The 12 missionaries who were freed from captivity in Haiti last week had staged a dramatic escape Wednesday night, making their way past guards and traveling on foot for about 10 miles while carrying two small children, their missionary organization said Monday.
“They found a way to open the door that was closed and blocked, filed silently to the path that they had chosen to follow and quickly left the place that they were held, despite the fact that numerous guards were close by,” Weston Showalter, the spokesperson for Christian Aid Ministries, said at a news briefing at the organization’s home office in Ohio, recounting the story for the first time.
The account of the escape comes solely from the U.S. missionary group. The police and government officials in Haiti did not respond to requests for comment on the incident. The FBI declined to comment beyond an earlier statement expressing gratitude for the safe release of the hostages.
The ordeal began two months ago, when the group was kidnapped by a gang called 400 Mawozo in a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince after visiting an orphanage. Gang members surrounded its van, penning the missionaries in with two vehicles, and then took them to a small house. The missionaries were held in a small room, about 10 by 12 feet, Showalter said.
The group that escaped included a married couple, a 10-month-old baby, a 3-year-old child, a 14-year-old girl, a 15-year-old boy, four men and two women, he said. Five other members of the group had been released during the past month.
For days, Showalter said, the missionaries prayed that God would reveal the right moment for their escape.
Twice when they planned to flee, God told them to wait, he said. But on Wednesday night, the missionaries put on their shoes and packed water in their clothes. They used a mountain as a landmark and followed the light of the moon and “the sure guidance of the stars,” he said.
As daylight broke, they found someone to help them make a phone call. Later that day, they were on a Coast Guard flight to Florida.
“They were finally free,” Showalter said, through tears.
It was not clear how the missionaries escaped their guards after weeks of being held captive under close watch.
The organization said that an unspecified ransom had been provided but did not describe the money as leading directly to the hostages’ freedom. Instead David N. Troyer, general director of Christian Aid Ministries, said that “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.”
Some people, who were not identified, “provided funds to pay a ransom and allow the negotiation process to continue,” Troyer said. “We are not able to say anything further in respect to these negotiations.”
A State Department spokesperson would not comment on the episode but noted that the U.S. government doesn’t pay ransoms. A person familiar with the negotiations said a third party paid the ransom, not the U.S. government.
Pierre Espérance, a prominent human rights defender in Haiti, said the missionaries’ description of their experience was very unusual — mass kidnappings in the past have been resolved by the payment of a ransom.
Kidnapping has become the main security threat in Haiti over the past year, as the country slipped deeper into an economic and political crisis. Faced with a power vacuum after the death of President Jovenel Moïse in July, and with a rapidly shrinking legal economy, gangs in the capital of Port-au-Prince have increasingly resorted to kidnapping for ransom to finance themselves, targeting even pastors in their churches and doctors fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
The gang that kidnapped the Christian Aid Ministries group also held other hostages in the same building, Showalter said, and the missionaries tried to talk with them through the walls, or share food and water with them. The group sang, prayed and recited Scripture verses throughout the days and nights.
The captors provided “large amounts of baby food” for the small children, he said, and the adults received small portions of food, including things like half a hard-boiled egg, or rice and beans with a fish sauce. They had limited access to clean drinking water and some hygiene items, but the water they received to bathe in was “severely contaminated,” he said, and some people developed “festering sores.”
The hostages spoke to the gang leader on several occasions, he said, and warned him of God’s eventual judgment if he and the gang members continued their behavior.
“Although they were threatened on multiple occasions and even wondered if death was near in some cases, none of the hostages were physically hurt or abused by the kidnappers,” he said.