BERLIN, Ohio — A dozen of the 17 U.S.-based missionaries kidnapped in Haiti escaped the street gang 400 Mawozo on Thursday after two months of captivity, their organization said Monday morning.
The 12 missionaries prepared overnight — putting on their shoes, packing water in their clothes and stacking their mattresses in a corner of the room where they were held, Weston Showalter, a spokesman for the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, told reporters.
“When they sensed the timing was right, 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,” he said.
The group, which included a 10-month-old infant and three other children, used the stars and a nearby mountain to orient them as they walked as far as 10 miles through woods and thickets, Showalter said. As dawn broke, they found someone who helped them make a phone call for help. They later flew on a Coast Guard flight to Florida, Showalter said.
Their escape came after three other missionaries were freed earlier this month and two were released in November. All of the hostages — 16 Americans and a Canadian — appeared to be doing “reasonably well” and most had returned to their families, Christian Aid Ministries officials said.
David Troyer, the organization’s general director, said people had given the group money to pay the $1 million per victim ransom demanded by the gang. He declined to say whether the organization ultimately paid money to the captors. The U.S. government has said that it does not pay ransom for hostages.
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The kidnappings drew international attention to the volatility in Haiti, a desperately poor nation battling endemic violence. The country now has the world’s highest per capita kidnapping rate and faces a lack of stable political leadership after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July.
The missionaries had gone to Haiti to help rebuild homes and roads and to install water systems after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the country in August.
Their trip became disastrous on Oct. 16 as they left an orphanage outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, and saw a roadblock ahead of them.
Before they could turn around, members of 400 Mawozo surrounded their van with their own vehicles, Showalter said. The gang members forced them to drive to a small house, where they were placed in an approximately 10-by-12-foot room.
In the weeks that followed, Showalter said, the hostages were relocated several times. They received basic hygiene items, water and food, including small amounts of corn mush, scrambled eggs, rice and beans, and baby food for the infants.
Among the captives were Matt Miller, 29, and his wife, Rachel Miller, 26.
“I had my qualms about them going. I felt there were safer places,” Matt’s father, Dan Miller, an Amish farmer in Walhonding, Ohio, said in an interview Monday evening. The couple were five months into a two-year stay in Haiti when, on Oct. 16, Matt sent his father an alarming message on WhatsApp: “Our driver was just kidnapped and we are being held hostage, pray, pray, pray for us.”
That was the last Miller, 55, and his wife, Frieda, would hear from their son for 37 days. During that time, “it was the fear of the unknown, and you just asked yourself, ‘How am I going to get through this day?’” Miller said.
Although the hostages had access to clean drinking water, Showalter said the water they used to bathe was contaminated and several missionaries developed sores where they had been bitten by mosquitoes.
Dan Miller said Matt has had various medical problems since he was a child and did not have his medication with him when he was kidnapped. This caused his ailments to worsen, and he lost 30 pounds. As the days dragged on he grew weaker. “He had a high fever, and sores,” the father said.
About halfway through their time in captivity, the missionaries set up a 24-hour prayer rotation. They talked and sang through the walls to encourage hostages from other groups, Showalter said. They also addressed their captors.
“The hostages spoke to the gang leader on several occasions, boldly reminding him of God and warning him of God’s eventual judgment if him and the gang members continue in their gangs,” Showalter said.
Ultimately, it was Rachel Miller’s transformation from a “shy, quiet” woman into someone much more daring that helped speed up the couple’s release, Dan Miller said. “The longer she was held, the more bold she got,” getting into the guards’ faces and begging for, then demanding, their release. “Matt’s health depended on it,” Dan Miller said. “He was deteriorating.”
Then one day, guards ordered the couple into a truck with three other machine-gun-toting people in the cab and four equally armed men in the bed, Dan said. They drove for hours on back roads and through several checkpoints before finally being dropped off at a missionary intermediary. Matt and Rachel Miller were then flown to Guantánamo Bay’s medical facilities and to freedom.
After their release, there would be another partial hostage release a week later. Then the rest of the group escaped Thursday.
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Showalter disputed reports from human rights groups that a Haitian man had been driving the missionaries when they were kidnapped and that he was still missing. The Canadian member of the group had been driving and is now free, Showalter said.
Christian Aid Ministries has said that its leadership and the missionaries forgive the gang members. “In our minds and theirs,” Showalter said, “the true hostages are the hostage-takers.”
The ministry group vowed not to stop serving in Haiti but said the kidnapping had taught its leaders that they needed to strengthen their safety protocols and better inform missionaries about the dangers they faced.
“While the present conditions in Haiti make it very difficult to operate there, we do not want to abandon the Haitian people at what is perhaps their greatest hour of need,” Troyer said. “There will be a pause, no doubt.”
Christian Aid Ministries is primarily made up of Amish, Mennonite and other Anabaptist people — a large portion of the population in Holmes County, Ohio, where the organization is based. Volunteers there host an annual auction to raise money for local groups that serve in Haiti, said Nelson Miller, a Mennonite who helps organize the event.
Most of the Amish missionaries to Haiti are part of the New Order, a subgroup of the Amish church in which some people use some modern technology. While New Order Amish typically dress conservatively and use horse-and-buggies to travel, like their Old Order counterparts, Miller said they tend to be willing to fly by plane to Haiti to serve.
“God works in mysterious ways, he had a protecting hand over everyone,” Dan Miller said.
Williams reported from Holmes County, Ohio, and Iati from Washington.
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