Claims Taliban will use $20m from Seoul to buy arms and mount attacks are denied.
|Each time a deadline passed, the families
feared the worst [AFP]
The capture of 23 South Korean Christian aid workers by the Taliban in Afghanistan marked the start of a nightmarish period of waiting for their families back in Seoul.
Now that the crisis has blown over with the release of 19 hostages – two had been freed earlier and two had been killed by their captors – the families have heaved a collective sigh of relief.
In a series of exclusive interviews with Al Jazeera, the relatives have narrated how they lived through the ordeal, anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones and described how they dealt with the killings of two of the hostages.
Kwak Ok-kang told of the moment she discovered one of her daughters, Liu Jung-Hwa, had been captured.
She said she had been driving in her car when she heard the news.
“I called my youngest daughter to check the name list, and she said, ‘Yes: she’s being named and appears on the list,’
“I felt my blood upside down and the colour of the sky seemed to change into yellow.
“It was a true shock and I was terrified.”
The 23 South Koreans were all members of the Saemmul Presbyterian Church in Seoul, who had travelled to Afghanistan to undertake a 10-day aid mission in the war-torn country.
Seong In-sook told how her husband, You Kyong-sik, fed up with the drudge of his daily life in Seoul, had joined the group hoping to “make a difference” in the world.
“My husband was an engineer at a computer company for 30 years, and he left his job three years ago because he wanted to change his life.”
She said he had “realised that life is very important … that is the reason he was planning to go to Afghanistan, to find some way of helping”.
A photograph, taken before the group left, showed You and the others all smiling.
But, while travelling through Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, they were taken hostage by Taliban fighters.
Afghanistan’s government made it clear it would not agree to Taliban demands to free prisoners in exchange for the hostages.
Each time a deadline set by the Taliban passed without these demands being met, the families feared the worst. But, though negotiations broke down on several occasions, the deadlines seemed to pass without any consequences.
Lee Seong-hyun was married only for seven months when his wife decided to go to Afghanistan.
He said he felt “helpless” and in “pain” knowing his wife was being held captive.
“Without her sleeping, waking and eating [life] is not only meaningless but painful,” he said.
In South Korea, protesters demanded the release of the hostages and called for their government to intervene. Some of the protesters gathered outside a mosque in Seoul and there were fears of a backlash against South Korea’s Muslim community.
|In South Korea, protesters demanded the
release of the hostages [AFP]
Then the Taliban killed one of the hostages.
“All the family members burst into tears and even screamed with deep sorrow,” Lee Hyun-ja told Al Jazeera.
The bullet-riddled body of Bae Hyung-kyu, a Christian pastor and the group’s leader, was left close to the road where the group had been kidnapped.
A Taliban spokesman announced it was “because the government did not listen to our demands”.
One of the hostages was allowed to call the media. It was Jung-wa, Kwak Ok-kang’s daughter.
She said the group was scared. “Sometimes they threaten us,” she said in the phone call. “They are going to kill us one by one.”
After another deadline passed, the Taliban killed Shim Seong-min, another male hostage.
For Nam Song-soon, whose 36-year-old daughter Ji-young was among the hostages, the news was almost too much to bear.
“The hardest thing was when I saw the news on the TV that Shin-Song-Min was killed,” she said.
“I saw his body was covered by a blanket, and I could see part of his feet and that was terrifying – a very terrible thing for me to watch.
Really I could hardly watch the TV because I was so shocked.”
The South Korean group was made up of seven men and sixteen women and there was speculation that the Taliban might be coming under criticism on a local level for holding female hostages.
|The release of Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Jee-na
offered renewed hope to the families [AFP]
On August 11, the Taliban announced they would release two hostages, but it took a further two days for Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Jee-na to be set free.
Another hostage, Lee Ji-young, who spoke some of the local Afghan dialect and had been working as a translator for the group, had been offered the chance to be one of the two released.
She chose to stay behind so that her friends would be released instead.
The Taliban allowed her to write a letter to her parents, saying she was “healthy and well fed”.
The letter finished: “Please look after yourselves”.
“I’m really proud of my daughter,” Nam Song-soon, Lee’s mother, said.
The release of Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Jee-na offered renewed hope to the families that the situation might be resolved.
South Korea had sent a delegation to Afghanistan for direct talks with the Taliban, but the discussions continually broke down over the issue of the prisoner release.
Then on August 29, the Taliban began to release the others, after South Korean authorities reiterated their plans to withdraw their troops and agreed to clamp-down on missionary groups travelling from their country to Afghanistan.
Both sides have denied rumours that a ransom was paid to secure the release of the remaining hostages, but for those back in Seoul that hardly mattered.
A deal had been reached and the agonising wait for the families was finally over.