Smucker

Austin Smucker, 27, returned home to Madras after two months in captivity in Haiti at the hands of a notoriously violent gang. He was in Haiti on a mission to rebuild houses destroyed by the August earthquake there.

After a two-month ordeal, ending in a harrowing escape, Austin Smucker, 27, is home in Madras for Christmas.

"God is good!" says his mother, Laura Smucker. "He's home but very tired. He needs time to recuperate."

Smucker was on a mission to rebuild homes destroyed by the August earthquake in Haiti when, on Oct. 16, a roadblock stopped them, then a pickup cut off their escape. The notoriously violent 400 Mawozo gang took Smucker and 16 others captive. The captives included small children, one only 8 months old.

Exactly two months later the group escaped. The U.S.  Coast Guard flew them to Miami, and by Monday, Smucker was home and resting.

"He is healthy, he is physically well, but has lost a significant amount of weight," says his mother, who sells candles and fabric at Penelope's Soaps and Such in downtown Madras.

During the crisis, the mission organization, Christian Aid Ministries, chose not to release information in case any slip endangered negotiations or the safety of the hostages.

Details released

On Monday, Christian Aid Ministries felt free to tell the story of the hostages' experiences.

Initially the gang took the seventeen hostages to a small house and put all of them in 10-by-12-foot room, too small for anyone to lie down and sleep. They moved from place to place over the two months, sometimes encountering other hostages the gang held.

They received food and water, but not enough. The water for bathing was contaminated and caused open sores on their skin. The kidnappers provided ample food to the children, 8 months old, and 3 and 6 years old. In fact, the kidnappers seemed to enjoy the children.

The missionaries, Mennonites, worshiped in song and prayer three times a day, and took shifts maintaining a constant prayer vigil.

Back in the America, the mission staff held meetings with families around the continent twice a day.

"People provided funds to pay a ransom and allow the negotiations to continue," said David Troyer, Christian Aid Ministries general director. "We're not able to say anything further in respect to these negotiations."

Gang members threatened to kill the hostages on several occasions, but no one physically hurt the captives.

The escape

Finally, together the group decided to escape. On the night of Dec. 15, they were able to unlock the door that held them in and slip away even though guards stood nearby. They hiked through the night for, they estimate, 10 miles using a distant landmark to guide them and the moon to light their way. For two hours they hiked through fierce briars, carrying the children on their backs. The children kept silent, only whimpering slightly when the thorns stabbed their skin. Finally, they encountered someone who helped them make a phone call for help.

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