In 2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan arrested eight foreign aid workers and sixteen of their Afghan assistants on charges of spreading Christianity. For weeks, the airwaves crackled with intense chatter over the ethics of proselytizing, the need for diplomatic intervention, and the nature of fundamentalist religion. Under Sharia Law, spreading Christianity could be punishable by death.
After three months of captivity, the eight foreign workers—four Germans, two U.S. citizens, and two Australians—were rescued during a nighttime mission conducted by American special forces.
Nearly a decade after those events transpired, the rescued workers share a detailed account of their captivity in the 2009 documentary Kabul 24.
There are two layers to the film. One is the narrated account of the aid workers’ capture and eventual rescue. The more interesting layer is the second—the layer of assumptions made and conclusions offered.
Kabul 24 speaks with the voice of Shelter Now International’s eight aid workers: Georg Taubmann, Heather Mercer, Dayna Curry, Diana Thomas, Margrit Stebner, Peter Bunch, Katrin Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf. The octet narrates the harrowing Taliban captivity with first-hand remembrances as they revisit in front of cameras some of the very buildings in which the story transpired.
The Two American workers, Dana Curry and Heather Mercer, visit an Afghan family with whom the pair have been interacting for some time. The family makes multiple requests to see a video about the life of Jesus. Curry and Mercer show the film, and then upon leaving the house, both are apprehended by armed Taliban guards and taken to a government building in the center of Kabul.
Taubmann describes Taliban ransacking of the SNI facilities searching for the outfit’s computers. Taliban guards abduct sixteen of SNI’s Afghan workers, subjecting them to torture and abuse. The eight foreign workers are held in a Taliban Vice and Virtue prison building under the auspices of the Ministry of the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. The prison also holds many Afghan women including a twelve-year-old girl imprisoned for leaving her abusive thirty-year-old husband.
The Taliban promise their foreign captives will be released in two or three days. Always two or three more days. “You are guests in our country,” the Taliban says. As the days drag on, mealtimes provide routine. Prayer and food break up dismal days in captivity. Daily chores—sweeping, washing aluminum food dishes, and cleaning the toilet—provide the prisoners a semblance of control over their environment.
After over a month of captivity, the eight are summoned to appear before a Taliban Supreme Court for a farcical hearing of their alleged crime: attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity. Until this point, the captives have not heard the charges against them.
Later, the prisoners are moved to a new location—a prison for Christians and terrorists, according to Mercer. In squalor and nearing despair, the eight foreigners learn of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Taliban fighters engage U. S. and Northern Alliance soldiers in combat. Taliban guards move the prisoners around frequently in hopes that airstrikes will relent for fear of killing the hostages along with the Taliban.
With the help of one Talib operative who had the only GPS phone in the organization, Georg Taubmann is able to contact American military personnel. Together, they devise a hasty, daring nighttime rescue plan.
Through luck, courage, and what the eight describe as miraculous intervention, all eight connect with American soldiers under the cover of night and escape to freedom.
The story as told to the cameras is remarkable. But beneath the surface layer of first-person recall, Kabul 24 suggests an implicit narrative more intriguing still.
This second layer, the thicker though less visible layer, is one of assumptions and assertions. Did Osama Bin Laden really orchestrate the capture of the foreign workers prior to 9-11 in order to use them as bargaining chips with the U.S.? The film suggests he did.
One premise in particular deserves closer scrutiny--the idea that the story is a clear case of good guys and bad guys.
Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, narrates the opening lines of Kabul 24:
“It is the rare person willing to make the unqualified sacrifice who changes the world.”
“…Eight anonymous people were suddenly thrust upon the world stage, reluctant players in a life and death struggle between good and evil.”
The film takes the position that the foreign aid workers are the good guys. They don’t hurt, they don’t kill…They are treated as proverbial sacrificial lambs. The U.S. forces who rescue the captives are heroes. The Taliban are clearly evil. As the world has come to know, they are ruthless and abusive, intolerant and patriarchal.
While the contrasting depictions work as generalizations, the film itself problematizes hastily-drawn conclusions. Were the two American aid workers truly proselytizing? Were they knowingly breaking laws for a cause? Were the American soldiers truly heroes? Even if Afghan civilians died along the way? How many Afghan lives are foreign aid workers worth? What about the Taliban guards who showed kindness to the prisoners, who befriended the captive aid workers and helped free them?
The film is in tension with itself, on the one hand wanting to draw clear lines between good and evil, and on the other hand admitting ambiguity where the two sides are concerned.
Which is a lot like life.
Jonas Uribe lives, works, and takes in interesting films in Vancouver, Washington.