MILLERSBURG, Ohio (BP) – Personal accounts of Anabaptist hostages who escaped a radical Haitian gang have been revealed amid varying reports of the gang reneging on a ransom paid anonymously.
Sam Stoltzfus, a Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) missionary from Pennsylvania among those kidnapped, holds to his account that the Lord hindered the gang and guided the hostages through perhaps 10 miles of cumbersome terrain before they reached a main highway last Dec. 16 as the sun rose.
“We would try to find the path of least resistance through the briars and thorns and cactus plants,” Stoltzfus said, “and we would be praying, ‘Lord, help us to get through this thicket.’ It was a very trying time.”
Stoltzfus’ three-hour account is more extensive than but not contradictory to that of Phillip Mast, Christian Aid Ministries Haiti Country Supervisor.
Mast’s 20-minute account, delivered Dec. 26 at Mt. Moriah Mennonite Church in Crossville, Tenn., tells of a ransom being paid before the hostages escaped. Stoltzfus never mentions a ransom in his account. Mast indicated the ransom might have been for the first hostages released in November, but details of any ransom were not revealed.
“In the course of this whole thing, there was Christian Aid Ministries’ no-ransom policy,” Mast said. “But also in the course of the situation, there was a donor who offered to take the negotiations and deal with the situation, and so CAM accepted that offer, and it was turned over to another party to deal with it, and so one of the questions that I’m sure comes up is, was ransom paid?
“The first release was because of sickness, the second release was also in part due to the large sores that the two ladies had, but the truth of the matter was that the deal had been made,” Mast said. “Yes, there was ransom paid, but I don’t think they had the intention of releasing the prisoners.
“And herein lies the miracle for me,” the CAM worker said, “the fact that the money was paid but nothing happened ‘til almost two weeks later. And we had the miraculous escape that you just heard.”
Haitian police and other officials helped the escaped hostages return to CAM headquarters in Millersburg, Ohio, the same day of their escape, according to reports.
In the midst of the many Amish and Mennonite communities embracing varying social orders in small-town Millersburg, lone Southern Baptist pastor Mike Harding leads Regeneration Church. Harding estimates Millersburg’s population of about 3,200 people is 60 percent Amish.
Harding led his congregation in praying for the 17 kidnapped missionaries as the ordeal unfolded last fall, but was not able to conduct outreaches to the communities. He has worked the past couple of years to share the Gospel there, traversing a tightrope of cultural rules strangling Christian witness among Anabaptist sects.
“It really is a challenging missiological situation in that nobody’s engaged them in the way that we’ve been engaging them,” Harding said.
The hostages give varying accounts of their escape on recordings at PlainNews.org, an Anabaptist information website. The Associated Press, reporting the website’s address Thursday (Jan. 6), said the AP learned of the recordings a week ago.
Stoltzfus gave the most detailed accounts of the kidnapping and escape, including a near-three-hour testimony before an Amish congregation. The hostages jumped a ravine, made their way along a lake and stopped every few steps in the thickets of cacti extending high above their heads to pick thorns from their skin, Stoltzfus said.
When they escaped, five hostages had already been released. Stoltzfus said he assumed the initial hostages were released because they were sickened by numerous boils on their skin caused by microscopic parasites in the bath water the captors provided. According to Stoltzfus, the parasites entered their skin around festering mosquito bites.
Otherwise, Stoltzfus surmised the gang treated him and other hostages relatively well, giving them noodles in the morning, beans and rice in the evening, bags of clean drinking water, and formula for a baby who was eight months old when they escaped. A generator powered a fan to cool the room where they were held.
When Stoltzfus and the others reached a main highway in Haiti the morning of their escape, two Christian men loaned them a phone to call the Christian Aid Ministries office in Haiti.
Initial reports of the hostage’s safety indicated their captors, the violent 400 Mawozo gang, did not indicate a ransom had been paid. At one point, the gang demanded $1 million each to free the hostages.
The gang kidnapped the 17 hostages by hijacking their van on the road, Stoltzfus said. The CAM missionaries had been ministering at an orphanage in Haiti, where nearly half of the country is described as food-insecure.