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Dana Curry, Heather Mercer: Relief Workers on Trial in Afghanistan

Aired October 27, 2001 - 07:30   ET



ANNOUNCER: While bombs drop on Afghanistan, somewhere in the capital, two American women are in prison, held captive by the ruling Taliban.

JOHN MERCER, HEATHER MERCER'S FATHER: We knew the Taliban regime was very hard on women, and so we were not happy that she was going.

ANNOUNCER: Accused of preaching Christianity, a crime punishable by death in the strict Islamic state.

UNIDENTIFIED MULLAH: They were indeed proselytizing in Afghanistan.

REV. JIMMY SEIBERT, 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: Now their parents, desperate to get them back to the United States, fear time may be running out.

TILDEN CURRY, DAYNA CURRY'S FATHER: We love her. We miss her. We want her home.

ANNOUNCER: The story of American aid workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, trapped behind enemy lines, next on PEOPLE IN THE NEWS.



DARYN KAGAN, HOST: As U.S. bombs and missiles rain destruction on Afghanistan, the capital of Kabul is a prime target.


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

(END VIDEO CLIP) KAGAN: Back in the United States, Tilden Curry watches the latest developments in the war on terror and worries. His daughter, 29-year-old Dayna Curry, is imprisoned in a small cell in the center of the Afghan capital.

TILDEN CURRY: She's 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 FULLER, DAYNA CURRY'S STEPMOTHER: There isn't a single night that I don't lie down in my bed that I don't wonder, How's Dana laying down? Does she have blankets to keep her warm?

KAGAN: Halfway around the world, another family keeps vigil in Islamabad. Their daughter, 24-year-old Heather Mercer, is trapped in the same cell.

DEBORAH ODDY, HEATHER MERCER'S MOTHER: It's a whole different ball game for her now. She is extremely frightened.

KAGAN: Yellow ribbons hang with hope in Heather Mercer's home town, as family and friends across the country await news of her fate.


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

KAGAN: The church that both young women attended back in Waco, Texas, is praying, literally around the clock. Members of the congregation have 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."

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.

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.

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

FULLER: When she would 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: Well, 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 always wanted to help people. And she (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 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.

TURNER: 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.

CYNTHIA RAHAL, HEATHER MERCER'S FRIEND: She was not focused on appearance or, like, what cool clothes she had, or stuff like that. She didn't even really focus on relationships with guys.

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.

RAHAL: We would get together, go have 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.

MERCER: We knew the Taliban regime was very, very hard on women and very hard on, you know, 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 HARVERY, HEATHER MERCER'S GERMAN PROFESSOR: You 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.

HARVERY: She came across as sort of sheltered girl, very young, very sheltered. 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.

MCGINNIS: She seemed to have, I guess, a love for those who were unlovely. We were in Austin one time, and we were around the UT area, and walking down the street, and she saw a girl about our age who was in need, definitely, obviously in poverty, and she didn't have any shoes on. And Heather saw 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 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 was 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.

TILDEN CURRY: Early in college she would take, like, excursions to Mexico and Guatemala to -- things to help other people, and after college she took assignments in Uzbekistan, Siberia. She's toured Mongolia. So she's been really all around the world trying to help people.

KAGAN: 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: What stood out about Dayna Curry is that she was kind, she was compassionate, caring, and very genuine. 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. So she saw beyond the disciplinary. She went way beyond with those children.

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. 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. But I think because they have very similar passions, they got along well.

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.

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 a 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.

MERCER: That kind of a traumatic thing in any family, you need time to process that and to try to start to heal. 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, 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.

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 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.

Lo, 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 them. They would hand out little foods that they would keep with them to just touch the kids.


GEORGE TAUBMANN, SHELTER NOW INTERNATIONAL: Those people who do not know how to build a house...

UNIDENTIFIED AFGHAN: We will, we have teach us.

TAUBMANN: ... we show them.


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

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

SEIBERT: When they would walk on the streets, many times they were spit upon. At times people would throw stuff at them, obviously men.

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

DUQUE: I was afraid for her, because of the fact that she was going so far away, and she was going to have to adjust to a different culture. I thought she was naive in that area. 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 could identify with them. She knew the risks and the cost of going.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MULLAH: This stuff is indicating that they were indeed proselytizing in Afghanistan, because all the Bibles are...

KAGAN: On August 3, Mercer and Curry were arrested on charges of preaching Christianity. It's forbidden under Taliban law for foreigners to propagate a religion other than Islam in Afghanistan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): They came in the garb of helpers. Then they interfered in our religion. I was shocked.

GRANT: I can't imagine Heather doing anything that she thought would be unlawful.

TILDEN CURRY: I don't think she ever thought that she was doing anything inappropriate. You know, she's not that type of person. You know, she (UNINTELLIGIBLE) she loves the Afghan people, and she was there to help them.

KAGAN: 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.

ODDY: That is one of the edicts that was put forth by the Taliban, that foreigners could not visit Afghan homes. Unfortunately on that night, the night that Dayna and Heather were in this home, the Taliban decided to enforce that law.

KAGAN: And with strict Taliban laws like this one, questions arise as to whether the young women should have even been in the dangerous, war-torn country, 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.

SEIBERT: We've known people on and off through the years who've worked in Afghanistan. They had consulted with them, they were aware of the conditions there.

KAGAN: Mercer and Curry were imprisoned in a reform school in Kabul. It took their parents two weeks to get permission to visit them. John Mercer offered to take his daughter's place in prison. MERCER: I guess I made the offer twice publicly, once in a letter to Mullah Mohamed Omar, and once while I was in Kabul. And I'm -- the Taliban have not addressed the issue.

KAGAN: 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.

YVONNE RIDLEY, WRITER, "SUNDAY EXPRESS": But the conditions are really appalling, and extremely squalid.

KAGAN: British journalist Yvonne Ridley was held for a time in the same prison as the two Americans.

RIDLEY: They are two wonderful girls, very spirited, tremendously strong, and, you know, they really were an inspiration.

KAGAN: Their trial resumes on September 30 after a three-week delay. On October 6, the Taliban-led government offers to release the aid workers if the United States does not attack Afghanistan.

MERCER: Any time I hear the words "release" and "detainees" in the same sentence, I become encouraged.


BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps.


KAGAN: But President Bush says he will not negotiate with the Taliban. On October 7, U.S. air strikes begin in Afghanistan.

MERCER: Now our important mission is to try to do what we can to get our daughter as well as the other detainees out.

KAGAN: With their daughter's fate uncertain and continued attacks in Kabul, the friends and relatives of Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer are left to wait and hope.

SEIBERT: I really do believe that they'll be released, I really do. They believe it, we believe it together.

TILDEN CURRY: We love her, we miss her, we want her home.

DUQUE: My hope and prayers is for Dayna to come home safe and with her glow back in her face.

GRANT: Even if she did come home within the next week, I think that she would already be plotting her next trip to some foreign country, someplace far away where she could do good and help people.





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