I thought I was about to die.
And, I don’t mean that metaphorically.
Two weeks ago I found myself in a nightmarish scenario that I hope I never experience again. Having just stepped off the plane in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, I realized that one of my pre-trip fears was coming true: my designated pick up did not appear to be at the airport waiting for me. On the plane, I had worried about this exact scenario. Severe thunderstorms had diverted my flight to Angola while we waited the weather for a few hours, and I ended up arriving in the Congo several ours late, after midnight.
“Please, God. Have him wait for me”, I kept thinking to myself.
Normally, having a mix-up with an airport pick up is a mild inconvenience. However, in one of the top 10 most dangerous places in the world, it can quickly become a crisis. As I stood outside the airport I was having a hard time hiding the inner panic that was setting in. Shady characters were trying to coax me into their “cabs” that we all knew weren’t really cabs, people were swarming me on all sides, and I felt desperate to find my driver. One nicely dressed man from the crowd yelled over to me in English: “Whatever you do, don’t get into a car with anyone except the person who is coming to pick you up- it is very unsafe here.”
I had no intention of doing that. I had been warned and in my pre-travel research I had read articles about what these folks do to unsuspecting foreigners who make the fatal mistake (no pun intended) of getting into their cars.
“Nope”, I thought, “I’ll wait here all night until he picks me up.”
Eventually a man I hadn’t seen before bee-lined from the back of the crowd straight for me.
“Are you Mr. Corey?” He asked.
“Yes, I am.” I replied with a sigh of relief.
“Follow me, your driver couldn’t make it and sent me to get you“, he said as he grabbed my suitcase and started wheeling it to his car. I quickly followed behind, so relieved to jump into the car and get somewhere safe. A security guard jumped into the passenger side and introduced himself as airport security and said that since they had sent an airport driver to get me, he’d be joining as security.
Since I had been three hours late and it was now after midnight, it made sense that a different driver might be filling in. And, since they asked for me by name, red flags weren’t shooting up for me other than the realization that I was in one of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the world, and I was traveling completely alone.
Once we drove away from the airport I asked how long it would take to get to St. Anne’s, the nunnery where I was staying, and they said it would take about twenty minutes. Something inside me was on edge, but I just kept reminding myself that they wouldn’t have sent a replacement driver who wasn’t trustworthy. After about 15 minutes, they told me that they needed gas and that I was going to need to give them some gas money.
“My airport transfer is all included“, I told them.
“Yes, but your initial driver couldn’t make it and we need gas money” they replied.
I was annoyed at this point, but still didn’t realize how much trouble I was in. There have been many times during my travels where cabs run on near empty, and part of your cab fare includes a stop at a gas station where you pay for the gas.
“We’ll even write you a receipt for it, so don’t worry” they said, as they took out a receipt and began to fill it out. As I looked at the receipt, panic flowed over my body like raging torrent as I quickly realized I had just found myself in a real-life survival scenario.
What tipped me off? The receipt was made out to: “COREY BENJAM”
You see, when I first checked my bags into the airport in the US, I double checked the baggage tag that the airline printed and attached to my suitcase to make sure the computer didn’t make a mistake. When I checked the tag, I realized there weren’t enough characters to fit my whole name, and that it simply printed my name as “COREY BENJAM”. At that moment, I realized they weren’t my designated pick up at all, but had simply looked at my baggage tags when I didn’t notice so that they could send someone to ask for me by name– thus enabling them to unsuspectingly lure me into their car.
“Holy shit, I’m in some serious trouble” I thought as they continued driving. I nearly vomited in the back seat as reality began to sink in, but did my best to convince myself that I needed to mentally pull it together and switch into survival mode.
I was trying to play it cool but at one point, my internal thoughts accidentally became verbal ones, and I blurted out “you’re not taking me to St. Anne’s, are you?”
Their reply then became, “St. What? No, we don’t know what that is.“
I don’t know why I for some reason needed to say it out loud, but I finally admitted “you guys aren’t my driver at all“, to which they replied, “you’re right, we’re not.“
Part of me couldn’t believe the irony of what is happening. My doctoral dissertation is on the subject of human trafficking and one of the misconceptions that I often clear up with people is that the majority of trafficking victims aren’t abducted by force– they’re abducted by some form of luring. After all the times I’ve talked about these forms of abductions, even doing prevention training in India on the issue, I couldn’t believe how easily I had been abducted without an once of force being used.
