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Heather Mercer
Dayna Curry

Afghan prison ordeal ends happily for U.S. aid workers

John Mercer, hugs his daughter, Heather, as she arrives in Islamabad, Pakistan.  

(CNN) -- After more than three months of confinement in harsh Taliban prisons, U.S. Christian aid workers Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 30, were freed from their cells November 15 and greeted by clapping and cheering people as they emerged on the streets of Ghazni, Afghanistan.

Relatives and friends of the two young women in the United States were also cheering after the long months of anguish.

In Tennessee, Dayna's father, Tilden Curry, was standing in line at a church supper when he heard that his daughter was freed. He was able to speak to her by telephone shortly afterwards.

"It was overwhelming to hear her voice," he told Nashville television station WSMV.

Mercer and Curry -- along with four German and two Australian aid workers who were arrested with them -- were freed by Northern Alliance troops and then picked up in a field near Ghazni by three U.S. Special Forces helicopters. The eight said workers were tired but elated when they arrived in Islamabad, Pakistan, where they were whisked to their respective embassies.

Sixteen Afghans who worked alongside the foreigners had been freed when the Northern Alliance forces entered Kabul on November 13, U.S. officials in Islamabad told the Associated Press.

The aid workers, who were employed by the German-based Shelter Now International, were arrested in Kabul on August 3 by the ruling Taliban regime. The charge: preaching Christianity in the strict Islamic state.

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Under the Taliban's strict interpretation of fundamentalist Muslim law, the aid workers could have been sentenced to death.

'The girl next door'

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

Dayna, whose parents divorced when she was young, spent her childhood in Forest Hills, a wealthy suburb just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. The town of 23,000 is known for its low crime rate and good schools.

"She wasn't a scholar, she wasn't an athlete," Dayna's friend, Steve Czirr recalled of her high school years. "She was more of just kind of your average person, the girl next door."

Early on, Dayna seemed to have found her passion in helping others through her church.

"I've always noticed her ... wanting to help people, and she's tended to have done this through Christian-based organizations," said her father.

In 1989, the attractive, devoutly religious senior graduated from Brentwood High and headed to Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

'She wasn't into worldly things'

Heather Mercer also spent her early years in a quiet suburb -- Vienna, Virginia, just outside of Washington.

"She grew up in a fairly middle-class type of environment. Vienna is not an area where people are really suffering too much," said Joan Hunter, the coach of Heather's high school track team.

John Mercer, center, holds tight to his daughter, Heather, as they leave the Islamabad airport, followed by Dayna Curry and her mother, Nancy Cassell.  

Like Dayna, Heather's comfortable home was splintered by divorce. But that didn't seem to hurt her in school, where she made good grades, wrote for her high school newspaper and competed on the track team.

"I remember she always had these incredible science fair projects, and a lot of them dealt with outer space," recalled Heather's friend Tarah Grant. "I think if you were to ask me what I thought Heather would be doing after she graduated, I would have said an astronaut, not a relief worker in Afghanistan."

Her academic achievements were not the only thing that distinguished Heather.

"Heather was very different," said her friend Mark Hunter. "She wasn't into worldly things like other high school kids were."

"She was not focused on appearance, or what cool clothes she had or stuff like that," agreed Cynthia Rahal, another one of Heather's friends. "She didn't even really focus on relationships with guys."

Heather became a devoted Christian as a teen-ager. She joined a group called Fellowship of Christian Athletes and started volunteering at soup kitchens in Washington. Rahal joined Heather in prayer sessions each morning before school.

"We would get together, get a cup of coffee without our friends, and just get the lowdown on what was going on, what God was doing in our lives," Rahal said.

Heather graduated from Madison High School in 1995. Like Dayna, she set off for Baylor University, a Baptist school where Bible study is a graduation requirement.

'A love for the unlovely'

Heather majored in German at Baylor, but her real calling was helping the less fortunate.

"She seemed to have a love for those who were unlovely," said Jeannie McGinnis, Heather's former roommate. "We were in Austin one time ... walking down the street and she saw a girl about her age who was in need, obviously in poverty, and she didn't have any shoes on. And Heather saw her ... and asked if she could pray for her and she did. Then she just took off some brand new tennis shoes and gave them to the girl and walked off barefoot."

During the summers, Heather traveled on humanitarian missions to destinations in Central America, Eastern Europe and East Asia.

Dayna Curry shared Heather's interests in other cultures and humanitarian work.

"Early in college, she would take excursions to Mexico and Guatemala to help other people, and after college she took assignments in Uzbekistan and Siberia," said Curry, her father. "She's been really all around the world trying to help people."

A social work major, Dayna volunteered at the Waco Center for Youth while she was attending Baylor. The residential facility treats teen-agers with emotional and behavioral problems.

Friends of Mercer, left, and Curry say the two women share a passion for helping others.  

"What stood out about Dayna Curry is that she was kind, she was compassionate, caring and very genuine," said Dana Renschler from the Waco Center for Youth. "She showed unconditional love and acceptance for every person that she came into contact with and she just really had a heart for young people."

