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Dayna Curry, Heather Mercer: Released From Taliban Prison

Aired November 17, 2001 - 07:30   ET



HEATHER MERCER: Hello, love you. We're glad we're free.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's your feeling?


ANNOUNCER: ... they escaped a possible death sentence, charged by the Taliban with spreading their Christian faith...

REV. JIMMY SEIBERT, PASTOR, ANTIOCH COMMUNITY CHURCH: They felt that it was God's leadership on their lives to serve the widows and the poor and the children there in Afghanistan.

ANNOUNCER: ... trapped behind enemy lines with U.S. bombs falling all around them. Now they're safe and out of Afghanistan.

DEBORAH ODDY, HEATHER MERCER'S MOTHER: I'm very, very grateful for all the support we've had from our community and country.

ANNOUNCER: American aid workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, their harrowing captivity and remarkable release, now on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.


ODDY: I'm Deborah, nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So can we ask you -- it looks -- have you confirmed anything about...

ODDY: I have confirmed it, I just spoke...

JOHN MERCER, HEATHER MERCER'S FATHER: We have confirmed it. Everything's on the move. They're coming out.

HEATHER MERCER: Hello, we love you, we're glad we're free.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What's your feeling?

DAYNA CURRY: Great! We feel wonderful, we're so excited that we're free.


DARYN KAGAN, HOST: Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry are free. The aid workers spent more than three months imprisoned by the Taliban in Afghanistan.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... and from there to Islamabad, where their families are waiting.



KAGAN (voice-over): Relatives and friends of the aid workers were elated with the news of their release on November 14.

DANIEL CURRY, DAYNA CURRY'S BROTHER: I'm so happy she's coming home. I've just been waiting and waiting, and I really thought that it's a possibility she might not be coming home.

KAGAN: Just days ago, the lives of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry were in jeopardy. The two young women were caught in a hailstorm of bombs in the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan.


UNIDENTIFIED ANCHOR: ... and we begin with the latest on the military buildup and America's recovery.


KAGAN: Back in the United States, Tilden Curry watched the latest developments in the war on terror, and he worried. His daughter, 30-year-old Dayna Curry, was imprisoned in a small cell in the center of the Afghan capital.

TILDEN CURRY, DAYNA CURRY'S FATHER: She was constantly on my mind, you know. I try to do my work as well as I can, but I do think about her constantly.

SUSAN CURRY, DAYNA CURRY'S STEPMOTHER: There isn't a single night that I don't lay down in my bed that I don't wonder, How's Dayna laying down? Does she have blankets to keep warm?

KAGAN: Halfway around the world in Islamabad, another family watched and waited. Their daughter, 24-year-old Heather Mercer, was also being held in Afghanistan.

ODDY: It's a whole different ballgame for her now. She is extremely frightened.

SEIBERT: Lord, we pray for their release today. We ask today, send your delivering angel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Reveal yourself to me. And as I wait...

KAGAN: The church that both young women attended back in Waco, Texas, had been praying literally around the clock. Members of the congregation formed a 24-hour prayer vigil seven days a week.

SEIBERT: We got a communication from Heather that was sent to all of us here at the church. And in that, she said, "Please pray for strength and pray that we would be stable in the midst of the instability going on."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (singing): ... thank you, Jesus...

KAGAN: Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry were working in Afghanistan for the German-based relief group Shelter Now International. On August 3, the young American women were placed under arrest. The charges, preaching Christianity in the strict Islamic state. Six aid workers from other countries, as well as 16 Afghans, were also detained.

Under Taliban law, they could face the sentence of death.

JOHN MERCER: We were concerned about her every day that she was there, because we knew that living conditions were very harsh. There were a lot of rules and regulations that they had to adhere to.

KAGAN: The harsh life of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a world away from the one that Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry knew growing up.

Dana Curry spent her childhood years here in Forest Hills, a wealthy suburb just outside Nashville, Tennessee. The two of 23,000 is known for its low crime rate, good schools, and family values.

FULLER: When she'd be around children, like she'd be around her brothers, they would have the wildest times cutting up.

CLAY CURRY, DAYNA CURRY'S BROTHER: We had five years' difference, but, I mean, yes, we're, you know, as close as brothers and sisters are.

