Christian aid worker back in Kabul

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last year at this time, Georg Taubmann was sitting in a cell awaiting trial in a Taliban court for a crime he didn't commit: converting Afghan Muslims to Christianity.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the trial of eight aid workers with Shelter Now International – a Christian organization that builds homes for the poor – captivated the media around the world. A confrontation between Western values and Islamic sharia law, played out in a courtroom where Taliban judges made all the rules.

After Sept. 11, everything changed. Mr. Taubmann, Shelter Now's director in Afghanistan, and his fellow aid workers became the Taliban's human shields during the bombing raids in Kabul and then on their retreat to Kandahar.

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For most people, five months of interrogation, incarceration, and nightly bombing raids would have been enough to discourage any return to Afghanistan. But Taubmann, who is a German national, and several other workers of Shelter Now are back, unpacking their belongings, ready to start their lives over again building homes for Afghanistan's poor.

"God has given me my life again, not to preserve it, but to give it again to the service of others," says Taubmann, sitting on the floor of his house in Kabul, as his wife and two teenage sons move into their new home. "I asked my family, and they said, 'We want to go back to Afghanistan.' If the Afghan government allows us to come back, and if the people want us to work here again, we want to be here."

Taubmann's task will not be easy. After 18 years of working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and 14 years of building homes inside Afghanistan for returned refugees, Taubmann must now rebuild his credibility in the Afghan and foreign-aid community.

The position of Shelter Now in Afghanistan is still tenuous. Last December, Taubmann was invited back to Afghanistan by former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is himself a staunch Islamic fundamentalist leader. Transitional President Hamid Karzai says the case against Shelter Now is null and void.

Yet last June, the current chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, announced his intention to reopen the Taliban's case against Shelter Now. It's an issue that Taubmann says will eat up much of his time, time that should be devoted to helping build homes before winter sets in. "I'm here to do my work," he says. "I need to concentrate, we have a lot to do, and we have to start all over again."

Taubmann's credibility was strained, not by his own actions, but by two young American volunteers for Shelter Now, Heather Mercer and Dana Curry. On Aug. 3, 2001, Ms. Mercer and Ms. Curry visited the home of an Afghan family they had worked with through Shelter Now. According to the two women, the family insisted on seeing a Bible and a compact disc movie of Jesus's life. Curry and Mercer complied.

Immediately after showing a portion of the "Jesus Film," Mercer and Curry were arrested outside the Afghan family's home, by the Taliban religious police. Two days later, Taliban police arrested six other bewildered workers for Shelter Now, setting up the Taliban's show trial on Sept. 8.

"It was dangerous what the girls were doing, but they were set up (by the Taliban)," says Taubmann, who says he only learned the full story of the girls' off-hours proselytizing last month, when he read about it in their best-selling book "Prisoners of Hope." "I love these two girls, but they should have told me what they were doing, so I could have had some influence over them. I tried to tell them in this society what you can do and what you can't do."

For Taubmann, a devout Christian, religion is something that should be seen in a person's acts, not in their words. The purpose of Shelter Now is not to convert more Christians, but to provide homes for some of the poorest people in the world.

"In Christianity, it goes against every principal of Jesus's teachings to make aid conditional," Taubmann says. "That's like if I build a house for a poor person, but only if he is a Christian. We give to everybody."

The evidence is in Shelter Now's work. "We helped people who fled the communists," he says. "When the communist government fell, we helped the people who fled the (Islamic guerrillas). We helped people who fled from the Taliban, and now, we're helping those who are fleeing from the current government, many of whom are Taliban."

But none of that mattered to the religious police who held Taubmann and seven other Shelter Now workers last summer. As members of the feared Ministry for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police were answerable only to the highest Taliban authority, Mullah Muhammad Omar himself.

The Vice and Virtue Police, as they were known, were harsh and ideological, but less cruel to the eight foreign workers of Shelter Now than they were to the 16 Afghan workers who were arrested along with them. Interrogation of foreigners involved intimidation and threats; interrogation of Afghans involved beatings and torture.

"We were much more concerned about the Afghan staff than we were about the foreigners," says Len Stitt, deputy director of Shelter Now, who evacuated his own family and the remaining aid workers to Pakistan, leaving Kabul just minutes before Taliban police arrived to arrest them.

The Taliban did nothing to assuage their fears. "Georg asked the Taliban's chief justice about the Afghan staff," says Mr. Stitt, "and the chief justice told him, 'Don't worry about the Afghans, we will take care of the Afghans.'" Then, says Stitt, the chief justice drew his finger across his throat.

Taubmann's contacts within the senior Taliban leadership in Kabul later told him that police found so little evidence of proselytizing at Shelter Now that they had to raid other Christian organizations for Bibles and crosses in order to make a convincing case to the foreign media.

After Sept. 11, of course, there wasn't going to be a trial. The attorney for Shelter Now, a 26-year-old sharia law expert from Pakistan, made repeated trips to Kabul with reams of documents showing that proselytizing isn't a crime under Islamic law. The Taliban Supreme Court justices never met him.

As the American air war began Oct. 7, the Taliban shifted the aid workers from prison to prison, eventually dumping them in the Riasat-e Say, the feared interrogation center of the Afghan intelligence agency, KhAD. Finally, the second week of November, the bombing stopped and the Taliban prepared to abandon Kabul. Taubmann and the aid workers were pulled out of their cells and forced into a van. They joined hundreds of other trucks and cars, packed with Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers, all retreating to Kandahar.

The convoy reached Ghazni at 10pm, and the eight aid workers were placed in a jail in Ghazni, while their Taliban captors rushed off to meet their families. An hour later, the aid workers heard gunfire and the sound of Taliban fleeing to their cars. Ghazni was in revolt; the aid workers had been left behind.

But their rescue was not immediate. The commander who led the rout of Ghazni, Ismail Khan, at first seemed eager to help the aid workers escape. Then he discouraged the aid workers from contacting American soldiers to organize a rescue attempt. Later, commanders under Mr. Khan admitted to a Monitor reporter that they were trying to ransom the aid workers for $100,000.

Using a satellite phone, Taubmann and the aid workers managed to contact the Americans and to arrange a rendezvous at an airfield in Ghazni. The aid workers burned their own clothes to attract the American helicopters.

"The helicopters left, and we couldn't see them anymore; I thought we were finished," Taubmann recalls. "But then, suddenly out of the dark, there were these people who looked like they were from outer space. They had funny helmets, antennaes, funny guns that you never saw before, night-vision goggles. We had to tell them not to shoot the Afghans around us, they were our friends."

Even though he has told this story of his rescue hundreds of times, and written a book about his experiences in prison, the most lasting impression for Taubmann of his incarceration was what he views as the constant protection of God. None of the eight foreign aid workers and none of the 16 Afghan aid workers of Shelter Now were seriously injured, either by Taliban guards or US bombs. Even today, he says, he holds no bitterness toward the Taliban themselves, many of whom he regarded as friends. Indeed, some Taliban guards have shaved their beards and come to Shelter Now, looking for jobs.

The key, Taubmann says, is that the foreign-aid community must move quickly to rebuild Afghanistan, before the post-Taliban euphoria turns into frustration.

"This is the last chance for Afghanistan. The interest is there from different governments to help the Afghan people. The peacekeepers are here.

"Now we need people to rebuild roads, to rebuild homes before the winter. It will not change overnight; it will take years. But if we don't do it now, there will be a backlash. And we cannot allow that to happen."

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