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Niger Delta: Hostage sympathetic to captors’ plight

A Canadian taken hostage at gunpoint on an oil rig off the coast of Nigeria a month ago has broken his silence about his nine-day ordeal, expressing sympathy for the kidnappers even though they shot him.

Robert Croke of Torbay, in eastern Newfoundland, had said he would never work in Nigeria’s oil industry after hearing horror stories from colleagues about fighting between militants and the army.

But he thought he’d be safe on a rig operated 12 kilometres off the coast of the west African country by London-based Afren PLC. Until Nov. 8, that is.

“The night I was taken, I was talking to my wife [by phone] until just past midnight,” Croke said in an exclusive interview with Anna Maria Tremonti on the CBC’s The Current. “I heard an announcement and the sound of a bell and I thought to myself. ‘That didn’t sound right.’ So I got up to investigate.

“I walked towards the radio room and I met a gentleman, a Nigerian militant, with a gun. I was facing down the barrel of a gun. It was just total devastation at that point. Then I knew what was happening. I knew what was going on.”

Hit by stray bullet

Croke said eight men with guns forced him into a room where other oil rig crew members had gathered. The gunmen fired their rifles and demanded to see the rig’s captain.

“They fired a couple of rounds in the air and one towards the floor and that one in the floor was the one I received in my foot, it ricocheted right into my foot,” Croke said. “And I said to him, ‘You just shot me in the foot,’ but that didn’t mean anything to him.”

Croke gave the gunmen money and laptop computers, but it soon became clear this wasn’t what they came for. They wanted a ransom. He and six other hostages were taken off the rig to a camp onshore.

“During the trip back to land, it seemed like forever,” said Croke, the father of three sons in their 20s. “It was probably about a four-hour ride in the boat and I had this injury, and I said to myself, ‘I’ll deal with it when I get there.'”

Tense moment on shore

When he arrived at the camp, his kidnappers apologized for shooting his foot and sent for a medic to treat him. Then he was asked to start walking.

“But then they made us stop in the middle of their camp area and it was just us,” Croke said. “All of the captured, in front of all these other militants. And I thought to myself, ‘What’s the purpose of this?’

“I thought at that point they were just going to open fire. Afterwards, I was chatting with one of the [other hostages]. He said: ‘Did you think they were going to shoot us?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I did,’ and he said, ‘So did I.’

“So that was a scary moment.”

When the group of seven hostages arrived at another camp, they saw other hostages who had been held there for a long time.

“Three Frenchmen, who had been there for, like, 40 or 48 days. In the next couple of days, their negotiations had come through. They had paid their ransom and we waved goodbye.

“So we knew that they were there for 50 days and there was a possibility that we would be there for 50 days. First thing I thought about was my family.”

Called to meet with leader

Croke said that after three days, he was brought to meet one of the kidnappers’ leaders.

“He turned to me and said: ‘Listen, you are going to have to make a call tonight.’

“He said, ‘On the news, they said [the Nigerian forces] were going to come in and bomb these camps. He said, ‘You need to make a call tonight. Talk to your embassy and tell them not to bomb us or we will all die.'”

Croke was taken to a place where cellphone reception allowed him to call a colleague at the U.S. company where he works. He was also allowed to call his wife, Gayle, back home in Torbay. He told them to call the U.S. and Canadian embassies.

“‘Let them know, if the Nigerians bomb us, we will die,’ I told them,” he said.

Wife sent message

Croke’s wife also spoke with the CBC about that call.

“I gave him a message for the kidnappers, but I don’t think he gave it to them. I told him to tell them that I might be just one person but if they hurt him in any way that I would spend the rest of my life hunting them down,” she said, her voice thickening with emotion.

“I just didn’t want anyone to hurt him.”

Croke and the other hostages were then moved farther inland under the canopy of the jungle. But the bombs came anyway.

“It was around 10 o’clock to midday when we heard the choppers overhead … and then the bombs started to drop,” he said. “From where I was, you could feel the percussions. Laying in a tent, looking face up in a tent just hoping and praying that this is not where they are going to drop bombs. … We were thinking, ‘Oh, this is not good.'”

The helicopters made three runs and then more shells started coming from boats at sea.

“That happened Monday, and then Tuesday there was some more bombing,” Croke said. “And then Wednesday there was no bombing. It was like heaven that day.”

Taken to meet navy

In the end, no ransom was paid. The militants, he said, were given amnesty in return for releasing the hostages.

A couple of days later, the seven were taken by boat to meet Nigerian navy ships.

“When we pulled up to the navy boat, we knew that it was real,” he said.

Croke was asked by a man with the navy to point out the man who had shot him. He said he couldn’t remember.

“This is their way of life,” he said. “This is how they survive. I wouldn’t want to go through this, but that’s their way of life and I have no animosity towards these people. None whatsoever.

“Maybe a little respect. I don’t like what they do, but they do it for a reason. They need help, these people. They need support.”

The released hostages were taken to a port city, where Croke called his wife.

“He told me: ‘I’m released and I’m on a dock in [Nigeria],’ Gayle said. “It was like somebody handed me my life again.”

She flew to England to meet her husband. There he went through a series of surgeries to remove pieces of a bullet and treat a badly infected foot. He said it is healing well.

Croke said he believes there is a way to end hostage-taking in areas were the oil industry is working.

“They need to help these people … support their people to get food and medical treatment or whatever they need to support their people. It just only makes sense that they do.”

Croke is recuperating at his home in Newfoundland. He said he hasn’t decided whether he will go back to Nigeria.

“That’s something I have to think about very long and hard. It’s one of those things that you say, ‘Ah, that will never happen to me,’ but it did, so it’s totally different now. I look at things a little different now. Life is too precious.”

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