With every mile that went by, my sense of panic only increased. It was so dark that I couldn’t see anything around us, and we didn’t seem to be driving in any direction that I’d want to be going. With robbery and murder being so common (while I was there they killed 20 people after losing a soccer match, which locals shrugged off as typical), I began to accept that I was being robbed (something I can deal with) and that there was a good chance I was also about to be killed (not how I preferred to start my trip).
Some say in life threatening survival situations your “life flashes before your eyes”, but this didn’t happen to me. Instead, I had a flurry of final, random thoughts (and these literally are, verbatim, what went through my mind and the order they started coming at me):
“I can’t believe Johanna is going to be orphaned a second time in her life. This is exactly what I never wanted to happen.”
“That life insurance policy was a really good move, I hope that money will help ease the burden for Tracy.”
“Maybe the fact that I’m dead when Undiluted is released will help boost sales and that this will be helpful for Tracy. I hope there wasn’t a paper I needed to fill out for her to be paid my royalties.”
“I wonder if people will say nice things about me at my funeral, and if they’ll really mean it or if they’ll just say it to be nice? At every funeral they say “he was the nicest guy you’d ever meet; he’d give you the shirt of his back”, but they can’t possibly all mean it, because there are a lot of horrible people out there. I really hope my life and my writings have actually inspired and changed a few lives so that people can say nice things at the funeral without just making crap up.”
“I hope Deborah (my editor/manager) does something to help my readers have some closure instead of just abruptly announcing my death and shutting down the blog.”
As I tried to manage these random thoughts that came at lightening speed, I realized that I probably should pray. I really and truly believed that I was likely about to die– a feeling I have never experienced before– so my prayer was different… It was a last prayer. I didn’t think it through, none of it felt intentional, I just knew I might have a brief moment to spill my heart to Jesus one last time before actually meeting him in person:
Thank you for counting me worthy to die this death– to die while on a mission to radically love others instead of dying some other way. Please take care of Tracy and Johanna and don’t let my death drive them away from you. Thank you for the life insurance that will help Tracy. Please forgive me for all of my shortcomings and failures. And Jesus, please send someone into the lives of these two men who will show them your love, that one day they might repent of what they’re about to do to me this night.
For a good while, both driver and passenger were quiet as they continued to drive me to who knows where. However, once the passenger turned around and began aggressively demanding $500, the tone quickly began to change– there was yelling, hands waiving, and the repeated question, “how much money do you have on you?“. Being a major fan of Bear Gyrlls I knew that in situations like this, the difference between life and death often depends on the ability to keep a calm head and make rational decisions in the face of severe stress. So, I did my best to channel my inner Bear Grylls and quickly thought through scenarios that could help me get out of the situation with my life.
In probably a matter of seconds, I surveyed my options. Ironically, the first thing that came to mind was using violence. Even though there were two of them, I was behind them– placing them in the position of vulnerability and giving me an advantage to strike. While I didn’t have any weapons, I knew that I could take the pen from my pocket (ironically, a gift from a Korean pastor friend) and jam it into the soft part of the passengers throat to incapacitate or kill him. Unless the driver wanted to instantly crash, that would also give me about 5-6 seconds to turn on the driver and take out an eye or two. As I thought about it, I was pretty confident that I had an initial advantage from the backseat and that I could pull it off if I timed it for when they were both looking at the road ahead.
Except that, Jesus commands that we love our enemies, and killing someone with a pen and gouging out their eyes wouldn’t have been very loving. This is where being an Anabaptist gave me an advantage in the survival situation: since I had to immediately rule-out the use of violence, I was forced to think more creatively. In addition to a general prohibition on the use of violence, Jesus also warned Peter of the real, practical implications of nonviolence. From Jesus we learn that using violence only escalates a situation causing you to often end up on the wrong end of the very “sword” you use. Since they had not actually used violence yet (well, I guess getting abducted and robbed is violent in itself), I realized that if I chose to use violence, the only guaranteed outcome would be that this situation would end violently.
