Editor’s note: On Feb. 23, 2015, Phyllis Sortor was kidnapped by gangsters while at a Christian school in Nigeria. Sortor’s abduction and eventual release made international news, but the full story is just now being told through the release of Sortor’s new book, “The Kidnapping of an American Missionary: One Woman’s Story of Courage and Conviction Under Fire.” Here is an exclusive excerpt.
My friend Ruth drives into the compound, followed closely by her husband, Reverend Hamul. Our three vehicles are parked under the shade trees in front of the Ogebe Free Methodist Church. I stand with Ruth and her husband, rejoicing over the morning’s success.
Suddenly, gunshots shatter the air, and several men dressed in black, with hoods pulled over their faces, run at us from every direction. As they come, they continue firing.
Rev. Hamul shouts out behind me, calling on the name of Jesus.
“In Jesus’ name,” I repeat slowly, frozen in place, not sure what’s happening.
The men are running straight for me.
Two of the gunmen grab my arms, pulling me across the compound toward the wall. One of the men hits me hard across the face. Then he hits me again. I am aware of dropping my cell phone. I trip and lose one of my shoes.
“Today is the day you die,” growls the man on my right. They pick me up and throw me over the wall. Then they haul me to my feet and begin dragging me up the hill behind the school.
Two of the gunmen hold my arms while another pushes me from behind.
Is this happening? Or is it a dream? I don’t understand. I hear a sudden cry from the direction of the school. Are people coming to rescue me?
My mind is somehow fogged up. My legs and feet won’t work right. The men keep pushing me up the hill over ground covered with fallen leaves and spiky, dry grass. The kidnapper leading the way avoids sandy patches, keeping to places where his footprints will not leave a mark. He’s rushing forward in a zigzag manner, uphill and down, trotting, walking, running urgently.
We’ve been moving for over an hour now. I’m trying hard to keep up, but it’s difficult. I’m so thirsty, so hot. I need water. I need to rest. But we keep running, running and running. I sink down to the ground over and over again, begging for water. Finally, someone thrusts a water bottle into my hands. After one gulp, the man takes it back. He pours some water on my head, which feels good and cools me down.
The tall kidnapper on my right notices my bare foot, takes off his own sandal and puts it on my foot. Then he shouts, “Oya. Oya.” Let’s go. Let’s go. He pulls me back to my feet. We keep moving like this for several kilometers.
Somewhere along the way, I am no longer able to walk on my own. I keep sinking to the ground, begging for water, begging to rest. Two of the men sling my arms around their shoulders and drag me along with them. This is the only way I’m able to continue.
I turn to the man on my right, a tall rangy man dressed in jeans, a military jacket over an embroidered shirt, a long vest, and billed cap. He’s not wearing a mask like the others. He has a pleasant, open face, and slightly protruding ears.
“What is your name?” I ask. “I am Alhaji Ismaila,” he answers.
“I am Rev. Phyllis,” I say.
We push on; the kidnappers taking turns helping me walk.
All I can think about is water. “Water, I need water,” I keep saying. But there is little available. Each man has only a small water bottle hanging from his belt, and they do not seem eager to share. I am so incredibly hot and thirsty.
We continue moving through the bush. Finally, I am told there is a “moto” ahead, waiting for us, and the reality of this situation nearly drops me to the ground. I’ve been kidnapped. There’s a car. A car that may take me out of this area, that may take me out of the state. Where will they take me?
How will anyone find me if they take me away from here? The terror leaves me breathless. I feel sick to my stomach and struggle not to throw up.
Oh God, save me. Save me. Save me.
A few minutes later we come to a motorcycle hidden in the trees. A masked driver waits. This is the “moto” Ismaila referred to. A motorcycle, not a car. Thank God. Thank God. Surely, we won’t go far on a motorbike.
I’m told to get on behind the driver. Ismaila pushes a hood over my head and tucks my hair beneath the black wool. There are eyeholes, so I can still see. He takes off his army jacket and makes me put it on. But despite this disguise, I know people would still be able to see my hands and legs as we pass by and be able to identify me as a white woman. If so, would they report to someone in authority, someone who would then know where to start the search? How I pray this will happen.
Ismaila gets on the motorcycle behind me. I’m wedged tightly between him and the driver. They keep pushing forward through the forest, weaving and turning as they go, scouts loping along in front and at our sides. There are many men in this gang. I count at least seven. I look around as best I can, trying to see familiar landmarks. At one point, I think I see Afad Mountain in the distance, but I can’t be sure. We could be on the west side of the mountain, but I don’t really know. It must be late afternoon. We’ve been driving through the wilderness for hours. I am so unbelievably thirsty and yearn for a sachet of the pure water we drink in Nigeria, although any water would do. We arrive on the bank of a deep, narrow ravine, a dry riverbed.
