After more than six years in captivity in West Africa, longtime American Christian aid worker Jeff Woodke has been released.
His wife, Els Woodke, was told Jeff was “in good condition,” according to a statement on a website campaigning for his release. “She has expressed her profound thanks to the many people in governments and others around the world who have worked so hard to see this result,” the statement said. “She praises God for answering the prayers of Christians everywhere who have prayed for this outcome.”
Jeff Woodke was kidnapped from his home in Abalak, northern Niger, on 14 October 2016. His kidnappers, suspected members of a radical Islamic group called Mujao, reportedly took him towards eastern Mali. Since then it appears he has been taken across borders to other nations
The Christian aid worker was released outside of Niger, in a border area with Mali and Burkina Faso, , a US official told The New York Times. He was then moved to Niger’s capital Niamey for medical checks.
Niger’s Interior Minister Hamadou Adamou Soule told reporters that Woodke as well as French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was released at the same time, were freed “from the hands of [JNIM]”, an al-Qaeda affiliate in West Africa.
A senior US official said no ransom or other conditions were part of their release.
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan tweeted he was “gratified and relieved” Woodke was free. “The U.S. thanks Niger for its help in bringing him home to all who miss & love him,” he said
Woodke had been living in the region since 1992 and at the time of his kidnapping was working for Jeunesse en Mission Entraide et Developpement. He ran several development projects among the Tuareg and spoke the two main local languages.
His abduction shocked the Abalak community. “This man has lived among us for years, even when it has been difficult to accompany vulnerable populations… everyone knows his goodness,” Abalak’s Mayor Bilou Mohamed told World Watch Monitor at the time.
In July 2017 a coalition of jihadist groups published a video showing six foreign hostages, including three missionaries, but not Jeff. Believing her husband was likely to be held by the same group, Els put out a video pleading with the kidnappers to let her husband go.
Of the three missionaries that featured in the 2017 video only Colombian nun Gloria Argoti, who was kidnapped from her convent in southern Mali in 2016, has been released.
Swiss missionary Béatrice Stockly who was kidnapped in January 2016 in Mali’s northern town of Timbuktu, was killed around September 2020.
And 89-year-old Australian surgeon Ken Elliott, who was also kidnapped in January 2016, is still unaccounted for. Elliott was abducted along with his wife, Jocelyn, from Djibo in northern Burkina Faso, near the Mali border. Mrs Elliott was released one month later but the whereabouts of her husband remain unknown.
Surge in violence
Woodke’s release comes amidst a surge of violence by militant Islamists and other groups in the Sahel region. Deaths because of violent attacks by Islamist groups increased by almost 50 per cent over the past year with most of the events taking place in Burkina Faso and Mali, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Neighbouring countries such as Benin and Togo saw an increase in attacks a well.
UNICEF said today, 20 March, that more than 10 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger as a result of the growing insecurity.