2017-07-12
From "Prisoners of Hope: The Story of Our Captivity and Freedom in Afghanistan." With permission from Doubleday.

August 3, 2001

Dayna: I was already behind schedule when I pulled the Aamirs' door shut and stepped into the courtyard. The air was hot and dry, and the late-afternoon sun played over the dirt yard. The gate to the alley, which the family usually left open, was bolted. Soofia's mother, who was washing clothes in a plastic tub, unlocked the gate and let me onto the mud alley. She was the only family member out-of-doors. I had left everyone else in the room with Heather watching that film, which was playing in the DVD drive of my laptop.

I looked both ways before stepping from the alley onto the dirt road to make sure no Taliban guards were out. We always took this precaution when leaving Afghan homes, as the country's ruling Taliban forbade foreigners to visit with Afghans. The street was quiet. My taxi driver, Abdul, was waiting for me at the bottom of the hill. I quickly slipped into the back seat and we started down the unpaved road toward the Taliban checkpoint marking the entrance to Sherpur, the name for this Kabul neighborhood of mud houses.

The time was 4:30. I was due to meet Lillian and the others downtown before having to be back in our neighborhood, Wazir Akhbar Khan, by 6:00 for a meeting with my Shelter Now International (SNI) coworkers. At Lillians, I was to meet an Afghan woman whom we were considering introducing to our Afghan friend Rashid. I would have only a short time to visit and was thinking about the meeting as Abdul started down the bumpy road out of the Aamirs' neighborhood.

We hadn't gone ten feet when a young man dressed in civilian clothes and a colorful skullcap approached the passenger side of the car. He ordered Abdul to stop the taxi, but Abdul continued on. The young man repeated himself several times in an angry tone: "Stop! Stop!"

Finally, Abdul relented, and the stranger got into the front seat. I remembered having been warned that if an Afghan man ever got into my taxi I was supposed to get out and find another taxi. You were never to ride in a car with an Afghan man, and especially not a strange one.

Chera?" I asked Abdul in Dari, or Afghan Farsi. Why? Abdul was one of our regular taxi drivers and had been taking Heather and me around Kabul for months. He knew better than to let this man into the car.

Before Abdul had time to answer, the stranger turned to me and said, "Where's the other woman?" He spoke first in Pashtu, the language of the Taliban. Then he asked again in Dari so I could understand.

"I don't know you," I replied, unsure what was going on. "It's not right for you to ask about another girl. Who are you?"

The man ignored me.

"I'm going to a meeting," I said politely, though making it clear I was upset. "I don't know where you're going. I don't know if we're going in the same direction. Maybe I should get another taxi."

"Be quiet," the man snapped. "You don't need another taxi." He turned around and looked at me. His piercing blue eyes stunned me with their hatred. I had experienced the same feeling a month earlier when an Arab man standing on a corner in downtown Kabul spit in my direction as I walked by and then pelted me with a clod of dirt.

The man in the front seat took a walkie-talkie from his pocket and spoke into it, and within seconds a white Toyota Corolla hatchback pulled out in front of us carrying half a dozen men wearing large white turbans. These, I realized with a growing sense of unease, were the religious police from the Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice--the men who whipped women begging alone on the street and beat men off their bicycles for failing to be at the mosque during prayer.

Now, with greater urgency, I told the man in the front seat as we drove on: "I have a meeting. I have to be there. Who are you? Where do you work?"

He didn't answer.

"Who are you?" I repeated. "Who are you with? Where do you work?"

The man seemed greatly annoyed with my talking. "Ryaasat, ryaasat," he said sharply. Government, government.

I changed my approach: "Please take me to my boss. He lives just over here in Wazir. I am a girl alone. This is not right."

"You can see your boss later," he said.

Abdul kept a cool expression, but I saw fear in his eyes. He looked at me apologetically in the rearview mirror.

We came to the end of the neighborhood road and slowed down to take a right into the main street. Many taxis waited at the intersection. I thought I would try to get out of Abdul's taxi and into another one. I opened the car door while we were still moving.

The man in the front seat saw what I was thinking and radioed to the Toyota of Taliban in front of us. We stopped abruptly. Before I could make a move, one of the white-turbaned mena got out of his vehicle and came around to the back seat of our car. He got in beside me and laid a whip across his lap.

"This is wrong for you to be in this car with me," I again complained. "I am a single woman."

"We are not infidels," the man in the front seat remarked gruffly, turning around.

"I'm not an infidel either," I exclaimed. "I love God." He looked at me with disgust.

In another few minutes, we arrived at a building in the center of Kabul. Behind the building's high wall I could see rows of black Toyota pickup trucks, the Taliban's vehicle of choice. As Abdul brought the taxi to a stop, I saw Taliban armed with guns and whips circling the area.

The man in the front seat took my bag and rifled through it. "It is not here," I heard a man say. "It must be with the other one. Someone will have to go back." He then got out of our car, walked over to the accompanying truck, and exchanged his skullcap for a turban. Some men moved me to another vehicle, and Abdul drove away in his taxi.

This government building was in a somewhat busy area next to a city park. Civilians walking by looked into the car at me. I hoped another foreigner or someone I recognized would pass by and notice me. I tried to recall every Bible verse about fear that I knew. I quietly sang songs to God. Remembering the whip on the man's lap, I said, "Oh Lord, please get Heather out of there."

