‘It was hell’: Hostage freed after years in Africa recounts ordeal and frustrations with US response

Jeff Woodke, and his wife, Els, at their home on June 5 in McKinleyville, Calif., Monday, June 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Shaun Walker)

WASHINGTON — The Islamic extremists drove up to the American missionary’s home in Niger under the cover of evening, gunning down two guards who stood watch. Jeff Woodke recalls seeing the muzzle blasts and hearing the screams before being thrown into a pickup truck that then sped away.

So began more than six years of captivity, a period in which he says he was beaten, locked in chains for hours a day and pressured repeatedly to convert to Islam and endured self-imposed hunger strikes.


“It was hell,” said Woodke, 62, who was released in March. “I think the hardest part was knowing that my family, if they were alive, they were suffering too.” As time progressed, he said, he began to feel that “it’s better for me to be dead than continue putting them through suffering. And that feeling grew and grew and grew. The last year I was there, I was asking them to kill me.”

But the ordeal, he and his wife say, was compounded by years of frustrating interactions with the U.S. government back home. They say they believe FBI officials withheld information about negotiations with the captors and provided what they felt was inadequate help and guidance about raising money for a ransom. The agitation boiled over in a Zoom call weeks before Woodke’s release when his wife, Els, said she vented to Secretary of State Antony Blinken about a ransom process she asserted favored 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 you free,” she recalled saying. “So because you are rich, you can pay the ransom. But a poor person is never able to do that.”

The Woodkes spoke recently to The Associated Press in a joint interview in which they shared previously unreported details about his captivity, the family’s conversations with U.S. officials and his more recent challenges reintegrating into society.

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