I’m taken off the bike so weak and stressed that I fall as I am pushed down the steep bank. I ask if we can dig in the dry riverbed for water, but Ismaila says there’s none there. The men push me along the ravine for a short distance, around several bends, to an area hidden by overhanging branches. They tell me, “Rest here.”
I collapse to the ground, my stomach lurching from exhaustion and fear. I throw up what’s left in my stomach and immediately pass out, coming to minutes later, still with my face in the dirt. Gradually, I become aware of the leaves plastered on my face, my mouth filled with earth and vomit. I can feel ants crawling on my legs. Never in my life have I felt so defeated, never in such despair.
Then I realize how I must appear to these men, these kidnappers. They must see me as repulsive, filthy and disgusting, weak and afraid, a helpless victim to be treated any way they please.
When I visualize myself as they surely must, I’m appalled and angry. It is then and there I decide that if I’m going to make it through this ordeal alive, I must take control of myself. I must show my captors the kind of person I really am — not a frightened and helpless victim, but a strong woman, a Free Methodist missionary, an American expatriate working with the state governor on a project impacting thousands. I need to establish myself, in their minds, not as an object to be reviled, but as a leader to be cared for and respected.
God tells me my identity is as Christ’s beloved. My present circumstances must never define me. This broken, helpless victim is not who I am. I must overcome these circumstances if I’m going to make it out of here alive.
I look around for a rock to sit on. Then I pull myself up, and arrange my skirt around my legs, brushing away the dirt and leaves. I’m thankful for my clothes: the shirt and jean jacket, the long skirt — though the hem is now shredded from the run through the forest — and the scarf tied around my neck. I use the scarf to scrub my face as best I can, then sit awaiting my captors.
The sun is going down. It’s cool and quiet in this ravine. I listen carefully to try and identify the kidnappers’ location. But I hear nothing at all — no bird song, no rustling of dry leaves or steps in the grass.
Maybe the men have left to find food. Maybe they intend to spend the night elsewhere, imagining me too weak to escape. As the minutes pass, I think maybe I can escape, but am I brave enough to try? If indeed the men have gone, I’d be a fool not to make the attempt. I continue to wait and listen.
I hear cows in the distance and children’s voices off to the left. The children are laughing, calling back and forth to each other. I’m sure they are Fulani boys, following the herd back to their camp after a long day in the bush.
Should I go to them and ask for help, ask them to take me to their family? I quickly dismiss the thought. I cannot involve these children. I won’t put them in harm’s way.
I think about walking back down the ravine to the right. I had noticed a patch of sand earlier, where I might dig and find water. I am so thirsty. If I walk toward the right and am caught, I can say I was looking for water.
After long minutes, I slowly stand and take one step toward the right. Instantly, several men materialize from the deep shadows, surrounding me, pointing their guns at my head. I tell them I just want to dig in the sand I’d seen on our way in.
“I told you there’s no water there,” Ismaila says sternly.
I ask him for a drink from his water bottle, and he allows one small gulp. I turn and sit back down on the rock.
Ismaila continues to stand over me. His face is turned away, but I decide to ask him the question weighing heavily on my mind.
“What is the plan, Alhaji?”
“Someone wants you killed,” he tells me. “Did you know we done follow you from the school this morning? We done see you enter one chief’s compound in that village along Ilagba Road. We done see you return to the school. My Oga was driving his moto. He done show me the one I supposed to kidnap and kill.”
“You don’t want to kill me, Ismaila,” I say. “I’m an old woman, a mother with children and grandchildren. Ismaila, is your mother still living? I am probably the age of your mother.”
“Yes, my mother [is] alive. In fact, she is about your age. You are the age of the mother who done borne me.”
“Would you like it if someone kidnapped your mother, Ismaila? If someone killed your mother?”
“No. I wouldn’t want someone to touch my mother.”
“Do you have a family, Ismaila? Are you married?”
“Yes, I’m married.”
“One wife or two?” I ask, smiling at him.
“Only one wife,” Ismaila laughs. “One wife is enough for me.”
“Do you have children?”
“Yes, three children — two boys and one girl.”
“What are their names?”
“Mohammadu, Abubakar and Aisha.”
“Those are lovely names. I have children too, and grandchildren, Ismaila, even great-grandchildren. They are very worried about me. You need to let me live, Ismaila. You need to take me home to my children.”
“You are right,” Ismaila says. “You are the age of my mother. I should not kill you. If you were a man or a boy, I could kill you. But you’re an old woman the age of my mother. I no fit kill you.”
Suddenly Ismaila straightens up and looks me straight in the eye for the first time. He says, “I promise that I will not touch you or allow anyone else to touch you.”
Read the rest of the story by going to fmchr.ch/psortor and purchasing Sortor’s book.1