SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Father Jean-Nicaisse Milien felt the cool barrel of a gun against his right ear.
The Haitian priest and nine other people had just been kidnapped while driving through the outskirts of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, in early April. It was around 7 a.m. and they were en route to celebrate the installation of a fellow pastor at a nearby parish when 15 to 20 gang members brandishing heavy weapons surrounded their car.
“Go here! Go here!” the gunmen commanded as they pulled over the car.
It was the 400 Mawozo gang, the same group that kidnapped 17 missionaries from a U.S. religious organization on Oct. 16 as they drove to an orphanage. That group, which includes five children, the youngest 8-months-old, is still being held for ransom amid death threats.
Milien spoke to The Associated Press Tuesday, describing the ordeal he and his nine companions — two nuns, four fellow priests and three relatives — endured at the hands of their captors.
Catholic priest Jean-Nicaisse Milien changes clothes before a Mass in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. Milien was kidnapped for 20 days along with other priests, nuns, and civilians in April by the 400 Mawozo gang who have been holding 17 members of a U.S.-based missionary group Christian Aid Ministries for more than 3 weeks. (Credit: Matias Delacroix/AP.)
After seizing them on April 11, the gunmen blindfolded him and the others, Milien said, and drove until they reached a dilapidated house where they slept on a dirt floor for days.
“We did our necessities on the ground,” he recalled. “It was really difficult.”
Milien and the others were kept blindfolded for two days and fed only rice and bread, washed down with Coca-Cola.
On the first day, gang members demanded the group hand over phone numbers of their relatives. The gunmen made calls demanding $1 million per head — the same ransom they made for the missionaries kidnapped last month.
On the fourth day, the gang released one person and moved Milien and the others to a smaller house. After two weeks, they released three more, but not Milien. He and the remaining five captives were moved to yet another abandoned house.
This Oct. 21, 2021, photo shows a sign outside Christian Aid Ministries in Titanyen, Haiti, which had 17 of their members kidnapped by the 400 Mawozo gang. (Credit: Matias Delacroix/AP.)
“That last week, it was very difficult,” he recalled, saying they received no food and barely any water.
On their way to the third location, the gang leader told them: “Here, we don’t have any food, any hospital, any house. We don’t have anything, but we have a cemetery.”
Milien took that as a death threat and doubled down. “I told them, ‘Continue to pray,’” he said he told his fellow captives. “One day, we will be free.”
Eventually Milien and the five others were released after an undisclosed ransom amount was paid.
Their freedom came via a knock on the door on the 20th day of their captivity. It was 11 p.m.
“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Let’s go!” Milien recalled a gang member yelling.
The group, in its weakened state, walked several yards to a car that took them to their neighborhood. Milien spent almost a week in the hospital, receiving medication and vitamins as he tried to regain his strength.
Months later, Milien still receives psychological help.
“It is not easy. Every time we remember something. Every time we think about something. … It is a part of my life,” he said.
Parishioners attend a Mass lead by Catholic priest Jean-Nicaisse Milien in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (Credit: Matias Delacroix/AP.)
His advice to the families of the 16 Americans, one Canadian and their Haitian driver, who remain captive, is to never lose hope as he prays for their release.
“I know the experience is not easy,” he said.
As he spoke, the rat-tat-tat of gunfire from a nearby community controlled by another gang rang out.
“We have to do something. The government has to do something because we cannot remain in this situation,” Milien said.
AP photographer Matias Delacroix in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, contributed to this story.