From the moment they arose each morning, Plake’s kidnappers, wearing nothing but boxer shorts, started drinking, smoking dope, shooting their guns straight up in the air and arguing. They kept their marijuana in 50-pound rice sacks and would put what they didn’t smoke into jars of moonshine made out of palm tree sap to ferment. Invariably drunk by noon, they’d gulp down this potent mix until they passed out at night, but not before a couple of the militants would typically get into a fight and go after each other with machetes or clubs.
In the humid afternoons, while Plake sat bored in his chair, many of his captors would play cards or huddle around a small television and watch the same five Rambo and Jean-Claude Van Damme films over and over.
Then it dawned on Plake, This isn’t enjoyment for them, it’s training. They think it’s real. The men asked Plake how many people had died in the movies. He had to explain that it was just Hollywood.
There was bottled water to drink, but not much in the way of food. One morning the villagers tossed a chicken in a pot of water and boiled it all day. When it came time to eat, the meat was so rubbery and overcooked that Plake couldn’t pull it off the bone. Another time they dug a trench and slaughtered a sickly goat. There was a cache of potted meat and canned tuna fish, which became Plake’s meal, mixed with a sweet blend of rice and corn served daily at 4 p.m. After several weeks, Plake convinced his captives to push dinnertime back so that he could avoid the hordes of flies that would swarm around his plate, preferring to eat amid the mosquitoes that came out at night.
Before bed, Plake stripped off his filthy jeans down to his boxers to stay cool. His fair-skinned body, peppered with swollen red bug bites, became a testament to jungle living.
Some of the villagers bathed in the polluted river; Plake did not. He had a spider bite on his left ankle that was oozing pus and he wasn’t about to dip it in the same water that the entire village used as a toilet. Instead, he just rubbed soap under his arms and apologized for his stench. Nor would Plake shave with the razors used by the militants for fear of getting AIDS. At one point, his white moustache flopped down over his bottom lip.
At night, the Americans would stay up late plotting their escape, hatching scenario after scenario. One had Plake taking out a guard with his pocketknife while the other men grabbed his gun. “But what then?” Plake thought. “What if we do take the camp over? We’ve got to motor out. But what if we run into them on the river? We don’t know where to go anyway. Plus they have lookouts along the creek in crow’s nests with machine guns. We’d be sitting ducks.”
Plake started giving his kidnappers nicknames such as “Mike the Administrator,” “Ben the Weapons Expert” and “Bubba the Explosives Guy.” Many of them told Plake they dreamed of one day going to the United States to be criminals there. They wanted to rob banks and get rich, and they all seemed to admire Osama bin Laden. When Plake told them that the al-Qaida leader had killed innocent people during 9/11, they didn’t seem to care. They felt he was a hero for standing up against America.
Over time, Plake got to know “Sonny the Cook,” who was in charge of making sure the hostages had food, bottled water and cigarettes. Sonny told Plake that all he really wanted was to open a restaurant in the United States. Plake began to sympathize with his captors. While taking hostages wasn’t the way to go about it, he understood why they were fighting their government for basic rights. All this oil money was pouring into the country, yet their government treated them like animals.
The leader of the Niger-Delta Freedom Fighters was called Egbema One. He told Plake he was a prince and had once worked offshore as a ballast control engineer. He wanted to use the hostages as political leverage, but it soon became clear to Plake that Egbema One was in the minority. Everyone else just wanted cash. And when Egbema One left the camp to get supplies, tensions would rise. The militants would force Plake to use a prepaid cell phone with a bamboo-and-wire antenna to phone his employer, his wife or Nigerian politicians, demanding the ransom.
“Tell them to send the money now!” the militants shouted in Plake’s face. “We’re gonna kill you tomorrow if we don’t get the money!”
The men cracked the side of their rifles against the back of Plake’s neck and threatened him constantly. One of the larger men repeatedly said he was going to cut off Plake’s pinky finger and send it to Plake’s employer to prove he wasn’t playing around. Then he’d laugh in Plake’s face. The bomb-maker told Plake he’d never get out alive, and that he’d made a special explosive for Plake if it ever looked like the Texan was going to be released.
The kidnappers set up a bench about 50 yards into the jungle, hidden from the camp. Every time they heard a noise, be it a voice, a boat or the snap of a twig, they’d grab the hostages and hurriedly beat them like horses toward the clearing, where they’d wait until whatever it was had passed. After just a few times, the men learned to race over to the spot themselves whenever they heard something, day or night. The kidnappers told Plake that if anyone tried to rescue them, they’d execute the hostages before returning to defend the village. This happened as many as 10 times a day.