The 19 South Koreans who were freed by their Taliban kidnappers last week returned home Sunday to the tearful embraces of their loved ones.
After the hugs and tears, some family members were gently critical, questioning why in the first place the church group went to Afghanistan, where they were held captive by the Taliban for 40 days before being released under a deal between the insurgents and the South Korean government.
"I thought you would be killed," Cheon Kwang-sil, 77, told her granddaughter Lee Young-kyung, according to The Associated Press. "I told you not to go there."
At 22, Lee was the youngest of the original group of 23 aid volunteers that was abducted July 19 in insurgency-prone Ghazni province while on their way to provide free medical care to poor Afghans.
After the deaths of two male captives and the first release of two women captives, the remaining 19 hostages were released over the course of two days under the deal struck between South Korea and Taliban representatives last Tuesday that called for the withdrawal of 210 Korean troops – mostly medics and engineers – from Afghanistan by the end of the year and for the Korean government to ban all missionary groups from entering the country.
Earlier, they spoke briefly with reporters, apologizing to the South Korean people and the government for causing them to be concerned.
"We appreciate the Korean people for helping us to return to our families. We owe a big debt to the nation and people," said one of the former hostages, Yoo Kyung-shik.
Yoo, fighting back tears, also expressed condolences to the families of the two Koreans who were killed. Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu, the leader of the group, was found dead on July 25, and the body of 29-year-old Shim Sung-min was found July 30. Both were killed by the Taliban militants who were trying to pressure the Afghan government to release their imprisoned fighters.
Mixed tears of pain and joy were shed by the aid volunteers early Friday as they greeted one other and heard for the first time that two of their colleagues had been killed.
“They wept. They hugged. They were shocked at the news of the two men who were killed. They didn’t know about that,” a South Korean diplomat, who requested to remain anonymous, told Agence France-Presse.
Also on Friday, the former hostages recounted their story in an interview with a South Korean media from their hotel in Afghanistan. All foreign media were prohibited from entering the hotel.
“While kidnapped, all I could think about was staying alive,” 29-year-old Suh Myung-hwa said in an interview shown on South Korean television, according to The Associated Press. “I didn’t feel any pain under captivity, I guess because I was in a panic the whole time, but now that the tension is gone my body aches all over,” she said.
After flying out of Kabul on a chartered U.N. plane, and stopping over in Dubai, the aid workers arrived early Sunday morning in South Korea, where they were reunited with family members before being shuttled off to a hospital in Anyang, just south of Seoul, to undergo medical checks.
According to the Korea Times, hospital officials in Anyang say the freed hostages may need at least one or two weeks of rest. They will also undergo medical checkups and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder by a special medical team of 20 doctors and 15 nurses.