.S. special forces pilots could find them on an Afghan field. Along with two men, they were whisked to safety early Thursday after three months of Taliban captivity.

"It's like a miracle," exulted Georg Taubmann, one of four Germans who was rescued with two Australians and the Americans. "This is one of the biggest days of my life." Moments after, he cut off his shaggy beard.

All eight Christian aid workers worked with Shelter Now International, directed from Germany but based in Oshkosh, Wis. They were charged with preaching Christianity, which in Taliban courts can be punishable by death.

"They're fine but tired, going on adrenaline," Nancy Cassell told The Associated Press, speaking for her 30-year-daughter, Dayna Curry, as well as Curry's friend, Heather Mercer, 24, and the six others.

"They've been to get their hair done and a few things like that," she added with a happy chuckle.

Forgiveness and hate

"I am a Christian and I have to forgive, and I have forgiven them for what they have done," Taubmann said. "But as human beings, we hate what they did to us."

Taubmann said retreating Taliban troops took them early Tuesday from Kabul toward the southern city of Kandahar, from which he feared they would not escape alive. Sixteen Afghan employees accused with them managed to flee in Kabul.

The eight spent several horrifying hours in a shipping container in Ghazni, 90 miles south of Kabul, he said.

"It was terribly cold," Taubmann said. "We had no blankets. We were freezing the whole night through."

In the morning, they were put into a squalid jail, the worst of five prisons during their captivity. An hour later, they heard American bombs.

The jail door burst open, and bearded soldiers rushed toward them. "There was shooting and they busted in the door," Taubmann said. "We thought the Taliban were coming to kill us."

But the men were anti-Taliban insurgents of the northern alliance, astonished to happen upon foreigners. One of them, taking in the situation, shouted: "Freedom!"

Taubmann smiled as he recalled what happened next.

"We got out of prison and everybody came out of their houses, hugging us and clapping," he said. "It was like a big celebration for all these people."

International Red Cross officials in Geneva said an unidentified local commander told them he had rescued the aid workers and asked for help getting them to safety.

"It was decided that for security reasons it would be better that they remain as guests of this local commander Tuesday night," Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett told The AP in Islamabad.

U.S., German and Australian officials -- and the aid workers themselves -- decided the best option was an airlift to Pakistan. U.S. special forces helicopter crews obliged.

The landing site was illuminated only by feeble lamps, which the helicopter pilots could not see in the dark, Taubmann said. The aid workers started a fire, fueled by the six women's burqas. The Taliban required women to wear the all-enveloping robes.

"It was very dramatic, right to the end," Taubmann said.

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