KAGAN: But the close-knit family would soon break up. Dayna's parents divorced when she was a young girl. Classmates remember her as quiet, avoiding high school cliques.

STEVE CZIRR, DAYNA CURRY'S FRIEND: You know, she wasn't a scholar, she wasn't an athlete. She was more of just kind of your average person, kind of like the girl next door.

KAGAN: The girl next door, known for her smile and friendly nature, found refuge in the church.

TILDEN CURRY: I always noticed her caringness (sic), and that she was wanting to help people. And she had done this through Christian-based organizations. KAGAN: In 1989, the attractive, devoutly religious senior graduated from Brentwood High and headed to college in Waco, Texas.

Eleven hours northeast of Dayna Curry's home town, Heather Mercer spent her early years in a similar suburb, Vienna, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The town motto, "Where Everybody Knows Your Name."

JOAN HUNTER, HEATHER MERCER'S FRIEND: She grew up in a fairly upper middle-class type of environment. Vienna is a -- not an area where people are really suffering too much.

KAGAN: But like Dayna, Heather's comfortable home was splintered by divorce.

HUNTER: I think it was hard to be a girl alone, a teenaged girl, living with your dad and not seeing your mom all the time.

KAGAN: Despite the hardship, Heather thrived in school. She wrote for the high school newspaper and excelled in all of her classes.

TARAH GRANT, HEATHER MERCER'S FRIEND: I remember she always had these incredible science fair projects, and a lot of them dealt with outer space. So I think if you would have asked me in high school what I thought Heather would be doing after she graduated from school, I probably would have said that she would be an astronaut, not a relief worker in Afghanistan.

KAGAN: Heather also competed on the high school track team.

HUNTER: She wasn't my most talented athlete, but she was one of the hardest-working kids I had in 10 years of coaching.

MARK HUNTER, HEATHER MERCER'S FRIEND: Heather was very different. She wasn't into worldly things like other high school kids were.

KAGAN: Heather Mercer became a devoted Christian as a teenager.

ODDY: She became involved with a group called Fellowship for Christian Athletes, and they started volunteering at soup kitchens in Washington, D.C.

KAGAN: Cynthia Rahal joined Heather in prayer sessions each morning before school.

CYNTHIA RAHAL, HEATHER MERCER'S FRIEND: We would get together, grab a cup of coffee with our other friend, and just get the lowdown on what was going on, you know, what God was doing in our lives.

KAGAN: Heather graduated from Madison High School in 1995, eager to attend Baylor University, a college where Bible study is a graduation requirement.

When we come back, how Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry's paths would soon cross in Waco, and later, against their parents' wishes, in Afghanistan.

JOHN MERCER: We knew the Taliban regime was very hard on women and very hard on Western relief workers. And so we were not happy that she was going.




KAGAN (voice-over): Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Texas, with more than 13,000 students. Both Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry graduated from here before heading to Afghanistan. It's a university that is still true to its Baptist roots.

PROF. FRAUKE HARVEY, HEATHER MERCER'S GERMAN PROFESSOR: Look at other universities where the Christian element slowly disappeared. Baylor's determined to keep it.

KAGAN: Heather Mercer was not much different from other Baylor students when she arrived as a freshman in 1995.

HARVEY: She came across as a sheltered girl. I would always have thought she would marry a Baylor guy and raise a nice family and send her children to come back to Baylor. That's how many do. And that she ends up in Afghanistan, that's something I would not have figured.

KAGAN: But Heather had always been interested in helping the less fortunate.

JEANNIE MCGINNIS, HEATHER MERCER'S FORMER ROOMMATE: We were in Austin one time, and we were around the UT area and walking down the street, and she saw a girl about her age who was in need, definitely -- obviously in poverty. And she didn't have any shoes on.

And Heather saw her and was really moved with compassion when she saw her, and asked if she could pray for her, and she did, and then she just took off some brand-new tennis shoes and gave them to the girl, and then walked off barefoot.

KAGAN: Heather, a German major, also reached out to other cultures. During college, she went on several humanitarian missions overseas.

