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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Captive missionaries in Haiti found freedom last week by making a daring overnight escape, eluding their kidnappers and walking for miles over difficult, moonlit terrain with an infant and other children in tow, according to the agency they work for, officials said Monday.
The group of 12 navigated by stars to reach safety after a two-month kidnapping ordeal, officials with the Christian Aid Ministries, the Ohio-based agency that the formerly-captive missionaries work for, said Monday at a press conference.
The detailed accounting of their journey to safety comes after news Thursday that the missionaries were free.
A total of 17 people from the missionary group — 12 adults and five minors — were abducted Oct. 16 shortly after visiting an orphanage in Ganthier, in the Croix-des-Bouquets area, where they verified it had received aid from Christian Aid Ministries and played with the children. The group included 16 Americans and one Canadian.
Their captors from the 400 Mawozo gang initially demanded millions of dollars in ransom. Five other captives had earlier reached freedom. It is still unclear if any ransom was paid.
Christian Aid Ministries General Director David Troyer did say supporters of of the organization raised funds for possible use for a ransom, but he refused to say whether one was paid for any of the releases.
The 12 who fled last week carried the infant and 3-year-old, wrapping the baby to protect her from the briars and brambles, said Christian Aid Ministries spokesman Weston Showalter.
"After a number of hours of walking, day began to dawn and they eventually found someone who helped to make a phone call for help," he said, his voice beginning to choke. "They were finally free."
The 12 were flown to Florida on a U.S. Coast Guard flight and later reunited with five hostages who were released earlier.
Christian Aid Ministries displayed photos at the news conferences showing the freed hostages being reunited, along with a video of the group singing a song that had inspired them during their captivity.
The missionaries were taken hostage on their way back from the orphanage on the afternoon of Oct. 16.
"They had no idea what was ahead of them," Showalter said. Only five or 10 minutes after getting underway, they saw a roadblock up ahead. The group's driver — the one Canadian in the group — turned around, but a pickup truck pursued them, and "gang members surrounded the van," Showalter said. He said early reports that the driver was a Haitian national were not accurate.
He said they were initially crowded into a small room in a house, but were moved around several times during their captivity.
They were not physically harmed by the kidnappers, Showalter said. He said the main physical challenges included the heat, mosquitoes and contaminated water for bathing, which led some of them to develop sores. Sometimes the young children got sick.
However, he said everyone appears to have emerged from captivity in good health.
The adults received small food portions, such as rice and beans for dinner, although the captors provided plenty of food suitable for the small children, he said.
The hostages gathered multiple times during the day for prayer and religious devotions, and sometimes sang loud enough for each other to hear when they were in separate rooms, Showalter said.
They also sought to encourage other hostages who were being held for ransom in separate kidnappings, Showalter said.
Over time, the hostages agreed to try to escape, and chose the night of Dec. 15 to flee.
"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 they had chosen to follow, and quickly left the place they were held, despite the fact that numerous guards were close by," Showalter said.
Based in Berlin, Ohio, Christian Aid Ministries is supported and staffed by conservative Anabaptists, a range of Mennonite, Amish and related groups whose hallmarks include nonresistance to evil, plain dress and separation from mainstream society.
None of the freed hostages were at the press conference. They came from Amish, Mennonite, and other Anabaptist communities in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Ontario, according to the organization.
After the news conference, a group of Christian Aid Ministries employees stood and sang, "Nearer My God to Thee" in the robust, four-part acapella harmony that is a signature of conservative Anabaptist worship.