25-year-old Heather Mercer had been in Afghanistan serving as a relief work for four months when she was arrested by the Taliban, for sharing her faith in God with an afghan family. Such a “crime” is punishable by death under afghan Islamic law.
Heather spent nearly four months in captivity. She was arrested on August 3rd of 2001, and was still captive on September 11th. After the attack on the world trade center she and fellow American Dayna Curry transformed more into hostages than religious prisoners.
Heather was eventually freed by northern alliance troops in November of 2001, and airlifted out of the country by American soldiers.
The following is the text of her interview with Channel Seven's Clint Yeatts.
Q: Heather did you ever think, growing up, you would be in Afghanistan helping meet the needs of the people there?
A: I think my desire to be part of the work going on in Afghanistan came about when I was in college. In high school I never really thought of living overseas, I had grown up overseas but I never thought I would spend my life there.
It wasn't until I got in college and became a part of a local church that was really interested in people and places all over the world that I started to get a real intense desire to go and live among a people in a far away land.
So it was in college that I started learning more about different nations about different kinds of people around the world.
There was something in me that was just fascinated about going to a far away place and loving the poor and caring for them and serving them in the name of Jesus, hoping there would be people in these far away places that had never had a chance to know about the love of Jesus for them. It became my desire to share that, in places that people had never heard.
One of the main influences in my life, in college particularly, was Mother Teresa. I loved how she took her faith and her desire to serve the poor, in a far away place far away from her home, how she took the two and integrated them and really demonstrated an authentic faith and it changed the world. When I looked at the world and started getting interested in Afghanistan it seemed like the place I could live a similar kind of life. Just serving the poor, loving the people and loving Jesus.
Q: You seem to have this real, sincere love for the people in Afghanistan.
A: The Afghan people are amazing. I wish every American could know an Afghan in their lifetime. They are some of the most hospitable, resourceful, kind people I have ever met. For all they have suffered, they are a people that have overcome.
I think some of the greatest lessons I have learn, even in the short time I was in Afghanistan, have come from poor Afghan people. You have nothing, but give everything. They find ways to overcome even the most tremendous obstacles.
Q: It has been just over a year now since you were arrested. If you had to do it all over again, would you go back to Afghanistan?
A: I would do it all over again because I know the tremendous good that has come out of the situation. Not just for us but for many of the Afghan people.
On that day we went to that Afghan home, on the invitation of that family...we had been friends with them for several months, we had been trying to meet some of their practical needs, food, medicine, clothes, those kinds of things... Afghans tend to be fascinated with foreigners and particularly with Americans, so the family was always wanting us to come over and spend time with them. Their kids were wonderful; they would play on our street they begged on our street everyday.
This one particular day we went visit them, they had built a new room in their house they wanted to show us their new room, they had also been asking us about our faith. They were interested in seeing a film on the life of Jesus.
When all the pieces came together it happened to be that day that was showed this film to that family.
Q: Did your heart sink, were you afraid when you walked out of that home and saw the Taliban authorities?
A: It didn't happen all so quickly, it was more gradual. I was driving away in my taxi, with my regular taxi driver, as we were driving away these two religious police got in the vehicle with me.
It took me a little while to figure out exactly what was happening but in the first three or four minutes I knew they had come for me. I didn't know if they had come because I had just visited with an afghan home, which was a sensitive thing to do, I didn't know if they had come for me because I had shown this Jesus film to this family or what the situation was.
I think at that moment I was just trying to take it all in and so grateful that Dayna (Curry) had gotten away, or so I thought.
Q: What was it like for you, not just physically, but in your heart while you were being held by the Taliban?
A: It was kind of a mixed bag. There were really good things about it and there were really terrifying things about it.
I think the thing we knew right off the bat, both Dayna and I, we were being blessed to be in this prison because we were there with 30 Afghan women.
For so long we had wanted to be with these women and know their lives and understand who they are and hear their stories. It was so difficult when we lived in the city in the Afghan neighborhoods, because the Taliban were so strict with our interactions with Afghan women. But here we were in this prison compound with thirty women and there were no men around to say you can talk to them or you can't talk to them.
So we got to hear their stories and sing their songs and dance with them and play games with them and wash clothes together.
