“THAT man has a gun!” The words sent a chill through us. As I turned to my friend sitting nearby, I noticed the serious expression on his face as he assured his wife he was not joking: “That man has a gun!”
I looked toward the front of the plane and saw a young man in a brown leather jacket, brandishing a rifle. “It can’t be,” I thought. “They searched us before we got on the plane in Pasto, Colombia. How did he get a rifle on without being detected?”
However, it did not matter now, because, real as life, there he was. All of us had seen him by now, disbelieving our own eyes and yet feeling our hearts race and our breathing quicken.
Of the forty-six passengers, twelve were Jehovah’s witnesses, on their way to Bogotá, Colombia, to attend the “Divine Victory” International Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, January 23-27. What was going to happen now? My wife and I prayed together, calling upon Jehovah God to strengthen us for what might lie ahead.
At first it appeared that the gunman was going to rob us, because he was taking something from the passengers in the front rows. His expression was one of great intensity and fear. He ordered our identification papers collected. In one hand he held the rifle. The other hand shook as he searched through the papers. His nervousness excited in all of us a very ominous feeling. For whom was he looking? Was there someone he planned to kill?
As we watched, almost afraid to breathe, the hijacker paused, looked at a set of papers, and called out a name—my name! With a shocked feeling, as in a dream, I waited a few seconds. Finally I got my hand up as though in school and answered, “Here.”
My fear reached a peak. But with his next words I breathed a sigh of relief, as he began calling out other names, apparently for no reason. At least he was not singling out someone.
Women and Children Cleared Off the Plane
We had taken off from Pasto, in southwest Colombia, at ten o’clock in the morning. It was only a few minutes after takeoff that the gunman appeared in the cabin with his rifle, a small semiautomatic type, and ordered the crew to bypass the scheduled stop in Papayan and to divert the flight to Cali.
As we approached Cali the gunman peremptorily ordered that the window curtains be closed and commanded all to sit with their hands behind their heads and not to look out the windows when we landed. Some women and children near the front were crying. Conversation had ceased. Those depending on God were making silent supplication.
The atmosphere was tense as we waited for the hijacker’s next move. It came with an order for the women and children to get off the plane. In our group of twelve there were five married couples. Anxious to get our wives out of danger, we urged them to comply with the gunman’s orders. However, one wife took just a few steps toward the door but then turned and hurried back to her husband in the rear of the plane. She wanted him to kiss their two-month-old baby good-bye. In dismay, he urged her again: “Go! Get off the plane!” Her eyes filled with tears as she left.
But with our wives safe, we felt relieved. Now even the hijacker appeared less nervous. But as for us, we felt sure that we were being taken to Cuba, although the gunman had said nothing about it.
A Tense Time at Barranquilla Airport
Refueled now, the four-engine propjet took off from Cali headed for Barranquilla. We were allowed to put our hands down. Having been frightened and nervous now for over an hour, I asked to use the rest room, located up front. The gunman told me to come forward. As I approached him he motioned with the rifle for me to put my hands on the overhead luggage rack, with my back toward him. Then he searched me and told me to go ahead.
As I entered the rest room I noticed that two packages had been opened on the floor. Evidently the hijacker had brought the rifle on board disassembled and had reassembled it in the rest room during the first few minutes of the flight.
We arrived in Barranquilla, on the northern coast of Colombia, at 2:15 in the afternoon. We had spent the flight time talking quietly, seeking to build each other up. We had prayed privately, not so much for deliverance from the dangerous situation, but for wisdom and strength to take the judicious course. Soon after our landing in Barranquilla, new events caused further reason for anxiety.
Taxiing down the runway for a takeoff, the plane suddenly began to wobble—it had a flat tire. The hijacker began nervously looking out the windows, walking up and down the aisle. He restricted the number of men that could work on the tire and gave them an hour to fix it. By means of the plane’s radio, he ordered them to remove their shirts before approaching the plane, apparently to prevent their carrying hidden weapons.
We could see a large tank truck parked on the other runway near the plane. At one point, we saw smoke ascending from it. It appeared that it was burning. My friend sitting next to me began to balance the danger from the explosion of the fuel truck against the peril of being shot trying to leave the plane. We were “between two fires.” There were some frightening moments until the truck fire was finally brought under control.
The gunman opened the door of the plane and several times took aim at some of the men on the other side of the airfield. He fired at one of them, thus assuring us that he would really use the gun if necessary and that offering no resistance was the wise course. While the tire was being repaired, he released two elderly men.
