“Brutally” and “with inhumanity.”
Recently released US Christian aid worker Jeff Woodke used these words to describe his more than six years in captivity in West Africa, noting that from the day he was captured, he lived in chains 16 hours each day.
“I was beaten […], kept in isolation, suffered injuries and illness, which were never medically treated,” Woodke told media during a press conference from his home church in McKinleyville, California, held two weeks after his release on the morning of March 20.
“During the six years, five months, five days and some 12 hours, I repeatedly feared I would never see my family again,” Woodke told reporters.
For 24 years, Woodke lived and served in ministry in northern Niger before being abducted from his home in Abalak on October 14, 2016.
“I could not stop praying. I could not give up on faith, no matter how angry I got.”
World Watch Monitor reported that Woodke identified al-Qaeda affiliate group Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Mulimin (JNIM) as the group that kidnapped him. He said that in the first few years after he was taken, he prayed for up to eight hours a day, pacing in circles inside the confined space where he was held. But during the last year of captivity, he “lost all hope,” he shared. “By my last year, I thought, what’s prayer doing for me anyway?” Yet despite his disillusionment, he continued to pray.
“I could not stop praying,” he said. “I could not give up on faith, no matter how angry I got.” He added: “You might end up at the end of your faith as a human being, but faith is a funny thing: it stays with you whether you like it or not.”
After Woodke’s fifth year, he began a hunger strike to secure better treatment and communicate with his family and country. That strike and another one he began shortly before his release led to an increase in activity to negotiate his release, Woodke said, “or so I was informed by JNIM.”
Woodke was released with French journalist Olivier Dubois in West Africa’s Sahel region, which in recent years has seen an exponential increase of Islamic extremist violence and insecurity due to the expansion of extremist groups from Nigeria into Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. He was met by special forces from a third-party nation in a remote desert location. From there, he was taken to Niger’s capital city Niamey for medical checks.
He declined to comment on the kidnappers’ motives for both the abduction and his release: “I know why, but I don’t want to compromise the investigation. I am looking forward to telling my whole story at the right time and in the right way. For now, I will limit the information I share and continue to operate with authorities to bring these monsters to justice.”
‘They live in hell’
Woodke is taking time to attend to medical issues and injuries sustained during captivity, including chronic gastro-intestinal issues, a blown-out knee and ankle injuries caused by a blunt hit from a rifle butt.
However, he is intent on helping get out the remaining seven foreign hostages “because they live in hell.” The seven include Romanian Iulian Ghergut, Father Hans-Joachim Lohre, a German priest, South African Gerco van Deventer, Australian surgeon Ken Elliott, and an Italian couple and their son.
"I'm not sure, but it's likely these hostages were in the hands of JNIM."
His living nightmare over the last six years gives us a glimpse of the horror that tens of thousands of Christians in captivity in sub-Saharan Africa are living in right now. And they remind us of the urgent need to pray and lift up the captives, as the writer of Hebrews says is our response to "receiving an unshakable kingdom."
"Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Hebrews 13:3).