They were kidnapped and imprisoned by the Taliban for 105 days. But what the Taliban could not do was break their faith in God nor destroy their hope.
Eight Western humanitarian workers were held by the Taliban in Afghanistan on trumped up charges of proselytizing in the days leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and remained imprisoned through the early U.S. bombings of Afghanistan.
The book Kabul24, released last fall, captures the harrowing tale of the workers’ experience in prison, the “angels” they met along the way, and their compassion toward the Taliban and the Afghan people.
“I feel like this (the story) is a testimony of God’s faithfulness to people called into places that are risky and people who respond to that call to go to the places that most people wouldn’t go,” said Henry O. Arnold, co-author of the book Kabul24 and producer of the documentary version of the story, in an interview last week.
Arnold pointed to Georg Taubmann, international director of Shelter Now International (SNI), who had lived in Afghanistan with his wife and two teenage sons for nearly two decades before he was imprisoned.
“They were willing not only to listen, to hear, but to go,” said Arnold. “That’s inspiring to me. That touches my heart. And I want people to know about that.”
In 2001, Taliban forces captured Western SNI aid workers and 16 Afghan SNI staffs.
During their 105 days in prison, the Western SNI workers lived in squalid prisons – some reminiscent of medieval dungeons – and daily feared that they would be killed by their captors or accidentally by a bomb dropped by their own government.
The story is mostly told through the memories of Taubmann, but also splices in stories from the women workers who were imprisoned separately from the men.
Both the female and male SNI workers shared about how they read their Bibles and prayed daily. One female worker explained the trinity to a Taliban soldier when he accused Christians of being polytheists. Her precise and understandable answer prompted the Muslim man, who was part of the interrogation team, to ask her earnestly if God is real.
During their time in prison, the two Christian male workers gained the respect of Muslim inmates and some Taliban because of their piety – Taubmann fasted every Friday, the Muslim holy day, and was often seen praying or reading his Bible – and for their deep knowledge and respect for the Afghan culture. Taubmann speaks fluent Pashto and wears clothes similar to other Afghan men.
While Kabul24 portrays some of the hardline Taliban leaders as violent and cruel, it also included stories of Talibans who sympathized with the Christian workers and risked their lives to help them. One particular Taliban, dubbed the “Afghan Angel” by the Western workers, even collaborated with U.S. forces to ensure the workers’ safety.
“Here, a Muslim, a member of the Taliban who was supposed to be his enemy, was risking his life to help them, a wonderful reminder that God could be much more than anyone could imagine,” the book records Taubmann thinking after the “Afghan Angel” smuggled a GPS into the country to help U.S. forces locate the hostages’ coordinates.
Many Muslims also demonstrated profound love and compassion toward the Christian workers during their imprisonment.
The 16 Afghan SNI workers were all Muslims – SNI does not require their local workers to convert for employment. Despite being tortured terribly, the Afghan workers refused to falsely confess that their Christian SNI leaders had forced them to convert.
Taliban leaders had tried to torture the Muslim workers to draw out such a confession to be used as evidence against the Western SNI workers.
“These innocent, faithful Muslim employees stood in the gap for their Christian friends; they endured the torture that might have fallen to the Westerners,” the authors of Kabul24 commented. “It was a sacrifice Georg and Peter could not comprehend.”
After 105 days of being shipped from one prison to another, the Western workers were finally rescued by U.S. forces just before the Taliban recaptured the city they were held in. The 16 Afghan workers were also able to escape after a locksmith who was an inmate set everyone free in the prison.
Six months after their release, several SNI workers returned to Afghanistan to again serve the country’s needy people. Among those who returned were Taubmann and his family. When the SNI workers returned to Kabul, they found that most of the tribal leaders and Afghan government officials welcomed them with open arms.
“It’s these under-the-radar humanitarian organizations like Shelter Now that don’t get the headline but they are the ones who are doing the ground work of reconciliation between people and serving the underserved,” said Kabul24 co-author Henry Arnold. “At some point, we as a military will go away and we need to leave it a better place than it was.”
The new SNI team was able to rebuild everything that was destroyed by the Taliban during their capture. To this day Shelter Now is still serving the poor in Afghanistan.