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Where were you on 9/11?

The head of the aid group Global Hope had been arrested by the Taliban and was in captivity in Afghanistan

Where were you on 9/11?

(Heather Mercer (Photo by Esther Haven))

Heather Mercer had been in Afghanistan for less than five months when the Taliban arrested her, along with Dayna Curry and six others who worked for the German aid group Shelter Now, on Aug. 3, 2001. The Taliban accused the group of seeking to convert Afghans to Christianity, arrested 14 Afghans they said were converts, and threatened to kill all of them. Mercer, now 34 and head of the aid group Global Hope, was still in captivity on 9/11.

Our captors showed up at our cell mid-morning on Sept. 8 and told us we were being taken to court for trial. What? We did not have a lawyer and still did not even know the charges that had been filed against us. My friends and I were loaded into a van and then followed by a caravan of armed soldiers to what we later learned was the Afghan Supreme Court. By the end of the day we were formally charged with proselyting Afghans, a crime under Islamic law punishable by death.

For my fellow captives and me, prayer became our only option and our greatest comfort. I awoke on the morning of Sept. 11 feeling numb. I had a permanent case of anxiety as I fought through the endless moments of the day wondering when this nightmare would end. Sept. 11 was to bring one bright spot, though. My mother and her husband were to arrive in Kabul from the United States. I sat in the prison courtyard, gazing at the sky, anticipating their arrival.

The Taliban appeared about 2:30 p.m. to escort Dayna and me to the interrogation room for a supervised visit with our parents. As I turned the corner of the hallway, I saw my mother, her chador dangling around her shoulders as she struggled to keep it properly wrapped around her head. I was thrilled to see her, but I feared for her safety, her husband's, and my dad's. I hugged them and Dayna's mom, and for a brief moment I felt safe. We held hands and tried to comfort one another. As the Taliban ordered my parents to leave after about 30 minutes, my dad squeezed my hand and said, "I will not leave here without you, except that they force me to leave. I love you."

I knew that all of this was much harder on my parents than it was on me. Leaving me behind was one of the most helpless moments of their lives. We grieved not knowing if we would ever see each other again, and little did we know that within minutes of our visit, the world as we knew it would change forever.

Our parents were escorted to the UN guesthouse where they stayed during our captivity. Without cell phones, internet, or television, they had felt disconnected to the happenings of the outside world and finally sat down to watch the news on satellite television. Every channel was broadcasting a confusing site-the World Trade Center on fire. What was happening? Who in the world could do such a thing? It did not take long for our parents, with government backgrounds, to figure out that these plane crashes were no accident. These were horrific and unprecedented acts of terror, and it took only milliseconds for them to realize that they had just left their daughters in a prison operated by the very men who would orchestrate it. Events quickly went from bad to worse as they were notified by the international diplomatic liaisons working to negotiate our release that everyone had to evacuate within 24 hours.

We returned to our cell after meeting our families and returned to our daily routine of clothes washing, journal writing, and Bible reading. Shortly before dusk, one of our captors entered our cell with a confusing report that two planes had crashed into each other over Washington and New York. He said 400 people had died and that America believed Afghanistan was to blame. His information didn't make sense, and I couldn't understand why we were hearing about this particular plane crash from one of our Taliban captors.

As night settled over our prison, our team tried to sleep. The nuisance of thousands of flies filling our cell always made sleep difficult. But at 2 a.m. I awakened to the most explosive sound. "What was that?" I shouted out to my sleeping teammates. The oldest member of our team sat up disgruntled and said, "I think that was a bomb." Immediately there was gunfire, red rockets shot like fireworks through the sky, and the rumbling of helicopters shook the ground. I was about to be sick, but the 35 or so Afghan women whom we shared the compound with were still sleeping soundly, unmoved by an almost regular occurrence, Taliban and opposition groups fighting. Afghanistan was at war again, but we did not know why.

As the United States began bombing Taliban strongholds on Oct. 7, Mercer would not learn what actually happened on 9/11 until the women received a new cellmate, British journalist Yvonne Ridley, captured by the Taliban near the Pakistan border but let out of the prison three days later. In November Afghan opposition forces entered Kabul, and the Taliban forced the aid workers to flee as they retreated in the middle of the night. The aid workers slept outside the city in a metal shipping container, where opposition forces discovered and rescued them. Awaiting a U.S. helicopter, they set afire their head coverings as beacons, and were flown to safety by U.S. Special Forces.

The days surrounding 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and our subsequent, heroic rescue changed all of our lives forever. In 10 years, not one day has passed without my feeling the impact of that experience. People often ask me how I recovered, and my response is simple: the grace of God, the prayers of the saints, and the healing community of God's people.

Upon our return to the United States, we received a joyous welcome. Friends and strangers alike conveyed the depth of prayer and support offered up for us, the nation, and the people of Afghanistan during those dark days. It is as incomprehensible to me today as it was then to learn of the millions of people who prayed for our release. Though we were merely small characters catapulted into a global script, it seemed our rescue brought a glimmer of hope to our nation that for more than two months groped for any signs of victory. We were honored that our rescue proved that not all hope was lost.

Personally, God sent me to prison to set me free-free from fear, fear of the unknown, fear of harm, and ultimately the fear of losing control. The crisis exposed the weakness of my flesh, and proved that God's power is truly perfected in weakness. I learned my life is not my own; I belong to Jesus, and I can trust Him with anything, no matter what comes.

For a brief and epic time, God allowed Dayna and me to have a front-row seat to the immense suffering of a people, previously unknown to most of the world. I would not trade for all the riches of this world the moments with the resilient and courageous Afghan women who shared our prison cell. For the first time, we not only heard their stories, but we lived them.

I have continued to work in the Middle East doing relief and development. Interestingly enough, none of us eight aid workers relinquished our calling to love and serve Muslims in the world's most dangerous places. The crisis solidified for all of us our resolve and the importance of the work, and affirmed that no matter the cost, God's presence is always more than enough to sustain us.

Throughout the Muslim world, there are only three Christian workers serving among every 1 million Muslims-and 88 percent of Muslims have never met a follower of Jesus. Now more than ever the world is desperate for an authentic witness of God's love expressed through Jesus Christ. It is this, not religion or politics, that will ultimately win the war on terror.

More memories of 9/11: Diane Langberg | Michael Leary | Bill Bangham | Wendy Merdian | Laurie Mylroie

Where were you on 9/11? Share remembrances with your fellow WORLD readers and view a slideshow of images from Sept. 11, 2001, featured in WORLD's Remembering 9/11 10th Anniversary Special Issue.

Heather Mercer

Heather Mercer