South Korean Christians who endured six weeks as hostages of the Taliban in Afghanistan spent their first day at home yesterday, reuniting with loved ones, getting medical checks and praying together.
The 19 former hostages, let go in stages last week under a deal between Taliban insurgents and the South Korean government, arrived early in the day on an overnight flight from Dubai.
Looking exhausted and confused, they bowed before TV cameras in a brief appearance at the airport before being whisked away to a hospital in Anyang, just south of Seoul, where they were expected to spend at least a couple of weeks.
Upon meeting loved ones, the former hostages and their families broke into tears, exchanging hugs and caresses. Sometimes pained expressions, however, gradually gave way to smiles.
"I still can't believe my wife really came back home alive," said Rhu Haeng-sik, husband of Kim Yoon-young. He said their two children were "really happy to be embraced by their mother."
Their ordeal began on 19 July, when the group of 23 volunteers from a suburban Seoul church was abducted at gunpoint while on their way to do aid work in the southern city of Kandahar.
The Taliban killed two men, one a church pastor, in the early stages of the crisis because, they said, their demand for the release of imprisoned fighters was not met.
Two female hostages were freed and returned last month after direct talks were launched with South Korea's government. The 19 remaining South Koreans left Afghanistan on Friday.
"We appreciate the Korean people for helping us to return to our families," said Yoo Kyung-shik, the oldest of the group and who acted as spokesman at the airport. "We owe a big debt to the nation and people."
Some of the hostages have spoken broadly of their captivity since being released, including how they were kept apart, regularly moved around to different locations and the general conditions in which they were held.
They also came under pressure to renounce their faith and convert to Islam, a pastor at theirchurch said.
"Some of the hostages were badly beaten by refusing the Taliban's demand to convert," Park Eun-jo, a pastor at the Presbyterian Saemmul Community Church, said, citing the hostages' own stories.
Mr Park also said that the Taliban tried to sexually assault some of the women, but that two of the male hostages fought them off.
Fighting back tears, Mr Yoo, who spoke at the airport, also expressed condolences to the families of the two hostages who were killed. Their relatives, holding photos of their lost loved ones, appeared with the former hostages.
He also apologiaed to South Koreans for the trouble that ensued from their ordeal, apparently referring to efforts made by the government to achieve their freedom and the grief and anxiety caused to their loved ones and the nation as a whole.
Many in South Korea have criticised the group for ignoring government warnings discouraging travel to Afghanistan, where the radical Taliban have been engaged in an insurgency against the new government formed after the group's downfall in late 2001.
At the reunion, family members recalled how worried they had been. "I thought you would be killed," Cheon Kwang-sil, 77, told her granddaughter Lee Young-kyung, who at 22 was the youngest of the hostages. "I told you not to go there."
Ms Lee, thin and pale with hands marked by insect bites, said she spent 20 days of the captivity in a cellar. "I was really scared the whole time," she said, adding she was unable to eat well. "I drank water from a stream."
Critics in South Korea also say the trip sullied the country's international reputation by forcing the government to negotiate directly with the Taliban – a move seen in South Korea as a violation of international principles regarding contact with terrorists.
Mr Yoo tried to offer an explanation for why they made the trip. "We went there to realise and share the love we have received, albeit in a small way," he said, adding they now "resolve to live a life that meets public expectations, knowing that we escaped death".
The ex-hostages prayed at least twice during the day, once during the reunion with their families and again later at a special service at the hospital.