THE story of the dramatic escape of 12 missionaries held hostage after being kidnapped by an armed gang in Haiti in October (News, 22 October, 29 October), was told by a spokesman of their organisation on Monday.
Weston Showalter, of Christian Aid Ministries, described how the group, which included a ten-month-old baby, had walked up to ten miles through the night on Wednesday 15 December, after escaping the house in which they had been held for two months.
An earlier statement, issued last Friday by the charity’s general director, David Troyer, said that the 12 had been “freed” and thanked the US government “and all others who assisted in the safe return of our hostages”.
On Monday, Mr Troyer said that the charity had “grappled for many hours over the proper course of action. . . Other people who sought to help us provided funds to pay a ransom and allow the negotiation process to continue. As you can imagine we are not able to say anything further in respect to these negotiations. . .
“After many days of waiting and no action on the part of the kidnappers, God worked in a miraculous way to enable the hostages to escape.”
The group behind the kidnapping, the 400 Mawozo gang, demanded a ransom of $1 million (£740,000) for each of the 17 hostages taken on 16 October. Five were released on 20 November and 5 December. The release of the remaining 12 followed weeks of negotiations, a police spokesman, Gary Desrosiers, told the AFP news agency. The effort also involved the FBI.
Picking up the story from Mr Troyer, speaking in front of a large banner quoting from St John’s Gospel (“If the son makes you free, you shall be free indeed”), Mr Showalter attributed the group’s “deliverance” to God.
“Over the time of their captivity, God gave various hostages a desire to attempt an escape,” he said. “But it took a while for all of them to agree on when and how that could take place. . . On several occasions they planned an escape, but they had decided that, if specific things didn’t happen at specific times, they had determined as a group they would accept that as God’s direction to wait.”
On the night of 15 December, they found themselves united in discerning God’s call to leave, he said. They had left despite the presence of guards close by and “followed the sure guidance of the stars as they journeyed through the night travelling towards safety”.
The group, which carried the baby wrapped in blankets, as well as a three-year-old boy, walked for miles through woods, thickets, thorns, and briars, “through gang territory”, praying for God’s direction, Mr Showalter said. After dawn, they found someone who helped them to call for assistance. Things moved quickly, and they flew by coastguard flight to Florida later that day.
The kidnapped missionaries had gone to Haiti to help with the recovery effort after the earthquake in August, which killed more than 2000 people and left tens of thousands homeless (News, 20 August, 27 August) among other projects. Most were there on “multi-year commitments”, rather than short-term missions, Mr Troyer said on Monday.
Christian Aid Ministries, which describes itself as “a channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world”, has been operating in Haiti for 30 years, working in education, health care, work programmes, housing, ministerial training, and the provision of Christian literature.
The 17 people had been kidnapped after visiting an orphanage supported by the charity. In an account of their time in captivity, Mr Showalter described how they had initially been housed in a small room, ten by 12 feet, and were relocated several times. Although they were allowed to go outside each day, and were provided with food, clean water, basic hygiene items, fans, and “large amounts” of baby food, water for washing was contaminated, and many had developed “festering sores”. None was physically hurt or abused, despite threats. Mr Troyer said on Monday that all were now doing “reasonably well”.
They had spent their time worshipping, singing, and praying: “Their solid faith in the Lord Jesus helped carry them through dark and difficult days,” Mr Showalter said. They had also shared their faith with their captors and other hostages held near by.
The hostages had reported “intense spiritual warfare”, with one recalling: “We often heard voodoo drums at night and saw other signs of overt Satanic worship. Twice the powers of darkness and light clashed in loud conflict but, praise the Lord, we’ve got the power in the name of Jesus.”
In a message to the kidnappers, Mr Troyer said: “We do not know all of the challenges you face. We do believe that violence and oppression of others can never be justified. You caused our hostages and their families a lot of suffering.
“However, Jesus taught us by word and by his own example that the power of forgiving love is stronger than the hate of violent force. Therefore, we extend forgiveness to you.”
In a more general message to the people of Haiti, Mr Troyer said that the charity “desires to continue to walk with you in the future as best we can”. The kidnapping had engendered “a heightened awareness of the need to strengthen our safety protocols and better instruct our people about the dangers involved. . . We do not want to abandon the Haitian people in what is perhaps their greatest hour of need. There will be a pause, no doubt.”
Hundreds of people have been kidnapped in Haiti this year, and armed gangs have been growing in power since the assassination in July of President Jovenel Moïse (News, 16 July).
The 400 Mawozo gang kidnapped five priests and two nuns in April, holding them for three weeks and reportedly subjecting them to harsh conditions that included depriving them of food (News, 16 April). Roman Catholic schools and universities in Haiti closed in protest, and the seven were eventually released.