December 03, 2001 12:00 PM

For 102 days the lives of Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry lay in the hands of the Taliban. If they were found guilty of trying to spread Christianity through Afghanistan, they knew, there was a possibility they could be put to death. Cut off from the outside world for almost a month after their Aug. 3 arrests, they sometimes were unable to reach their families and their attorney in Pakistan for weeks at a time. Confined to small cells in various prisons with four other Western aid workers from the Shelter Germany charity, they endured discomforts and witnessed horrors of the sort they never imagined while undergraduates at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. They picked ants from their food and lice from their hair. Baths were a dunk in frigid water; their toilet served more than 40 prisoners. Some days, they heard bloodcurdling screams coming from adjacent cells; other days, they witnessed brutal beatings of women prisoners. After the U.S. began bombing Taliban strongholds on Oct. 7, there were nights when their prison walls shook.

Their ordeal ended in dramatic fashion on Nov. 13, when soldiers from the Taliban’s opposition threw open the doors of their jail and liberated them and their six Western colleagues. Thirty-six hours later, they were swept up by a U.S. helicopter, transferred to an air base by military aircraft, then flown to the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan, where they were met by joyous family members who had struggled for months to free them through diplomatic channels. Despite it all, Mercer and Curry paint a remarkably mild portrait of their time in captivity, tinted mainly by monotony and uncertainty. “They always took really good care of us,” says Curry.

Their descriptions stand in stark contrast to the cruelty the Taliban routinely visit on their own women. “As foreigners they tell you that you are their guests and treat you really well,” says Curry. “They try to give you the best that they have.” Afforded a respect Afghan prisoners do not enjoy, they were permitted mail, medicine, ample food and other relative luxuries. One State Department official suggests a political motive: “They were high profile—the whole world was watching.”

Two days after being airlifted out of Afghanistan and a day after holding a press conference in Islamabad, Mercer, 24, and Curry, 30, spoke with PEOPLE as they relaxed at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin. After emotional reunions with Curry’s mother, Nancy Cassell, 57, of Thompson’s Station, Tenn., and Mercer’s 5 dad, John, 60, of Vienna, Va., their first order of business had been classic girl stuff: haircuts, highlights, shopping for makeup. “We were joking because we heard that there were psychologists waiting for us,” says Curry. “We were like, ‘I’m going to the hairdresser before I talk to any psychologist!’ ” At the beauty parlor staffers besieged them for autographs and photos, offering a taste of the celebrity that awaits them upon their scheduled arrival in the States on Nov. 26.

Alternately ebullient and pensive, they said that at no time were either of them abused by the Taliban, not even during the 22 hours of interrogation that followed their arrests. “It would disgrace them to touch us,” says Mercer. Instead, for her, the deafening night strikes by U.S. air forces that began on Oct. 7 provided some of her scariest hours. “Our prison was shaking,” she says. “All we could do was sit and pray.”

For Curry the most frightening moments came in the first hours after her arrest, a month before the U.S. air strikes began. She had just left the home of an Afghan friend when she was taken into custody by the Taliban on charges of disseminating Christian literature. “I was in a car on my own for two hours. That’s when I felt more fear than I ever had,” she says. “You actually feel fire going through your body.”

Driven to a prison in the Afghan capital of Kabul, she was soon joined by Mercer, who had trailed her from the house and been surrounded by whip-toting Taliban. Their female Australian and German colleagues quickly followed. (Their male colleagues were held separately.) After three days of interrogation, the six women settled into a routine marked by efforts to fill the time. “The most difficult moments were the endless hours of waiting, where we didn’t have any information,” Mercer says.

They prayed without interference two times a day, prepared fruits and vegetables provided by prison staff, hand-washed their clothes, practiced swing dancing, wrote letters, kept journals, read books and played cards. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, the women were free to mingle with Afghan prisoners, and Western embassy officials were able to visit and deliver supplies, purchased with money provided by their parents.

