BERLIN, Ohio — After weeks of being held in captivity in Haiti, the remaining 12 of 17 people held captive by gang members were reunited over the weekend with their fellow missionaries.
Officials say the missionaries with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries made a daring escape from their kidnappers in the middle of the night last week.
Weston Showalter, a spokesperson for Christian Aid Ministries, detailed the moment the 17 missionaries were taken hostage, their experiences in captivity and the day they decided to go forth with their plan to escape.
The day of the kidnapping started when a Haitian man invited them to visit an orphanage previously frequented by members of the Christian Aid Ministries organization. After traveling about an hour and a half by car to reach the orphanage, missionaries stayed at the facility for several hours. Hostages described it as a "good day."
However, just a few minutes into their trip back to the Christian Aid Ministries base, the missionaries approached a roadblock and attempted to turn the van around. That's when a pickup truck cut them off, and they realized they were being kidnapped.
Gang members of the 400 Mawozo gang surrounded the van, blocking it in front and back with their vehicles. Showalter said despite some reports that the driver was Haitian, he was Canadian and part of the missionary group.
The missionaries said they drove for some time until the kidnappers became frustrated with the missionary driver's inability to keep up with them. The kidnappers separated him from the group, though the driver eventually reunited with the group at the location where they were held captive.
The kidnappers brought the 17 missionaries to a small house, where they were held in an approximately 10-foot by 12-foot room.
Held in captivity
The first night was almost sleepless as the missionaries endured mosquito bites and extreme heat, Showalter said. Since there wasn't sufficient space to sleep, some group members stood while others slept on the few mattresses provided to them.
After a few days in captivity, Showalter said the missionaries' days developed a pattern.
Their days started with worshiping, prayer and singing. Most days, they spent hours speaking encouraging words and singing songs until about noon.
Showalter said the hostages were allowed to spend some time outside.
Each day, kidnappers provided hostages a Haitian breakfast of spaghetti, and each missionary was given a half hard-boiled egg. At around 1 p.m., the missionaries held a special prayer meeting, which entailed asking for God's guidance and asking to be released.
The missionaries were given rice and beans with fish sauce in the evening. On Thanksgiving, they were given a Haitian stew. One of the kidnappers told Showalter that it was a particularly difficult day and that he wrote a letter to his family because he wasn't sure if he would ever see them again.
The missionaries were often still hungry, so they took advantage of fresh coconuts. The kidnappers provided large amounts of baby food for the children. The guards enjoyed talking to the children, Showalter said.
During their time in captivity, they were relocated several times.
While there was access to clean drinking water, getting enough for the group was a constant challenge. The water used to bathe was extremely contaminated, causing some missionaries to develop sores where they had mosquito bites.
The group would boil water with ashes as a remedy to soak their feet.
The group said the kidnappers often "spent hours" wiring fans to cool the group, but the fans only ran for a couple of hours on most nights.
The 17 missionaries were not the only hostages being held by the gang. Other groups were held in different rooms. The Christian Aid Ministries group did what they could to extend kindness by sharing food and water when possible.
The group developed an around-the-clock prayer schedule, with each taking turns in 30-minute intervals to pray.
The release and the escape
The first two missionaries in the group were released on Nov. 21. On Dec. 6, three more hostages were released.
Showalter said it took a while for the other 12 hostages to agree to escape.
"The hostages were sensing God, nudging them to an attempt and escape. Over the time of their captivity, God gave various hostages a desire to attempt an escape," Showalter said. "Twice when they planned to escape, God gave clear signs that this was not the right time."
After discussing their plans, the group felt they should escape on the night of Dec. 15. They packed water in their clothes during the night and stacked their mattresses in the corner as they prepared to leave.
They managed to open the blocked door and left the room in a single file. Showalter said they saw a mountain they recognized in the distance before their escape and used that as a guide. The moon provided them with some light on their journey.
A baby who was among the kidnapped was wrapped in blankets for protection.
The group told Showalter that they traveled for approximately 10 miles on foot, navigating rugged wooded terrain with briars and thorns.
During the entire escape, they were in gang territory, Showalter said. After hours of walking, the day turned to dawn, and they found someone who helped them make a phone call.
Later that day, they flew on a Coast Guard flight to Florida, reuniting with other hostages.
"They were finally free. Finally free. Thanks be to God," Showalter said.
This story was originally published by Kaylyn Hlavaty on Scripps station WEWS in Cleveland.