Heather: After I hugged and kissed the Aasmir women, Aly walked me out into the courtyard. His little body swayed under the weight of Dayna's computer bag as he tried to stand up straight. None of the other children accompanied us. They usually mobbed me all the way out to my taxi, pleading with me to take them along while their mothers waved goodbye from the door. On this day, however, Aly and I went alone.

From the courtyard gate, I could not see who was out on the street, so I asked Aly to look for any Taliban guards who might be loitering by the neighborhood grocery stands at the bottom of the road. He would not go into the street by himself. Perhaps he does not understand me, I thought. My Farsi skills, elementary as they were, did not always serve me well. Since I was already late for my six o'clock staff meeting, I gave up trying to explain again and went ahead. There won't be anyone on the road, I told myself.

The day was exceptionally warm, and the neighborhood seemed subdued. It was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, and few people were on the street. I was tired from a long day of activity but anxious to see my friends at the meeting in Wazir. Aly followed me halfway to my taxi and passed me the computer. Then we said goodbye. I walked the rest of the way down to where Abdul was waiting and got into the back seat.

"How long have you been here?" I asked Abdul regretfully. I had planned to be out by 5:30 so I could get to the meeting on time, but it was already a few minutes after six. I wanted to pay Abdul for the extra time, but he did not answer my question. He glanced at me in the rearview mirror; our eyes connected. His face, taut and pale, wore an odd expression. How strange he won't answer me, I thought. I decided I would ask him about the money again when we arrived at the meeting, only a few blocks away.

Abdul and I wended our way out of the Sherpur neighborhood, bumping along the unpaved road at 20 miles an hour. Suddenly we stopped and a man in civilian clothes climbed into the front seat.

"Who is this?" I asked Abdul. "What's going on?" No answer. The other man glanced back at me; we turned to Abdul, and they began talking. Why was Abdul allowing a strange man to ride with me? Perhaps the stranger was Abdul's relative, maybe his brother. After all, Abdul had stopped the car to let him in. I waited attentively to see what would happen next.

We had traveled only several more feet when Abdul slowed again and another man, also in civilian dress, got into the car, this time in the back seat with me. The man was tall with a narrow face and a large, protruding nose. In his hand was a walkie-talkie. Immediately, I knew the men had come for me.

"Who are these men?" I asked Abdul. "This is not permitted. I'm late for a meeting. I will find another taxi to take me."

Everything was happening so fast. Were these men kidnapping me? Only days earlier, an Afghan man had pinned me to a wall in our neighborhood as Dayna and I were walking to a prayer meeting. Did these men, too, intend to harm me? Would they try to rape me?

The car came to a stop, and I nonchalantly opened the door. The big-nosed man next to me grabbed my arm as I stepped out. I thought I might be able to run down a familiar side street and cut back over to Wazir Akhbar Khan, the neighborhood where we lived. Then I looked around.

Pulling out in front of us was a Corolla station wagon full of Taliban. I could see their oversized turbans through the vehicle's tinted windows. Abdul had stopped right next to the Taliban check post, and nearly a dozen men surrounded me. Some were armed with Kalashnikovs. I scanned the area. A few men from the neighborhood lingered in the street, but none offered to help. I did not see anyone from the Aamir household, no familiar faces. My choices were limited: I could run and risk getting shot or return to the car. The taxi door was still open, so I got back inside.

As we started driving, I changed my strategy and attempted to negotiate. "I am late for a meeting," I offered. "You can drive me there. My boss speaks Pashtu and knows many Taliban officials. We can meet with him to discuss this matter." The men paid me no attention.

Could they be apprehending me for visiting an Afghan home? I wondered. Did they know I had shown the film about the life of Jesus? How could they know? I was carrying the CD in Dayna's computer bag. What would happen if the Taliban found the film? I was thankful Dayna had gotten away. At least she was safe.

We turned onto a main road and I stared out the window at the faces of passersby. If I could just spot a familiar face, I could roll down my window and shout for help. But I saw no one I knew-no neighbors, no street kids. I sat still, trying to appear calm.

Our caravan approached the turnoff for my meeting in Wazir. "We can turn here," I proposed. "My boss is this way."

"No," the man in the front seat retorted. "Your boss is at the office where we're taking you." So this had been planned out. Well, at least we were making progress-I had finally gotten a direct answer from someone. I became slightly more confident that the men would not try to harm me. Thankfully, Georg would be at the office to help me work this out.

After ten minutes, we pulled up to what appeared to be a government building, though it had no identifying sings. The street teamed with activity-shepherds herded their flocks through a throng of traffic; drivers honked their horns; pedestrians darted across the rows of vehicles. I could hear the ring of a nearby blacksmith's instruments. In the Shar-e-Nao park next to the building, a crowd of young men and boys played soccer.

Abdul positioned our taxi behind a white sedan. I could see someone sitting in the sedan's back seat. Was it Georg? I looked closely, and my heart sank. Dayna was sitting in the car-alone. I imagined the Taliban had captured her when she left the Aamir's house nearly two hours before. The big-nosed man ushered me over to the sedan and instructed me to get in. He took the heavy computer bag off my shoulder, and with it, the film. As I approached the car, I spoke to Dayna through the window. "It's okay," I said, summoning up my strength. "God is with us."

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