After graduation, Dayna took a job as a social worker at a high school for troubled teens in Waco.

The lure of Afghanistan

Dayna and Heather got to know each other in Waco when they both joined the Antioch Community Church, an evangelical, non-denominational church with a contemporary style of worship.

"Dayna is a lot more bold and tells it like it is," said McGinnis. "Heather is a little bit more reserved. But I think because they have very similar passions they got along well."

The poverty and suffering of Afghanistan tugged at the hearts of both women.

"Dayna always had a heart for orphans and widows around the world and, in particular, honed in on what was happening in Afghanistan," said the Rev. Jimmy Seibert, Antioch's pastor. "She was part of leading a prayer meeting that gathered weekly on behalf of the Afghan people."

"Ever since I've known Heather she's been interested in Afghanistan," said McGinnis. "If you have been watching the stories in the news, you can see how much need there is in Afghanistan. For her the question was not, 'Why Afghanistan?' but 'Why not?'"

After Dayna took an assignment as a relief worker in Afghanistan, Heather decided to join her.

Her parents were not happy with her decision. Deborah Oddy even wrote letters to Congress and the State Department to inquire if there was a legal way to prevent her daughter from going to Afghanistan, a country that has no diplomatic relations with the United States.

"I carbon-copied her on every single letter I sent and she said, 'You know, Mom, I wish you wouldn't, but I understand,'" said Oddy.

Heather's younger sister, Hannah, had died suddenly in June 2000 at the age of 21, and the family had not fully recovered when Heather left for Afghanistan in March the next year.

"That kind of traumatic thing in any family, you need time to process that and to try to start to heal," said John Mercer, Heather's father. "And 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 a heavy heart because of Hannah."

Dayna and Heather found their work cut out for them in Afghanistan, which has suffered from war and poverty for decades. The Taliban regime forbids women from going to work or school. Women are also required to cover themselves from head to toe when out in public.

"Heather dressed in the standard dress that the Afghan women are required to dress in," McGinnis said. "She followed all the standards and rules so that she could identify with them. She knew the rules and costs of going."

"When they walked on the streets, many times they were spit upon, people would throw stuff at them, obviously men," said Seibert, who visited his two parishioners in Afghanistan before they were arrested.

The two drew a different reaction from Afghan children, Seibert said.

"They were like the Pied Piper," he said. "Kids would gather around them. They would hand out food that they would keep with them to just touch the kids."

Arrest and trial

The two were visiting a private home in Kabul when they were arrested. The Taliban, which forbid foreigners from visiting local homes, allege that the two women went beyond their activities with helping the needy and began spreading the Christian gospel -- a crime under Taliban law.

"I don't think (Dayna) ever thought she was doing anything inappropriate," said her father. "She's not that kind of person. She loves the Afghan people. She's there to help them."

Taliban officials say they confiscated these Christian materials from the Shelter Now aid workers.  

It was two weeks before Heather and Dayna's parents received permission to visit their daughters in the Kabul prison where they were being held.

John Mercer offered to take his daughter's place in prison but the Taliban did not respond to his request.

A joint trial for the imprisoned aid workers began September 1 in Kabul. At first, it appeared that their punishment might be minor -- a short time in prison followed by expulsion from the country.

But then came the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Their trial was suspended, and their relatives were ordered out of Kabul.

Dayna and Heather shared a cramped cell in a Kabul detention center, with a makeshift toilet and no shower.

"The conditions are really appalling and extremely squalid," said Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who was held briefly in the same prison as the two Americans before she was expelled from the country.

"I met them and they are two wonderful girls, very spirited, tremendously strong, and they really were quite an inspiration," Ridley said.

U.S. airstrikes on Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan -- including Kabul -- increased the anguish of friends and family of the imprisoned aid workers.

Retreat and rescue

After Kabul fell to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces on November 13, the Taliban took the aid workers with them on their retreat.

The Taliban "wanted to take us to Kandahar, and we knew if you end up in Kandahar you would not survive there," said Georg Taubmann of Germany, who headed the aid group in Afghanistan.

The prisoners were taken to a jail in Ghazni, "which was a terrible place. It was the worst place. We have been in five prisons," said Taubmann.

Taubmann said the eight aid workers were freed from the prison by anti-Taliban forces. "The Massood people came, and others from the alliance, and broke into the prison and just opened the doors. ... We were really scared, and then the alliance people came in ... and we were free. And we got out of prison and we walked through the city and the people came out of their houses and hugged us and greeted us, and they were all clapping. ... I think this was one of the biggest days of my life."

Deborah Oddy, who had been holding vigil for Heather in Islamabad, had just returned to the United States when she received word of her daughter's release.

"I heard reports on the news first and frankly couldn't believe it, but now I have it confirmed, it's wonderful news," she said in Lewiston, New York.

When asked if her daughter would continue her religious mission work, Oddy said she probably wouldn't for the near future.

"From letters we've received from Heather, I think she just needs some down time," she said.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16