We shared one bathroom, forty women sharing the same bathroom... That was tremendous; looking back on the whole experience that was may greatest joys, being with these afghan women. And I wouldn't trade that for the world.
Q: In the times that you were alone. Were there times you struggled with your faith, asked why me and why here?
A: Yeah, I think my greatest struggle was the uncertainty of knowing what does tomorrow hold? I didn't know are we going to live or die. With each day we didn't know, are we going to make through one more night, whether it was bombing or being tried before the supreme court of Afghanistan under Islamic law for a crime punishable by death, is a terrorist going to come find me in this prison...we are the only two Americans left in this country, are they going to kill us?
All those uncertainties that you had to wrestle through I had to wrestle through everyday.
Sure, there were definitely times I was terrified and felt alone and wondered God are you really going to set us free?, do you really see us here, do you really here us calling out to you?.
I think the question I had was never can God deliver us, that was a given I knew God could, but I wasn't sure he would.
I know through history God works in different ways at different times with different people. Some people live and some people don't. You can't explain why some people die of cancer really young and another person who hasn't taken care of their life lives till they’re ninety. Just those kind of questions about life.
I really wanted to live, I'm just 24, I've only been here four months. I thought I was going to spend my life here, is it all over now?. But really that intense internal struggle of asking God all the why questions, all the hard "what if" questions, was a process God took me through so that the trust level could go many notches deeper.
I trusted him to go to Afghanistan in the first place but God was wanting me to see that there were areas where I didn't trust him enough. He wanted to prove to me he was trustworthy.
So eventually after really wrestling with the issue for a long time I had to come to a place where I realize that it doesn't matter whether I live or die, that's not the issue, God is the one who is going to make that decision.
My hope was in eternity with the promise that I was going to be with Jesus forever. But the question He was asking was, Heather are you going to trust me?. I'm so glad it was His mercy, His grace, that enabled me to come to a place that I said okay Lord I'll trust you, even though I can't see. I mean that's the essence of faith, evidence of things hoped for... Believing in things unseen. But when you have to stand face to face with life and death issues, there is usually a little wrestling you have to do there.
Q: So you made it through that?
A: Yeah, I didn't have any other choice. I knew I could keep wrestling with God, and telling Him I wanted my way and not his way and I would surely die of anxiety and grief or I could say okay God I trust you and find a place of freedom and victory that came from within.
That's what happened ultimately, the Taliban could keep me in prison they could physically lock me up in a prison cell, but when I got to a place that I could say God I trust you no matter what happens, I was free, they could not imprison my heart and my spirit. I was free to obey God and love him anyway.
Q: After the invasion in Afghanistan, and the takeover of Kabul. The Taliban rushed you out of they city, did you fear this could be the end?
A: That was on November 12th when we were being taken...pretty much we had become hostages being taken out of the city when the Taliban fled Kabul. I think at that point we all just knew, at a deeper level, God is the only one who is going to do it. Apart from the miracle working power of God, with the magnitude of the parting of the Red Sea, we are not going to come out of this alive...you know.
But I think there was faith in our hearts that God was going to do something.
I remember that day we were being taken out of the city, really being the most peaceful time for me personally for the whole three and a half months. In the midst of all the bombing, the supreme court trial all the interrogations with the Taliban, that moment I felt the peace and presence of God more than any other.
As we were driving out of the city we pulled out our bibles and we started reading scriptures that we had been pretty much holding onto with all that we were while we were in prison. Particularly scriptures from Psalms that talked about God's promise to deliver us, to ransom us unharmed from our enemies. We read those scriptures driving out of the city and we sang the songs that we had written that went along with those scriptures or we sang songs that other people had written that had encouraged us. It was amazing the peace that God brought, even as we were being taken out as hostages by the Taliban.
I remember that next morning when the Taliban were fleeing the city of Ghazni which was eventually rescued from, I remember hearing the banging down of the doors of our prison, expecting it was the Taliban coming back to the prison, they had just been to the front lines to fight the northern alliance and they were coming back to kill us.
