The 21 South Koreans held hostage in Afghanistan by the Taliban recounted their six weeks of captivity on Wednesday, revealing the harsh conditions and numerous beatings they endured before being freed nearly two weeks ago.
"We were beaten with a tree branch or kicked around. Some kidnappers threatened us with death at gunpoint to force us to follow them in chanting their Islamic prayer for conversion," Je Chang-hee told a news conference with 20 other fellow ex-hostages at a hospital south of Seoul, where the Christian volunteers have been receiving medical treatment since they returned home 10 days ago.
Je said he and the others pretended to recite Islamic conversion prayers by muttering some Korean words.
"My group was kept in a closed place like a shed [at a Taliban home] but we were not allowed to go out ... it was like suffocating," recalled Cha Hae-jin.
The female hostage said the food was not suitable and that the captives vomited and suffered diarrhea, with some showing symptoms of dehydration.
"Four of us once had to share two potatoes for one day," she said.
The original group of 23 Korean Christian volunteers – 16 women and 7 men – had been kidnapped by Taliban militants on July 19 while on their way to provide free medical aid to poor Afghans. Over the course of their 40-day captivity, the rebels killed two men and freed two women before releasing the last groups of hostages near the end of August.
At least one of the slain men, Pastor Bae Hyung-kyu, was reportedly killed for refusing to convert.
During the question-and-answer session on Wednesday, the freed hostages told reporters that they were kept together for the first three days of their captivity but were later separated into six different groups, with each group consisting of two to four people. Yu Kyeong-Sik, 55, said they were moved around continuously on motorbikes or on foot.
Je, who served as an English interpreter and engaged in volunteer work at a hospital in Afghanistan, said his group of captives was forced to work.
"We lived like slaves. We had to level the ground for motorbikes, and get water [from a well] and make a fire," Je said, showing the worn-out, dirty short-sleeve shirt and trousers he wore throughout the captivity.
A few of the hostages, however, said they were treated relatively well.
"Some Taliban were friendly, as they asked what our names were and gave us Afghan names. They played with mobile phones and later allowed me to make a telephone call to South Korea so I talked with my husband," said Suh Myung-hwa, 29, whose younger brother, Kyung-seok, 27, was also among the hostages. She also was able to exchange notes with her brother.
Despite their ordeal, the hostages showed no sign of wanting to give up missionary work, though they said they would follow whatever decisions were made following their captivity.
To free the remaining hostages, South Korea had promised to ban Korean missionaries from Afghanistan and pledged to pull out its 210 troops by the end of the year – a move it was already planning to make prior to the hostage crisis.
Furthermore, the hostage crisis has forced Korea’s churches to reflect on their mission works, some of which have been criticized for being “excessively passionate.” South Korea, despite its small size, is the world’s second highest missionary sending country behind the United States.
The East Asian nation, which has seen a dramatic rise in Christianity within just a few decades of the twentieth century, sends one missionary for every 4.2 congregations – placing it 11th in the world, according to Christianity Today (The U.S. does not rank in the top 10.) And of the estimated 17,000 South Korean Christian missionaries that have been sent abroad, many are in volatile regions.
South Korean missionaries are particularly prevalent in 10/40 Window nations that are hostile to Westerners.
"We understand the Christian community is debating that," former hostage Lyu Kyung-sik, said when asked if they would return to trouble spots to do missionary work. "We'll follow the decision."
According to Dr. Park Sang-eun, who has been treating the freed hostages, the group has recovered from physical injuries and was fit enough to go home to their families. He added, however, that the former captives needed more treatment to deal with possible depression and other mental problems.
They were released from a hospital Wednesday and moved to a rehabilitation center.