Retired Marine Campaigns to Keep Memory of His Captive Daughter from Fading

It has been 11 days since John Mercer left Kabul on the last flight out and, with it, the hope of seeing his 24-year-old daughter, Heather, anytime soon.

Since that time he has spent every day in almost exactly the same manner.

First, he visits the American Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, hoping for some word on the fate of his daughter — one of eight westerners from the aid organization Shelter Now being held by the fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan for preaching Christianity.

Then, he trudges over to the Afghan Embassy to see if there is any word of her fate. So far, he's received only one letter from her, and it offered no details about her condition or whereabouts.

Then he heads over to the Marriott Hotel, where the world's press corps is camped, to roam the halls in a hopeful effort to revive a story that has fallen off the map since the destruction of the World Trade Center.

By early evening he returns to the motel he has made home to watch the events of the day on television before falling into a fitful sleep. "I could do other things here," he told Fox News, "but, given the situation, doing anything else doesn't seem right."

A struggle that seemed merely extraordinary before the attack now approaches the impossible. Heather, along with fellow American Dayna Curry, 29, and six people from Germany and Australia, face anything from expulsion to a jail term to death for the charges facing them.

Mercer – along with his ex-wife and Heather’s mother, Deborah Oddy – has hired an attorney, an expert in Islamic law from Pakistan, to represent his daughter. The lawyer has a visa to visit her, but he's leery of venturing into the country with the threat of war looming.

He knows his daughter has been moved to a new location, but he is unsure of where or what the conditions are like in the new location. He was hoping the Taliban might release her as a goodwill gesture, but now thinks that is unlikely. By singling Heather and her colleagues out in his speech last week, Mercer believes President Bush may have upped her value as a pawn for the Taliban.

There is still no word on when the Taliban's religious court will take up the case, and no one is expecting one soon amid the calls to arms coming from the Taliban’s religious leaders.

Mercer holds out hope that the Taliban will live up to the tenets of their Islamic faith and not harm his daughter. Fueling that faith these days are those regular visits to the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad where Mercer says he is met with hospitality and genuine concern.

"And they have promised that the situation will be resolved satisfactorily," he says, almost wistfully. "They are trying to figure out a way to resolve the situation in the least harmful way."

He recalls with a shudder the day, September 11, that turned this almost surreal struggle of his even more bizarre.

He had visited with his daughter and had taken her some food. When he got back to the United Nations compound, where he was staying, the BBC was flashing images of one of the Trade centers ablaze.

"We thought it was an accident. Then I saw the other plane hit. I knew right then the situation for us had changed," the retired Marine said, drawing another cigarette from a battered box.
Two days later, he and every other westerner in Afghanistan were forced to leave. He says he tried to stay, but there was no place he could live once the U.N. compound closed.

"My daughter knows I would have stayed but I couldn't. Now I am here and I will be here as long as it takes."