They also appeared twice in court to defend against the extraordinary charges of visiting Afghan homes and distributing Christian materials. According to their Pakistani attorney Atif Ali Khan, their case was the first known jailing of foreigners for religious reasons in Afghanistan. Curry admits that she gave a book about Jesus to a boy and showed his family part of a film about Christ. Their trial, suspended then restarted after the Sept. 11 attacks, was postponed indefinitely on Nov. 12 after the Taliban supreme court announced that it did not want its anger over the U.S. attacks to affect the outcome. At that point, the women had not seen Khan in three weeks.

Conditions at the different prisons were primitive. At their first prison, the Western women barely had enough room to lay out their six mattresses on the floor of their 10 ft.-by-10-ft. cell. Still, Curry says that she slept with “two big comforters and [a] blanket,” supplies furnished to all six by the American families.

Food was never a problem. “We were always given an ample amount,” Mercer said. “In fact, the second prison we were in, we had a cook from the commander himself.” At one point, food was so plentiful that they gave some of their supplies to female guards who had not been paid in months and were having a hard time feeding their families.

Another attempt at kindness provoked a less happy result. One day, a woman Afghan prisoner retrieved a washrag from the ground. Thinking it belonged to the Westerners, she brought it to Mercer, who asked around, found no owner, then sought to hand it back. She approached the woman as she sat sipping tea with another inmate. “They offered me tea, and I refused,” she says. “They kept asking. So I asked the warden if I could have permission to have tea with them. She said sure.”

For the next 20 minutes, the three women engaged in small talk. “As soon as I left the room,” says Mercer, who speaks some Dari, “the lady warden picked up the hose and went into the room and beat the two women.” Hearing their cries, she raced back to the warden and begged her to stop. “I said, ‘If I’ve done something wrong it’s my fault. Hit me.’ The warden smiled, patted Mercer’s face and said, “I’m beating them because they were being naughty.” When Mercer persisted, the warden shut the door and stuffed the window with pillows so the Americans could no longer see into the cell.

Recalling the incident, Mercer and Curry lapse momentarily into silence. “The screams were so horrendous,” Curry says softly. “I’ve never heard anything like that.” Adds Mercer: “After that, we realized that it wasn’t going to help them if we tried to do something. These people would get our punishment.”

Though the Westerners were not beaten, they did contend with persistent discomforts. All of the women contracted worms, and flies were a chronic nuisance. “Any time you take a nap, all these flies would get on you, and there were flies in the food,” Curry says. “You never felt really clean.” Finally they obtained flyswatters. “Every day I killed 150 at least,” says Curry. “I put them in little piles of 50.” When Heather jokes, “Dayna was the champion fly-swatter,” Dayna retorts with the mock indignation of an older sister: “I don’t think you ever killed a fly! She just thought it was gross.”

Though their families learned of their arrests within 24 hours, the women did not see or hear from them until the end of August. After that, says Heather’s father, John, “we were allowed to send toilet articles, food, medicine, money, mail, clothes—just anything that they needed or we thought that they needed.” As a result, when Heather contracted head lice, her mother, Deborah Oddy, 48, of Lewiston, N.Y., was able to send a medicated shampoo.

The Americans were also sustained by a liberal stream of communications. Through attorney Khan, they sent and received letters and faxes (some of them censored), and each was permitted to make a few satellite-phone calls to their families. “There was an extraordinary flow of information,” says Alastair Adams, the Australian consul to Pakistan, who relayed messages between the women and their families. “In some Western prisons you are allowed one letter a month, one visitor a month, no books.”

The letters from family, friends and strangers proved a source of strength. One letter to Dayna from a friend spoke of a teenage girl who had said, “I want to be just like [Dayna]. She is my hero.” This heartened and steeled Curry. “You just think, ‘Oh my goodness! Am I having an impact on lives like that?’ ” says Curry. “It was overwhelming to find out that this was touching so many people’s lives.”

