An American evangelical missionary who was recently freed after being held hostage by Islamic extremists in Africa for more than six years has given more details about his ordeal.
Jeff Woodke served in Niger for three decades until he was kidnapped from his home in the town of Abalak in October 2016. His captors killed two guards and when he tried to run away, they literally threw him into the back of a truck and drove towards the border with Mali.
He and his wife Els have shared previously unreported details about his captivity with the Associated Press.
Mr Woodke told how he was beaten, locked in chains beneath a tree and in a tiny hut for long hours in isolation every day and pressured repeatedly to convert to Islam as well as enduring self-imposed hunger strikes.
“It was hell. You ever had a lightning storm under a tree with chains on your feet? That’ll get you,” he reflected ruefully.
He kept track of time through a sundial during the day and stars at night, though he says he was given a watch near the end of his detention. He initially prayed for eight hours a day. That amount dwindled as time passed, when he began thinking about death because he didn’t want his family to suffer any longer.
American officials have said little about the circumstances of the missionary’s release, noting only that it was a collaborative effort and that the US government did not pay a ransom or make other concessions.
The Woodkes say their ordeal was compounded by years of frustrating interactions with the US government. They believe FBI officials withheld information and provided what they felt was inadequate help and guidance about raising money for a ransom. Just weeks before Jeff’s release, Els vented to Secretary of State Antony Blinken about a ransom process she asserted favoured the rich:
“I said, if it was you that had been kidnapped, you would be free in a week because your wife is free to take from your money and buy your freedom. Because you are rich, you can pay the ransom. But a poor person is never able to do that.”
The Associated Press writes that: “At a time when the plight of detained Americans is receiving more attention, the couple’s frustration represents a rare public airing of the delicate and tense interactions that often precede a detainee’s release.”
The FBI said it had worked “tirelessly” to bring Mr. Woodke home and was happy he was reunited with his family: “We are committed to continuing to support Jeff and his family.”
Since he returned home to his home in McKinleyville, California, the missionary has struggled with serious leg injuries and steep bills for medical and dental treatment. He said he hasn’t felt sufficiently helped by the government, although he says the office of the State Department’s special envoy for hostage affairs has provided support. There are plans to raise money from friends and supporters to offset the cost of mounting expenses.
Jeff Woodke said this on behalf of others still held hostage: “We’re not things, we’re not bargaining chips, we’re not cases — we’re people. We don’t want to sit under trees in chains. Our families don’t want to have to suffer.”