A GRISLY account of torture in Taleban prisons was given yesterday by four recently freed German aid workers held hostage for 101 days.

Cruel games with a gun, maggoty food and regular parades of the women before their guards were part of life behind bars for the captives.

The women prisoners were a source of fascination for the jailers and their commanders. Every evening members of the Taleban Foreign Ministry, accompanied by a clutch of bearded strangers, would visit the cells and demand that the women stand by the bars. Wordlessly, they would stare at the women from head to toe. The prisoners — who were never touched or abused — called the session “zoo time”.

The youngest of the German prisoners, Kati Jellinek, 29, was blonde and of particular interest to the Taleban. When she was arrested, five men with Kalashnikovs demanded that she pack, unpack and repack her underwear.

Speaking for the first time since their release last week of the terror that they endured, the German aid workers’ accounts contradicted their previous claims that they had been well treated.

For up to nine hours at a time, Margit Stebner, 43, was forced to sit in a cell in the Taleban secret police headquarters in Kabul. An official raised a pistol and shot into the wall 20 inches from her ear.

Sometimes a seven-hour interrogation would deal only with a handful of questions, Silke Dürrkopf told Stern magazine. Did she establish a religious school for street children? What did she discuss with Afghans? Why did Afghans help her charity? Male and female prisoners were separated. Georg Taubmann, 45, the team leader, was in a cell with thieves awaiting amputation of their hands. Some prisoners had open wounds from their heavy chains; others were deranged from torture and fear.

Herr Taubmann helped Mohammad Hashim, who was in jail because he was the grandson of a tribal leader with the Northern ********. Mr Hashim was given “100 cables” — that is, he was beaten 100 times with a piece of thick electric cord. Herr Taubmann helped to treat his wounds. In return Mr Hashim was able to pass on items from the BBC news. A radio was smuggled into the cell, letters were smuggled out.

Until September the women shared their cell with 40 Afghan women, many of whom were suffering from dysentery. While other foreign prisoners received regular letters, the Germans were often given no more than empty envelopes. Eventually the male and female prisoners were allowed to meet for meals. One of the prisoners recalled seeing a worm wriggling out of the mouth of an American prisoner, Heather Mercer, 24, probably the result of infested food.

Eight workers — four Germans, two Americans and two Australians — from the charity Shelter Now were arrested on August 5, accused of trying to spread Christianity. If found guilty they could have been publicly stoned to death. They were freed on November 15 during the Taleban retreat, dumped in a steel container on the road to Kandahar, freed by the Northern ********, handed to the Red Cross and flown by helicopter to Pakistan by American commandos. All are recovering in a German clinic.

Even the male prisoners fascinated the Taleban. On one occasion Herr Taubmann was called to the director’s office to be inspected by a mullah. Outside bombs were exploding and Herr Taubmann was sure that he was about to be shot. Instead the mullah merely sat and silently studied the German before waving him back to his cell. Later Herr Taubmann discovered that the man was the Energy Minister.

The Shelter Now team members deny that they were evangelists. They are committed Christians, but apart from a children’s Bible and a single religious video they had no Christian material with them.

Herr Taubmann says that the Taleban probably wanted to plunder the charity. Vehicles, radios, computers and several hundred thousand dollars disappeared a day after their arrest.