Still, Curry leaned most on her faith, which bolstered her unwavering belief that they would be set free. She also counted on her fellow inmates. “Our greatest strength was that there were six of us,” she says. She allows that living under such cramped circumstances, with language differences between them, was “one of the biggest challenges.” Australian Diana Thomas, 51, the oldest detainee, says, “Some were not used to sharing, especially in such a small space. If someone asked you something and you would answer a bit short or gruff with them, they would get upset and go off and cry.” On Nov. 4, Curry’s 30th birthday, the group shared an evening of charades. “That really broke down the barriers between us,” says Thomas.

Curry became the group’s chief caregiver. “Dayna was incredibly resilient and provided stability,” says Thomas. “She was always optimistic and would always make jokes.” Mercer, who was the youngest in the group and was imprisoned during most of her stay in Kabul, seemed to take captivity hardest. Curry recalls days when Mercer was inconsolable. “She had a hard time and needed a lot of support,” says Thomas. But, she adds, “what is amazing is that Heather came out of it incredibly strong.” On the night they began their terrifying journey to freedom, says Thomas, “she was such an inspiration to all of us.”

On that night, Nov. 12, all eight Westerners were sleeping when Taliban soldiers burst into their cells and ordered them to pack up. Mercer’s first thought was to grab her letters. “If I had to lose all my clothes and walk out with nothing, I would have brought those letters with me,” she says. Piling on layers of clothes, she and Curry also hid other precious items in the folds, including Bibles and necklaces made for them by Afghan prisoners.

As they were herded onto a van, says Curry, “all of us were angry, upset. We were stepping on rocket launchers, plus I had this Afghan guard with a gun next to me. It was probably the first time I really, really felt we were in danger.” As they drove along the primitive roads, they could see soldiers fleeing. Suddenly Mercer pulled out her Bible. “She said, ‘Do you want me to read some Scriptures?’ Curry recalls. Soon the group was singing and laughing. “That was the most peaceful night I had,” Mercer maintains. “It was really the presence of God there.”

The group was shocked when, after driving several hours toward Kandahar, the van stopped and they were ordered to enter a metal shipping container the size of two vans. With 20 rifle-toting Taliban guarding the container and only two blankets between them on this cold night, five of the woman huddled close together. Fearing they would be locked in, Mercer sat by the doorway, refusing to budge. “I told them I was going to sit in the door so no one could shut it,” she says. “I just prayed the whole night.”

The next morning they were imprisoned in the southern town of Ghazni and fed breakfast. Soon after they finished, an opposition commander opened the jail door and said, “You’re free, you’re free, you’re free!” As they walked through the city, they saw evidence of the Taliban’s fall: Women were taking off their burqas, people were playing music, men were shooting off guns into the air in celebration, and citizens were hugging them. In the early hours of Nov. 15, the Western women set their discarded head coverings on fire to guide a rescue chopper to the Ghazni field where they had been told to wait.

Despite her experiences, Curry would like someday to return to Afghanistan to minister to the poor. “If she wants to go back, that’s fine,” says Cassell. Curry’s stepmother, Sue Fuller, 55, a psychology professor at Tennessee State University in Nashville, says she is so inspired by Curry’s story that she wants to help rebuild Afghanistan’s education system. While the thought scares Dayna’s father, Tilden Curry, 59, dean of TSU’s College of Business, his wife says, “I understand when you have a mission and feel like you have a real calling.” Fuller says she hopes to go to Afghanistan next summer—perhaps with Dayna.

Mercer, meanwhile, paid a call on the Taliban embassy in Islamabad with her father the day after her rescue. For 20 minutes an official tried to justify her detention. “It was a way to put closure on the whole thing,” says John Mercer, a former Marine. “The guy was really gracious.” Still, when Heather speaks of maybe returning to Afghanistan, her dad balks. “I’m quite sure,” he says, “that her mother would have a squad of Marines and handcuffs if she thought Heather was going back anytime soon.”

Jill Smolowe

Eileen Finan and Pete Norman in Islamabad and Trine Tsouderos in Chicago

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