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Released aid worker, Jeff Woodke, kept his faith despite brutality from captors

05 April 2023


Jeff Woodke speaking this week, accompanied by his wife, Els

Jeff Woodke speaking this week, accompanied by his wife, Els

AN AMERICAN aid worker, Jeff Woodke, held hostage by Islamists in West Africa for six years before his release last month, has said that he was “treated brutally”, but was unable to give up on his faith.

Mr Woodke, a former head of Jemed, a charity supported by Tearfund and affiliated to Youth With A Mission, was speaking alongside his wife, Els, and their pastor, Dennis Maguire at a press conference in his home town, McKinleyville, California, on 31 March.

Mr Woodke, who was abducted from the town of Abalak, in Niger, in October 2016, walked with a crutch and wore an orthotic boot on his right foot and a brace on his left knee.

He said that he was held by Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Mali. “I was treated brutally and with inhumanity,” he said. “I was beaten and held continually in chains for 16 hours a day, every day, seven days a week. I was kept in isolation; I suffered injuries and illnesses which were never medically treated.”

He recounted that, on 20 March, “special forces from a third-party nation” met him at a release point “in a remote desert location”. He was released with a French journalist, Olivier Dubois, whom, Mr Woodke said, he had met only a few days earlier.

He said that, after his fifth year in captivity, he “lost all hope” and went on hunger strike to demand better treatment and communication with “my family and my country”. This resulted in his being shown a video of his family, and receiving a message to them late last year.

He said that, initially, he had prayed for up to eight hours a day, having to walk in circles because he was in a confined space. When he gave up hope in the last year of his ordeal, he tried to give up praying, but was unable to. “I could not give up on faith. No matter how angry I got, I couldn’t give up,” he explained. “You might end up at the end of your faith as a human being, but faith is a funny thing: it stays with you whether you like it or not.”

Mr Woodke, who is receiving physiotherapy and treatment for gastro-intestinal problems as a result of his captivity, said that he wanted to work towards the release of seven remaining foreign hostages held in the Sahel, mostly in Mali: a German priest, an Australian, three Italians, a Romanian, and a South African. He declined to comment on the kidnappers’ motives, saying that an investigation by the FBI was ongoing.

The priest, Fr Hans Joachim Lohre, was reported missing from the Malian capital, Bamako, last November. An Australian missionary surgeon, Ken Elliott, who is in his eighties, was kidnapped in Burkina Faso in 2016; and two Italian Jehovah’s Witnesses and their child were abducted in Mali last year.

Mr Woodke named a Romanian man, Iulian Ghergut, and said that he had been close to him, although they had not been allowed to converse. According to France 24 news, Mr Ghergut is a mineworker. Gerco van Deventer, a South African paramedic, was kidnapped in Libya in 2017, and his family have launched a fresh appeal for his release since that of Mr Woodke and M. Dubois.

“I will . . . continue to co-operate with authorities to bring these monsters to justice and help get the other people out, because they’re living in hell,” Mr Woodke said.

He expressed “high praise” of the Biden administration for its successful efforts to repatriate him. His release late last month followed a visit to the region by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and the announcement of a $150-million aid package to the Sahel region. US officials said that the US government paid no ransom for Mr Woodke’s release.

The Sahel, which includes much of the Sahara desert, has been increasingly dominated by an Islamist insurgency in recent years. In addition, a report by Reporters Without Borders this week noted the presence of the Russian mercenary Wagner group in the region.

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