Nineteen South Korean hostages returned to South Korea from Afghanistan last week and apologized to their nation. Of the group of 23, two were released earlier. Referred to as “missionaries or aid workers” they returned home, sobered by their experience and minus two of the members who were shot early in the hostage time that began July 19. The 23 were sent by the suburban 5000 member Seoul Saemuul Church. Korea has 17,000 missionaries serving around the world, second only to the United States. The group was welcomed home by supporters and critics. One man had to be restrained when he attempted to pelt the returning missionary – aid workers with eggs. The group had gone to Afghanistan “to show the love of God”.
A hostage experience of this magnitude sends a charge of fear through the entire community of international workers. As I write, I am sure committees, boards, and work groups are reviewing their security precautions and putting more policies in place. How to do this and remain true to the larger mission of doing the things that make for peace is a challenge with which all of us can engage.
When I visited Afghanistan in January 2002, four months after 9/11, I did not experience fear in Kabul, or in villages of outlying areas despite the Afghani’s inflated reputation for violence . I spent a day in a village where a U. S. bomb had exploded at a water reservoir destroying a major hydraulic system supplying water for fields and people. The explosion from the reservoir 100 metres from the village sent rocks and concrete into homes and village compounds threatening lives. On that day I found little hostility unless it was so guarded and under the surface I could not identify it. My sense of security may have been a function of the times, or a personal inclination. I believe I was experiencing authentic Afghan hospitality for which they are famous in that part of the world.
In 2002 when I returned from that trip I was repeatedly asked if there was enough security in Afghanistan to do real work? I am aware of the fact that kidnappings are a feature of insurgent warfare. In Afghanistan kidnapping has also been part of intertribal warfare in selected areas going back centuries. While I believe that there is no fool proof way to avoid being abducted, I do believe that local people are reliable and do give warnings. Reading the warnings of their body language can save lives.
I also believe the culture of hostage taking is not the exclusive program of jihad groups. How many evening as I watch the news do I see pictures of soldiers smashing their way into houses in Iraq. Because I have visited those homes after the raids have ended, and listened to the families tell their story of disappeared family members and the experience of terror of foreign troops, I know that the initiation of culture of terror is not the sole territory of the jihadist. I know in that villager’s home where the currency of terror is part of life, the decision of how to respond to any one of the sources of terror, is a matter of survival. House raids contribute to the culture of hostage taking.
In exchange for freeing the 23 Koreans, the Taliban demanded release of Taliban captives and the departure of the Korean civilian and military mission to Afghanistan. Ironically the decision to pull out of Afghanistan had already been made by the Korean government, so agreeing to it was not a problem. In a similar situation the Philippine government agreed to pull out its troops from Iraq in 2004. Unlike previous hostage situations, the Afghan government refused to consider a prisoner exchange, so the final release probably came about due to the payment something like 20 million dollars in ransom. In this case as in selected other recent cases, the captors were under heavy pressure by millions of Muslim co-religionists to release the captives.
Governments routinely pay ransom to gain release of citizens, but do not admit publically that they do so. The decision of the Korean government to negotiate directly with the Taliban is precedent setting and conveys legitimacy on the insurgent group who took the action. The decision by the Korean government to ban missionary travel to Afghanistan, a promise the Korean government probably cannot enforce, (note the travel of Americans to Cuba) also helped lubricate the negotiations. That travel ban, however, sets a precedent that will not go unnoticed in the entire community of non governmental international workers.
As organizations contemplate international work in light of the Korean experience, their weighing of risk has now become more complex. With direct government intervention, their options are narrowed and their situation may be more dangerous. We do not necessarily comprehend what it means to “apologize to the nation” for being taken hostage as the Koreans did. However, the experience of the Koreans reminds us to be vigilant and attentive to the problem of joining the culture that allows government to control the tone for the work of building up humanity.
Questions of risk must be explored from at least two directions. First, the risk of death or being taken hostage is mitigated when we are familiar with local customs, language, and have a deep but often intuitive sense of what is and what is not possible. If we are taken hostage due to compulsive, ad hoc planning, or attention seeking it sets everyone back.
Second, in the event that we are abducted in the course of real work to serve humanity, out of faith convictions, our confidence that we can interpret that work and make it convincing for ourselves and for the world is crucial. Being taken hostage, kidnapped, executed or martyred in the service of humanity as a whole carries with it the potential of creating vision for life and hope.
We can look to Jesus, Gandhi or the other lesser known ancient or contemporary martyrs to be reminded that hope is created through a long journey that includes denial, confusion, rejection and eventual new life . Each had their critic. Each had their enemy who they tried to love. Each had their killer. Their message stood the test of time and drew attention to universal hope for humankind, not solely to the journey of a single individual. How we handle these situations in this century will help create the context for a world free from hostage taking and house raids.
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