'Bundled into a van, we lost all hope. We thought we were being taken to be killed by the Taliban'

War on Terrorism: Detainees
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The Independent Online

The eight Western aid workers incarcerated by the Taliban for three months spoke yesterday of their ordeal and "miraculous" escape as they savoured their first day of freedom.

The four Germans, two Americans and two Australians working for the aid agency Shelter Now International had been languishing in jail throughout the air strikes, facing the gallows for allegedly spreading the wrong religion or death from a friendly American bomb.

The Westerners were whisked out of a war zone and flown by US military helicopter to Pakistan. The agency's 16 imprisoned local staff were also reported free.

Georg Taubmann, the leader of the German-based charity, described how their purgatory turned to hell after the fall of Kabul. The retreating Taliban forces had tried to take their Western prisoners to the south of the country, but were apparently caught up in an insurrection. Abandoning the hostages, the captors fled for their lives.

Speaking to reporters in Islamabad, Mr Taubmann told of the emotional roller-coaster ride they had endured as they were buffeted by the war all around them, plunging from hope to despair. "When, last week, we heard rumours that the Taliban were going to withdraw from Kabul, we and all the other prisoners were very excited," Mr Taubmann said.

They did move, but only to another prison in the capital. Their worst ordeal was yet to come.

Until this point, their guards had been painstakingly courteous. But on Sunday, as the Northern Alliance was closing in on Kabul, the mood changed.

The soldiers briskly bundled their prisoners into a van and set off towards Kandahar, the Taliban's last redoubt.

After a three-hour drive, they were locked for the night in a steel freight container. "It was icy cold, and we had no blankets," Mr Taubmann said. "We lost all hope. We thought that we were gone. We had no idea where we were or where we were going but we were terrified that we were being taken to Kandahar where we would be killed by the Taliban."

The next day, they were taken to another jail in Ghazni, 50 miles south-west of Kabul. "This jail was the worst of the lot," he said. "We were not allowed bottled water and the guards said: 'This is a real jail, you will drink water like everyone else'. We were very worried about disease and we knew there were no medical facilities."

The prisoners could hear the thunder of US bombs drawing ever nearer; the walls shook with the thud of shells exploding outside their jail. They were prepared to believe the worst. They thought Ghazni was a Taliban stronghold, and assumed the locals were trying to storm the prison to kill them in revenge for the American attacks. "We thought 'This is the end'," Mr Taubmann said.

Then the door was flung open on Monday night and an armed man stepped inside. He greeted them with the word "Azad". "It means 'freedom' in Pashtun," he said. "We said, 'Who are you,' and he said: 'I'm with the Northern Alliance. We have just taken the town.' Then we were hugging and kissing and crying for joy."

Their tribulations were still not over, however. On Tuesday, they managed to contact the German embassy in Pakistan and a helicopter airlift was promised. They made arrangements to be picked up in the centre of Ghazni by helicopter by the US Army. But the Americans could not find them, and did not dare to land.

"I had a feeling I was not going to be allowed to leave," said Mr Taubmann. "I thought, why does it have to be so traumatic right up until the end?"

As the fighting raged around Ghazni, the detainees made a bonfire with the women's discarded burqas – the all-concealing robes the Taliban made women wear. After many hours, they finally heard the whirr of helicopter blades.

They were flown to Pakistan, to a rapturous welcome by their relatives and diplomats.

At the Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, people had been praying round the clock for the two American women from their flock for several weeks. "There's been lots of hooting and hollering around here since we heard the news," said Sara Selke, a church employee.

The four Germans in the group, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek, Silke Dürrkopf and Mr Taubmann, looked surprisingly healthy and relaxed as they faced the cameras in the German ambassador's residence. The two Australians, Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas, and the Americans, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, are now being looked after by their embassies.

They are expected to recuperate for the next week at a secret location.

Mr Taubmann said they could still not understand why they were arrested and charged with the capital crime of spreading the Christian Gospel among Afghan Muslims.

"Our house in Kabul was attacked by the Taliban on 5 August," the German aid worker recalled. "About 20 armed men stormed the building, firing shots into the air, and dragged us away."

"They said we were running a madrassa [religious school] for street children to teach them Christianity," he added. He has worked with Afghans for 17 years and denies the charges. "We are not crazy," he said. "We knew that if we started teaching Christianity to Afghans under the Taliban we'd be dead the next day."

Thus began their odyssey through the prison system of Afghanistan. "We were moved around a lot but always in Kabul, and mostly by night," he said. "We spent time in five different jails in all. Each time the guards said the next jail would be better but each time it was worse. The last one was the worst of all – just a damp cellar that shook every time the bombs fell on Kabul."

However, by Afghan standards theirs was VIP treatment. In Kabul they were fed and provided with bottled mineral water to drink. They were not beaten though they did witness some horrific treatment meted out to Afghan prisoners in the same jails.

When they heard about the World Trade Centre attack of 11 September, Mr Taubmann said, they becamereally scared. "We thought about Osama bin Laden. And we knew what the American response would be."

Conditions deteriorated immediately. After 11 September, they were denied any consular contact and were not allowed to see Red Cross representatives alone.

"We asked to have just five minutes with them alone but they said no," he said.

In the end the Red Cross was instrumental in arranging their flight, though the details of their final journey are still somewhat mysterious. The Red Cross was unsure which force it was dealing with in Ghazni. The Libyans, who had been negotiating with the Taliban, claimed it was they who had obtained the aid workers' release.

The US special forces also took credit for a "rescue", even though several hours had passed before its helicopter pilots plucked up the courage to land in a town evidently in friendly hands.

But the biggest question remaining is: what was Shelter Now International, a charity supported financially by the United States government, really doing in Afghanistan?