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Kidnapped by a gang at gunpoint, his two months in captivity, and the incredible escape

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - A gang kidnapped Austin Smucker, 27, while he was on a missionary trip to Haiti. He spent two months in captivity while his parents, Laura and John Smucker, prayed from their home in Madras.

An ordeal that would demoralize most of us seems to have invigorated Austin Smucker of Madras. "I believed in prayer when I went down there," says Smucker, "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; people around the country fasted and prayed for their delivery.

The abduction

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 the to follow the ringleader, and when he didn't drive fast enough…"They opened the driver's door and pulled Dale out. One of them slapped him across his face, grabbed him and took him to the vehicle behind us," recalls Smucker. "We felt like we were never going to see him again. We didn't know where they were going to take him."Then 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," says Smucker. The driver did rejoin the group, but those first few days disoriented Smucker.

"They wanted all our money and our phones. They told us they would kill us if we were hiding anything," says Smucker, "but they were drunk or on drugs. So, I don't know if they meant that."

The gang missed $1500 Haitian, worth about $15 US, 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 CAM for $1 million a head for a total of $17 million. CAM has a policy against paying ransoms. Captivity

So the hostages waited. For two months. They had no idea people around the world prayed for them, and fasted. Smucker says the fear eased off. "They (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 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," Smucker says, "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 the captives in the next room. Those prisoners were bound hand and foot. They weren't Americans. Smucker thinks his group may have gotten better treatment because they were Americans.

PMG PHOTO: PAT KRUIS - At first Austin Smucker was one of the most outspoken against escaping from their captors. Once convinced God had told them to leave, he was among the most enthusiastic about escaping. The twelve hostages, including two toddlers, left their compound in darkness and hiked for 10 hours before finally reaching safety.

The escape

Throughout the experience, the topic of escape came up. Smucker says 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 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."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, 3 years, they embarked on a peculiar adventure with obstacles worthy of Pilgrim's Progress:— the canal, which some jumped and most waded, only to find a bridge 500 yards downstream— the lake, which they had to walk around— the deep dark forest of thorns, through which they bushwhacked for two hours, dodging two-inch spikes and jumping cacti — the 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 money from their diaper bag stash. "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 saw a father greeting 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," says Smucker, "a small taste of what it will be like when Jesus comes back a second time."

The ransom

While Smucker says CAM stayed true to its policy to not pay ransoms to kidnappers, someone did pay a ransom. He doesn't know who, and he doesn't know how much. But Smucker understands his group stayed imprisoned even after the agreed upon sum had been paid. The gang's leader is serving a life prison term. Conversations with Smucker's guards led him to believe the gang used the missionary group as leverage to free their leader from prison. 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 is uncertain if the guards released the suffering hostages for money or out of compassion.

The kidnappers

"I don't have any feelings of anger toward the guards," says Smucker. "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."Smucker hopes the guards caught a glimpse of grace when his group prayed and sang together."According to the guards' standards we were the ones who should have been miserable and complaining because we weren't free," says Smucker. "Jesus gives us that freedom and the guards were in captivity to Satan. They were miserable and complaining. We were happy." This was not Smucker's first mission trip and it won't be his last. 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."


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