PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — Being kidnapped in a foreign country would demoralize most people. But it seems to have invigorated Austin Smucker of Madras.
“I believed in prayer when I went down there,” Smucker told the Madras Pioneer, sister publication to the Portland Tribune, “but I believe in prayer more since I came back.”
Smucker, 27, a construction worker, went to Haiti in October with Christian Aid Ministries to rebuild homes after the August earthquake there. Before they even began, Smucker and 16 of his fellow missionaries, including three children, stepped into a bizarre trap that thrust them into the national spotlight, as people around the country fasted and prayed for their delivery.
Returning from visiting an orphanage, the missionaries’ van encountered a roadblock. The quick-thinking driver pulled a U-turn, only to be cutoff by gun-toting gangsters. Trapped, the driver was forced to follow the ringleader.
When he didn’t drive fast enough, “They opened the driver’s door and pulled Dale out,” Smucker said. “One of them slapped him across his face, grabbed him and took him to the vehicle behind us.
“We felt like we were never going to see him again. We didn’t know where they were going to take him.”
One of the gang members took the driver’s seat, speeding down the rocky dirt road. “I think I spent more time with my hair plastered to the top of the van than I did with my rear on the seat I was supposed to be sitting on,” Smucker said.
The driver did rejoin the group, but Smucker said those first few days were disorienting.
“They wanted all our money and our phones. They told us they would kill us if we were hiding anything,” Smucker said, “but they were drunk or on drugs. So, I don’t know if they meant that.”
The gang missed 1,500 Haitian gourds — worth about $15 in U.S. currency — tucked inside a diaper bag. That money became useful later.
The kidnappers stuffed 17 hostages, including three children, in a 10 by 12 foot room and gave them a price tag. The captors asked Christian Aid Ministries for $1 million per head for a total of $17 million.
The aid agency has a policy against paying ransoms.
So the hostages waited. For two months.
They had no idea people around the world prayed and fasted for them, Smucker said.
As the fear eased off, the gangsters “would cock the guns in front of us expecting to see us cower in fear. But we didn’t because the worst they could do was shoot us and we’d go to heaven,” he said.
Smucker said he didn’t believe their captors would kill them. “They kept bringing us stuff that didn’t make sense to bring us if they were planning to kill us later,” he said, “food and mattresses, couches, box fans wired to a generator so we’d have air going inside the room.”
The food wasn’t great or plentiful: spaghetti in fish sauce for breakfast, rice and beans for dinner. They didn’t starve, but Smucker lost 20 pounds in two months.
The missionaries smuggled food to other captives in the next room. Those prisoners were bound hand and foot, and they weren’t Americans. Smucker said he thinks his group may have gotten better treatment because they were Americans.
Throughout the experience, the topic of escape came up. Smucker said, at first, he was one of the most outspoken against escape, until one of his fellow captives convinced him God told him the time had come to leave.
Smucker told the Madras Pioneer he wanted the group to rely solely on God for their safety. “We’ll open the door and just walk out in full plain site of the guards and just leave. And if God wants us to leave he’ll blind their eyes and they won’t see us,” he said.
The group had smuggled in a stick to shove away the stone and the post holding the door that blocked them in. Then the team lined up single file, and, with the guards just on the other side of the house, the group slipped across the yard and through a hedge that shielded them from view. It took them less than a minute.
A spiritual journey
The group left at 2:30 in the morning. Confident their guards would not notice their absence until daylight, the group figured they had three or four hours to establish a safe distance. A full moon lighted their way.
With two children in tow (ages 10 months and 3 years) they embarked on a peculiar adventure with obstacles worthy of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” — a canal, which some jumped and most waded, only to find a bridge 500 yards downstream; a lake, which they had to walk around; a deep, dark forest of thorns, through which they bushwhacked for two hours, dodging two-inch spikes and jumping cacti; a cow path, which they took instead of the road to avoid discovery At each crossroads they circled and prayed to get God’s direction.
Sometime after sunrise they decided to be bold and ask for help. In the middle of gang territory they had no way of knowing who might help them, or who might turn them over to their captors.
The first person they approached pointed to a home where someone had a phone.
That person was willing, but had no minutes on the phone. The missionaries handed him Haitian money from their diaper bag stash, telling him, “Buy yourself some minutes and keep the change.”
Finally, after two months in confinement, and 10 hours on foot, the group called the mission’s Haiti field director. Moments later they were rescued.
Smucker said saw a father who greeted them at the compound dance and yodel with joy to see his four captive children, whom he hadn’t seen in 62 days . “The reunion was absolutely amazing,” Smucker said.
While Smucker says Christian Aid Ministries stayed true to its policy to not pay ransoms to kidnappers, someone did pay a ransom. He says he doesn’t know who, and he doesn’t know how much. But Smucker understands that his group stayed imprisoned even after the agreed upon sum had been paid.
The gang’s leader is serving a life term in prison, and conversations with Smucker’s guards led him to believe the gang used the missionary group as leverage to free their leader. The captives escaped before that happened. On two occasions, the gang released some of the original 17 hostages: first a married couple, he had a severe infection that could lead to death if left untreated; then two women and a child; the women had several infected sores over their skin. Smucker said he’s uncertain if the guards released the suffering hostages for money or out of compassion.
“I don’t have any feelings of anger toward the guards,” Smucker said. “To them, it’s their job. It’s how they make their money, by kidnapping people. And these guards had to keep us from escaping.”
This was not Smucker’s first mission trip and it won’t be his last, he said. If anything, the experience energized his enthusiasm.
“If Satan was attempting to scare me from ever wanting to go on another mission he was totally unsuccessful.”
KOIN 6 News and Portland Tribune are media partners.