The Reality of My Freedom: Human Life is Sacred and Those Who Treat It as Anything Less Must Be Stopped

Jeff and Els Woodke stand in front of the White House

By Jeff Woodke

Jeff Woodke is an American missionary and aid worker who was kidnapped from his home in Abalak, Niger, in 2016. Originally from California, Woodke had served as a missionary and humanitarian aid worker in Niger for more than 30 years.

On March 20, 2023, two men got out of a battered Toyota pickup in a remote area near the northwestern border of Niger. One was French journalist Olivier Dubois and the other was an older American man with a shaggy beard and unkempt hair, walking unsteadily on a cane.

That man was Jeff Woodke, a 62-year-old missionary and humanitarian aid worker who had been held captive, mostly in chains, for six years, five months and five days.

That man was me. As the pickup turned and sped away, I slowly began to comprehend that I was a free man.

I had been a hostage, as had Olivier — held in northern Mali by the terrorist group Jam’at Nusrat al Islam wal-Muslimin, JNIM for short. As hostages we were not treated as humans but as things; bargaining chips, subhumans, animals. My life had no intrinsic value to my captors and my death was always in their eyes.

As the reality of my freedom swept over me, so did another realization: Human life is sacred and those who treat it as anything less must  be stopped — and now I must be willing to try to stop them.

As I spotted the vehicle and two men waiting for Olivier and me, I wanted to dance and shout in celebration of my freedom!  Unfortunately, my injuries prevented me from doing much more than a victory hobble.  Yet I danced in my heart as I looked forward to seeing my family, praised my God and wished that my fellow hostages still detained would soon gain their freedom.

Pictured left to right: son Robert, wife Els, Jeff, and son Matthew

As I lay on the desert gravel in the shade of the truck while a military  doctor examined me, I resolved to do whatever I could to end a practice that is inherently evil and to help rescue those who were left behind. People should not be treated like things, bought and sold, exploited, dehumanized and treated with cruelty.  Not by any government, terrorist or other organization, or any individual.  It is wrong and must be stopped.

Yet JNIM still holds six non-Malian hostages as well as a number of Malian hostages.  In addition, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation website, there are currently at least 59 Americans being held hostage or wrongfully detained around the world. These people are innocent and are being held either for ransom or as political bargaining chips. Some have been in captivity longer than I was.  It is difficult for me to fathom why I was left for so long under a tree in chains and why others still languish in suffering today. Why are we leaving people behind?

The 2014 and 2015 murders of six American hostages led the Obama administration to review its hostage policy, thanks in large part to the tireless activism and advocacy of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation and others. The result was Presidential Policy Directive 30, issued by President Obama in June 2015. In 2020, the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act was passed to codify PPD-30, permanently enshrining two structures of particular interest to hostages, wrongful detainees and their families: The Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a position currently held by Ambassador Roger Carstens. Through these structures and tools, it was hoped that U.S. policy and practice would improve and that U.S. citizens would no longer be left behind in wrongful detention or held hostage for years, or possibly the rest of their lives.

But eight years after Obama issued PPD-30, many Americans are still enduring long-term captivity. As a country, how can we leave our fellow innocent citizens to rot in hellish captivity?  Why does our government not use every tool to see illegally detained people or hostages freed? Why are the structures mandated by PPD-30 inadequately funded and often working at odds with each other? Why won’t our president meet with all victim families and show that hostages and illegally detained people are priorities?

The unfortunate response to these questions is that hostages and illegally detained people are too often not our government’s top priority until they become politically important. In that way, our own government treats us, and treated me, as things – bargaining chips or pawns, not as humans and U.S. nationals. If we were seen as having intrinsic value as American citizens, then even some of the less appealing tools, such as prisoner exchanges or the payment of ransoms, would be used whenever needed. They are not. Instead, military rescues that endanger hostages’ and service members’ lives are preferred. Or in the case of the illegally detained, victims are sometimes tied to long-term political issues.

We must do better. The reforms of 2015 have not resolved all of the problems surrounding hostages and illegal detainees and the treatment of their families by our government. We need the political will to change existing policy. There should be clear legal provisions to allow victims’ families and supporters to raise and pay ransoms without fear of legal repercussions from the U.S. government. A clear and streamlined approach for resolving the cases of hostages and the illegally detained that includes clear and complete communication should be mandated. Proper recovery and post-recovery practices should be put into place. Best practices should be developed and codified, so that we leave no one behind.

The office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs should receive adequate funding as well as a mandate to handle the cases of all hostages and illegally detained people. In theory these cases should already be in its purview, yet in practice they are parceled out to various entities, making things more complicated for victims’ families. The SPEHA has the personnel, abilities and determination to see people brought home and victims’ families supported during captivity and after recovery.  Let us at least use the one tool we have that is working and have it serve as an example to other nations of best practice and compassion, leaving none behind.

Human lives are sacred. While we may not be able to convince hostage takers or rogue governments of this fact, we should be able to influence the U.S. government and other reasonable governments to always treat all hostages and their families as priorities with intrinsic value. We should be able to influence them to use all tools available to secure the speedy release of hostages and illegally detained persons, even if these tools seem unpalatable politically. We should be able to influence them to provide adequate support to victims and their families after recovery. We can and should do better — by acting together.

As I sit before my computer, with tears in my eyes and a burning desire in my heart to see freedom for my brothers and sisters in captivity, I pray that through our combined efforts, we can see all U.S. and other hostages walk into freedom and do their own dances very soon.