ODDY: She traveled every single summer. She traveled to Central America, she traveled to Eastern Europe, Western Europe, East Asia. She's just a well-traveled young lady.

KAGAN: Dayna Curry shared Heather's interest in other cultures. In addition to English and Russian, she speaks several languages spoken in Afghanistan. She too spent many summers abroad.

During college, the social work major also helped out as a volunteer at the Waco Center for Youth. The residential facility treats teenagers with emotional and behavioral problems.

DANA RENSCHLER, WACO CENTER FOR YOUTH: She showed unconditional love and acceptance toward every person that she came into contact with, and she just really had a heart for young people.

KAGAN: After college, Dayna took a job as a social worker at a special high school for troubled teens in Waco.

VIRGINIA DUQUE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HEAD START: She believed in helping the disadvantaged. She believed in helping people less fortunate than others. And anything that she could do, she would do for them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Oh, hallelujah...

KAGAN: While in Waco, both Dayna and Heather became active members in the Antioch Community Church, an evangelical, nondenominational church with a contemporary style of worship.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): ... hallelujah...

KAGAN: It was here at church that the two young women got to know each other.

MCGINNIS: And they had very similar passions, and different personalities. Dayna is a lot more bold and tell-you-like-it-is, and Heather is a little more reserved.

KAGAN: One passion the two young women shared, helping the impoverished of Afghanistan. Both began making plans to do full-time relief work there.

SEIBERT: Dayna always had a heart for orphans and widows around the world and had particularly honed in on what was happening in Afghanistan. She was part of leading a prayer meeting that gathered weekly on behalf of the Afghan people.

MCGINNIS: Ever since I've known Heather, she's been interested in Afghanistan. If you have been watching the stories in the news, you can see how much need there is in Afghanistan. And for her, the question was not why Afghanistan, it was, why not?

KAGAN: But Heather's parents still asked why.

JOHN MERCER: We were not thrilled that she had picked Afghanistan. She was an adult, so, you know, parents have to let them go at some point.

KAGAN: Heather's mother even wrote letters to Congress and the State Department to see if there was a legal way to keep her daughter from going.

ODDY: Heather was well aware of all the activities. I mean, I made her part of it. I carbon copied her on every single letter I sent. And she said, "You know, Mom, I wish you wouldn't, but I understand." KAGAN: Despite her parents' wishes, Heather headed out in March to join her friend Dayna with the relief organization Shelter Now in Afghanistan.

For Heather's family, it was especially tough to let her go. Heather's younger sister, Hannah, had died suddenly in June of last year at the age of 21.

JOHN MERCER: I don't think that Heather had fully had an opportunity to work through that, nor had her mother and myself. So she left with us having, you know, a heavy heart because of Hannah.

RAHAL: When she lost her sister, I remember her being strangely strong through the whole thing. And I think that all has to do with the way she is so confident in her faith.

KAGAN: A faith that would be tested even further in Afghanistan.

When PEOPLE IN THE NEWS continues: Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, tried by the Taliban, trapped in a country under fire.

JOHN MERCER: Heather had a bit of a bad night because of the fighting that she can hear going around Kabul.




KAGAN (voice-over): It was the passion to help poverty-stricken women and children that drew Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer to war- ravaged Afghanistan.

SEIBERT: They felt that it was God's leadership on their lives to serve the widows and the poor and the children there in Afghanistan. And therefore they said, Hey, if we feel that God's leading us, we're going to trust Him to take care of us and see us through.

And Lord, we pray today for the Afghan people. We're asking that they would be touched by you...

KAGAN: Their pastor, Reverend Jimmy Seibert, recently visited them in Afghanistan.

SEIBERT: They were like the Pied Piper. Kids would gather around, and they would hand out little foods that they would keep with them to just touch the kids.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those people who do not know how to build a house...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... teach us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... we show them. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They teach us.

KAGAN: Both young women worked for Shelter Now International, a German-based Christian aid group. Not even the strict life of the Taliban-ruled country deterred Mercer and Curry from helping the needy.

JOHN MERCER: We knew the Taliban regime was very hard on women and very hard on Western relief workers, and so we were not happy that she was going.

KAGAN: The Muslim Taliban government controlled most of Afghanistan and banned women from going to school or work. Women had to be accompanied by a man to walk outside and had to be covered in a veil from head to toe.