I knew I must listen to the words of Jesus and not “resist an evildoer” (do not respond “in-kind”) not because it is simply a theology I espouse but because it is a theology that is surprisingly practical. They were in every position to kill me– they knew it, and I knew it. To “stand my ground” either with violence or a “screw you, you’re not getting my money” would simply be an invitation for them to violently escalate the situation, which was the opposite of what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to live– which meant I had to think more creatively how I would get myself out of the situation alive.
Thankfully, the first wise decision I made was one made in my living room in Maine. I first began traveling at 14 with my father who took me hiking in Central America. On that trip, he taught me to never have all of your money in one place- a lesson I’ve always followed. I’ve been known to hide money in my shoes, divide it among bags, or stuff it in the lining of jackets. For this trip, I had one major stash of cash and all my credit cards in a money carrier that gets strapped to your stomach (but I hadn’t put it on yet, yikes! It was still in my hand bag I realized). However, I also set aside a “diversion” set of cash in my backpack in case I got robbed. When being robbed, people won’t be satisfied for some– they’ll want all of it, so the key is to make them believe they’re getting all of it. By stashing $500 in the side pocket of my backpack, I knew if I got robbed it would divert their attention to the backpack, and not the actual location where most of my money was.
This was extremely helpful. As I handed over the first $100, the passenger turned around to “supervise” so that he knew exactly where my money was. Had I been forced to take that from my real stash of money, he would have seen it, and I would have been screwed. My survival plan, at least in this regard, was working.
However, $100 wasn’t very satisfying. The passenger kept pointing to my bag, shouting: “how much do you have? how much do you have?“
Which, is where being a major fan of CBS’s Big Brother and Survivor came in handy- and may have saved my life (Hey CBS, this is the kind of story that should really land me as one of the cast! My contact button is right up there ^^^). I’ve long been a fan of both shows, and had been watching the entire previous season of Big Brother on my iPad during the long flight to Africa. From watching these shows, there’s one key strategy I’ve learned: people will keep you alive in the game only so long as they perceive you have value to them. The moment they feel as if they have exhausted your usefulness to their own game, they vote you out. The key then, is to find creative ways to always convince other players that you have value to their game.
I knew the same was true with these two thugs. If I were to pull out my entire $500 wad and say “here you go, that’s all of my money” I would have completely lost any leverage. Had they thought I had given them everything I had and was no longer of value, they would have been forced to start asking the question, “what do we do with him now?“
My goal became to avoid them having to answer that question— because none of the likely answers would have been in my favor.
After the first $100, I demanded they start driving in the direction of a hotel if they wanted the rest. The driver said he was, which bought me a sliver of time. However, they quickly became agitated, grew more and more animated, and demanded more money “right now”. I would delay as long as seemed wise, and when I sensed the level of agitation was getting to the point where they might do something crazy, I’d reach into that pocket, hand over more money, and make my own demands to be driven somewhere safe.
They’d drive a little, I’d hand over a little. I had to be careful with the amounts I handed over, because I didn’t want to exhaust my perceived usefulness or have to reveal that I had a second set of cash. Plus, that money was for orphans anyway, and I was willing to perhaps take a beat down rather than give up that hidden stash. I’d only go to that stash if I was convinced that my life depended on it.
Handing over a little at a time, stalling but handing over when they began to get really animated, seemed to work. Just like in Big Brother or Survivor, one of the keys is to only give up so much information at once– you want to at least keep the perception that you still have something to offer and a reason to keep you alive, which is exactly what I did in this scenario.
Eventually, the dark streets passed, and I saw a well-lit building that appeared to be a hotel. Pulling a final handful of $20’s out of my bag, I told them that I’d give the rest to them if they’d pull over and let me out there, which (thank you sweet baby Jesus, Bear Grylls, Jeff Probst, and Julie Chen) they did.
I stumbled into the lobby, and practically collapsed– barely able to tell the security guards what just occurred. I was freaked out, but so happy to have gotten out of the situation alive.
After all the survival shows I’d seen, I couldn’t believe that I had just navigated a never expected life-threatening situation, and that I had survived it thanks to a sovereign God, the nonviolent teachings of Jesus, lessons from Bear Grylls, and the fine reality TV programing at CBS.
My ultimate advice? Simple: don’t go to dangerous places like this unless you have a really, really, really important reason to go there.