I remember sitting in the room and thinking this was really it. This was the moment, more so than any other moment in our prison experience, I thought I have about thirty seconds to live and what am I going to do. So I just swallowed real hard and said Jesus please help me to die honoring you help me to make your name the last thing I say. I knew if I was going to have to die in that situation I wanted it to honor Jesus. But it was then, that exact moment, that the northern alliance soldiers came in and started telling us we were free. It was just pretty incredible that God brought it to that real of a point of saying okay lord if this is it, I am ready, and then that was the point of liberation.
Q: And then came the rescue by American soldiers...
A: That was pretty surreal. I still feel like it was a Hollywood movie. With each passing day it becomes more Hollywood. The more removed I get from it the more sensational it seems.
That was an amazing night. I remember getting on the helicopter and taking off after this rescue operation almost didn't happen. Everybody's life was in danger, we didn't know if the Taliban were going to ambush us at any minute, the soldiers lives were in danger. When we finally got on that helicopter and started to take off I remember looking up and on the roof on the ceiling of the helicopter was an American flag. I remember looking at that flag and thinking there is an American flag in Afghanistan. I never thought I would see that, an American flag in Afghanistan.
It was just incredible to sit there to see this flag, these men who had risked their lives to rescue us and to feel the presence of God so near. I just sat there and cried and worshiped Jesus and thought we are really free we are really going home. So it was absolutely a movie, a night I will never forget.
Q: Your life has changed more than you could have ever expected in prison. You've been across the country speaking the past year. Have things changed? Are people closer to their country, to their faith since your experience and the events of September 11th?
A: I think so. I think everything that happened with September 11th and how God has used this particular story of our imprisonment in Afghanistan, I think its drawn a clearer line in the sand. Its more black and white, the issue of faith and how people apply faith to their lives, their personal lives, is more black and white than its ever been. I think people are either turning for God or against him. The middle ground is becoming less and less, which I think is a good thing.
I think there are those who think apart from God's miracle working power and our nation and our world, we're in big trouble. We need God. We need God as a nation. I think many, many people realize that and it’s strengthening our faith, it's causing them to draw closer to God. Then I think there are those too who are turning the other way and saying I don't need him or I don't want him. So its just more black and white than its ever been.
But I am so encouraged about what God is doing in people's hearts. Everywhere we go we hear people say God has used this story to strengthen my faith and I prayed like I never prayed before and I saw a miracle. I can't believe i'm actually looking at a miracle. Just so many people who thought, perhaps that God could never use them to do anything has seen God use them to change history. It's built tremendous faith in people.
I think it causes them to want to believe God for his power to change the world.
Q: Today, a year later since all this began...how do you look back...how do you put into perspective who you are and what happened to you?
A: It’s been a whirlwind. It’s been hard to really evaluate all that has happened in the last year.
I think the times that I do, God just becomes bigger. I become smaller and He becomes bigger.
With each passing day I become more and more in awe of what He's done. The more stories I hear the more people I meet the ripple affect goes farther and wider than I could ever imagine.
It causes me to see just how big God really is and what he can do when we believe. And it makes me feel really small, which is a good thing. I'm just one person a part of this huge thing that God is doing all over the world. It’s a story of millions of people, not just eight.
Q: Once the phone stops ringing and your life gets back to some kind of normality, what do you want to do next?
A: Well there are three main values that carried me to Afghanistan, that I wanted to live out in Afghanistan.
Loving Jesus, loving others and loving those who don't know Christ and sharing his love with them.
Those three core values, it doesn't matter what I do in this nation, anywhere in the world, wherever God takes me, my desire is to live out those three things with all my heart.
I really hope that I go back to Afghanistan, I want to keep going back and serving the people there. I belong overseas, it’s where I fit, its what I’m passionate about.
So if I can do those three things in the four corners of the earth in the far away lands that most people don't know about, if I can do those three things then I’ll be happy.
Q: When our children...our children's children pick up a history book and read that chapter about Heather Mercer, what do you hope they read?
A: That's a good question. Well whatever story they happen to be reading I hope it’s a story that gives testimony that God is real and that He cares about people and that His love is real and He sets people free.
Whether it’s the story of prison or Afghanistan or September 11th, whatever piece of history it is they are reading, I hope that is what they see. Because I think ultimately that is what it is all about.
Photo Caption: John Mercer, hugs his daughter, Heather, as she arrives in Islamabad, Pakistan.