Caught in the Crossfire
"Watching [the bombing], we were left speechless, and now we feel helpless," says Oddy, 47, a financial officer from Lewiston, N.Y. She and other parents have been keeping an anxious vigil in Islamabad since they were ordered out of the Afghan capital Sept. 13, two days after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just hours before the American retaliation began, they had a long-awaited conference with the U.S., Australian and German consuls to discuss the detainees' plight. Afterward the parents released eight small birds into the air to symbolize what they hoped would be their children's eventual freedom. Now that optimism was gone. "We're desperately numb, and it's hard to get any information," says Oddy. "Nobody in the embassy slept last night."
Nor are they likely to anytime soon, given the promise of a continued U.S.-led offensive and Osama bin Laden's videotaped response that America will remain the target of an Islamic holy war. "I know the bombing is on the outer parts of Kabul, at the airport and things," says Oddy of the initial attack, which came during a recess of her daughter's trial in a Kabul Taliban court. "But then you begin to worry what the Taliban will do out of anger, once they begin to fall. That's what's really scary now."
Oddy and the other parents already had plenty of cause for concern. Mercer and Curry were taken into custody Aug. 3 when they left a private home in Kabul, where they met with an Afghani family, which is in itself a crime under the current regime. According to their daughters' Pakistani attorney Atif Ali Khan, the Taliban's religious police discovered Christian materials in their possession—the foundation for the subsequent charge of proselytizing—and the women were put in the first of at least two relatively comfortable detention centers in Kabul where they have been kept since.
"They found Christian books, translated into Dari [Persian] and Pashtu," says Ali Khan, who believes the trial could resume in the next few days. "Also pamphlets and—I don't want to go into specifics of the charge—but there was a Christian video." The two Americans reportedly admitted to playing a CD-ROM about the life of Jesus and singing a song they had written about God. However, says Mercer's father, John, 60, of Vienna, Va., "the girls were not proselytizing. They were just visiting these people."
Early in Curry and Mercer's trial, which began Sept. 1, Taliban Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqib stressed that the events following the attacks in the U.S. would have no bearing on the fate of the two Americans and six other Western relief workers charged. But clearly they have been foremost on everyone's minds. Even before the recent U.S. push began, Heather Mercer was "worried about bombs dropping on Kabul," says her father, a retired Marine major who has offered to take his daughter's place in prison. (The Taliban never responded.) In a letter she sent her parents a few weeks ago, Heather wrote, "I am trying to hang on, but at times I am deeply afraid."
If they had had their way, Mercer and Oddy, his ex-wife, would have discouraged their daughter from traveling to Afghanistan in the first place. The oldest of their three girls, Heather set off in March against her parents' wishes for a five-year assignment in the war-torn country with the charitable organization Shelter Germany. They were particularly reluctant to see her leave because her younger sister Hannah, 21, had died tragically in June 2000 of liver failure caused by prescription drugs she had been taking.
But their pleas had no more success than those made last year by the parents of Dayna Curry. "I thought it was a pretty dangerous place to be. There was still a civil war going on, and the front lines are about 30 miles outside the capital," says Tilden Curry, 59, Dayna's father and dean of Tennessee State University's College of Business in Nashville. "But in the end Dayna felt it was something she needed to do."
Actually, Curry and his ex-wife Nancy Cassell, 57, expected nothing less of their firstborn. From her earliest steps in the leafy Forest Hills section of Nashville, Dayna "wasn't afraid of anything," her father recalls. "She was the first kid to go up onto the high slide. She seemed pretty adventurous." The outgoing child turned into "a rebellious teenager," according to her mother, who owns and manages properties in Nashville. But that changed when she entered Baylor University in 1989.
At the Waco, Texas, school, Dayna's fascination with foreign cultures and humanitarian work blossomed. A social work major, Curry volunteered at the Waco Center for Youth, a live-in facility for children with emotional problems. She also worked at an orphanage in Guatemala and, after graduation, signed on as a social worker in Waco at a school for troubled youngsters. But Curry felt a real pull towards Afghanistan, where she first arrived as a humanitarian worker in 1999. She came back home to Tennessee in January for a visit before returning in March for a new assignment with Shelter Germany. "I have never seen her so happy," says Tilden Curry of seeing his daughter then. "She really thought she was doing some good."
Dayna was even more excited about going back. Not only would she be working with street kids—to whom she was trying to teach skills that would enable them to earn money without begging—but she would be living with her good friend and fellow Baylor grad Heather Mercer, whom she had met in Waco. The two seemed very much kindred spirits. Besides their strong faith and desire to help the less fortunate, both were adventurous high-energy types. In fact, Heather, an outstanding science student who ran track at Madison High School in Vienna, initially wanted to become an astronaut. "We had thought she was going to go to the Air Force Academy and become an aeronautical engineer," says her mother, "but of course that didn't happen."
Instead Heather found her calling in Afghanistan. "As far as she knew, it was one of the neediest places in the world, and that's where she wanted to go to help out," says best friend Mindi Adams, 24, at whose wedding Mercer was a bridesmaid the day before her departure. "Every e-mail that Heather sent to her mom and me, she couldn't talk more favorably about the place," says John Mercer. "She loved the people, she loved the work, and she said, 'This is really where I want to be.' "
Despite the strain of being held in custody for more than two months, it seems to be a love that neither woman has lost. "The boss of the prison and all of the others are very kind to us. They buy us fruits and vegetables every day," Dayna Curry wrote her mother in late September. "We are fine considering the circumstances. I am still full of hope that all things will end well."
Pete Norman in Islamabad, J. Todd Foster in Vienna, Bob Stewart in Waco and Trine Tsouderos in Chicago