MCGINNIS: Heather dressed in the standard dress that the Afghan women were required to dress in, and she followed all the standards and rules so that she can identify with them. She knew the risks and the costs of going.

KAGAN: The costs of going would soon become all too apparent for the young relief workers.

UNIDENTIFIED TALIBAN SPOKESMAN: This stuff is indicating that they were indeed proselytizing in Afghanistan...

UNIDENTIFIED TALIBAN SPOKESMAN: ... because all the Bibles are...

KAGAN: August 3, Mercer and Curry were arrested on charges of preaching Christianity. Under Taliban law, foreigners couldn't propagate a religion other than Islam inside Afghanistan.

The Taliban accusers alleged the women went beyond their activities with the needy and began spreading the Christian Gospel. Mercer and Curry were visiting a private home in Kabul when they were arrested.

DAYNA CURRY: We had been in an Afghan home, and I -- some of the -- I had given a book that was both Farsi and English that had stories about Jesus in them, so they found that in the home, and so that's why it was true. Yes, I gave that to them.

KAGAN: There are questions as to whether the young women should have even been in this dangerous, war-torn country in the first place, with a government not recognized as legitimate by most other nations, including the U.S.

LARRY JOHNSON, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: I think first the organizations that are recruiting them ought to use better judgment. Particularly in a country like Afghanistan, I wouldn't send women, particularly young women, there. You got to recognize that with the Muslim culture and particularly the culture of the Taliban, women are like a lightning rod. They're going to attract the attention you don't want. KAGAN: Mercer and Curry were imprisoned in a reform school in Kabul. It took their parents two weeks to get permission to visit them.

The two Americans and the other aid workers, also accused of proselytizing, were put on trial before Afghanistan's highest court on September 1. At first, it appeared that their punishment would be minor -- a few days in prison, or expulsion from the country.

September 11, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The trial of the relief workers is suspended, and the young women's parents are ordered out of the Afghan capital, sent to Islamabad, Pakistan, to wait.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens, you have unjustly imprisoned...

KAGAN: September 20, in his first address to the nation after the attacks, President Bush demands the Taliban government release the aid workers. The Taliban doesn't respond, and all direct contact with Mercer and Curry is severed.

The women are moved to a prison of the Afghan intelligence group, a cramped cell with no shower and a shared makeshift toilet.

HEATHER MERCER: Emotionally, it was a roller coaster. There were days, I think, that all of us despaired, not knowing if we were ever going to come out.

KAGAN: On October 7, U.S. air strikes begin in Afghanistan.

HEATHER MERCER: The nights when there was heavy bombing, our building was shaking, our prison was shaking, and, you know, all we could do is sit in the hallway and pray with all our hearts that the building wouldn't be damaged in any way.

KAGAN: November 12, anti-Taliban forces move into Kabul. Curry and Mercer, along with six other aid workers, are moved by Taliban forces fleeing south. They're taken to a squalid jail in the city of Ghazni.

HEATHER MERCER: We heard all kinds of commotion outside in the city, guns firing, rocket launchers going off, bombing in the city.

And all of a sudden we looked out the window, and we saw all the Taliban just running madly through the city, fleeing. And all of a sudden an opposition soldier comes in with reams of ammunition around his neck, and he just starts screaming, "You're free, you're free, the city's free, the Taliban have left."

KAGAN: Two days later, U.S. Special Operations helicopters swoop in and pick up the aid workers. To signal their location in the darkness, the women burn their head scarves.

DAYNA CURRY: And it really was a miracle, and -- because it -- especially at the very end, it didn't look like it was going to happen.

HEATHER MERCER: The men who came and rescued us did a fabulous job. I don't think Hollywood could have done it better.

KAGAN: A Hollywood-style rescue with a Hollywood ending.

After more than three months in captivity, Curry and Mercer are back in the arms of their loved ones. But their hearts are still in Afghanistan.

DAYNA CURRY: I think in some ways, going back would -- is so exciting with the new freedom for the women.

HEATHER MERCER: No matter what form it takes from here on out, we want to continue to love and to serve and care for the Afghan people.





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