By the time the tire was repaired, the hot tropical sun was making itself felt inside the plane. The engines started up and we began to roll again. Still the plane wobbled—another flat tire! We conjectured that someone was shooting out or deflating the tires—two flats seemed an unlikely coincidence. Perhaps the police were stalling for darkness. During this second repair session two more elderly men were released. One was a witness of Jehovah, taking his first airflight.
Time seemed to drag by under the watchful eye of the gunman. Everyone feared that his patience would explode into violence. We read our Bibles and magazines we had brought with us. This helped to relieve the tension somewhat. As darkness settled down, the hijacker ordered that no lights be turned on. We waited in the heat and the dark for something to happen.
Off to Cuba
After seven o’clock, the engines started up again. We hoped that no more tires would go flat. After spending about five hours on the runway, almost any kind of action seemed better than that suspense. We were anxious to go ahead and get the trip to Cuba over with.
On the long flight to Cuba we tried sleeping and reading, but mostly we just watched our captor. My aisle seat was situated in just the right position to be in the direct line of fire as the gunman sat on an armrest in the forward part of the plane, facing the passengers. He alertly held the rifle across his forearm, his finger always on the trigger. I tried reading, but every few minutes I would peek over the edge of the magazine, only to look right down the barrel of that rifle. It was indeed a very uncomfortable four-and-a-half-hour trip.
Arrival in Cuba
Shortly after midnight we touched down at Havana. We could see at least twenty soldiers, some with machine guns, gathered around the plane. First out was the hijacker. A photographer in the group of soldiers took a couple of pictures of him as he descended the stairs. He was taken away in a military jeep and we never saw him again.
The police entered the plane and ushered us off to a waiting room in the terminal. We were given refreshments and a smallpox vaccination. They questioned us all, one at a time, in a separate room. As we had left the plane the stewardess had returned our identification papers. This was what the officials were chiefly concerned with. They showed interest also in the fact that four of us were Jehovah’s witnesses.
At 1:40 in the morning we were taken to a large hotel at least thirty minutes from the airport. We were assigned clean, comfortable rooms on the fourteenth floor. While we waited for the keys to our rooms, a policeman approached me and asked how long I had been in Colombia. Perhaps my “beginner’s” Spanish had attracted him. I told him I was the most recent arrival of the four of us. He then sent us up to our rooms and at three o’clock we were in bed. I can assure you that after seventeen grueling hours those beds felt very good.
Speaking About God to a Communist Officer
Next morning after breakfast all twelve passengers were in the lobby of the hotel, waiting for the bus to take us back to the airport. While waiting, I was approached by a tall man dressed in street clothes, who asked if I would answer a few questions. He then took me to a room, where we sat facing each other on opposite sides of a table. The man said that he was an immigration official. His questions ranged from what my impressions of Communism were, to the organization of Jehovah’s witnesses. He inquired about the elections coming up in Colombia.
“Do you know who the candidates are?
“No,” I replied, “I have no interest in the political affairs of the nations. Jehovah’s witnesses in all parts of the earth are neutral as to politics. We are primarily concerned with preaching the good news of God’s kingdom.”
His expression changed to one of skepticism as I continued: “God’s kingdom will bring peace and security to all the earth.”
“We have peace and security here in Cuba and we did not have to talk about God to get it,” he responded.
“I am not talking about the trinitarian god of the so-called Christian churches, but about the God whose name is Jehovah, the true God of the Bible, who has promised to bring perfect conditions to this entire earth, including Cuba. No human government can do that, nor can it give you everlasting life in happiness.”
The man replied that there is no God, that man came from the ocean. I appealed to him to look at the marvel of creation that the human body is, and asked him how he could believe that there is no Creator. I was able to explain further that God himself is soon going to remove from the face of the earth all governments set up by men. Therefore people’s lives are in danger if they do not look into the Bible and listen to the warning God gives.
The interview concluded. I hurried back to join my friends in the lobby, glad to find that the bus had not left me behind. It was a beautiful day in Havana, and on our way to the airport we had opportunity to see something of this large city.
About two o’clock that afternoon we took off for home. At six we landed in Barranquilla, this time with one less “passenger” and a great deal happier. The crowd awaiting the plane gave a warm welcome to all. We spent the night in a hotel in Barranquilla, arranged for by the airline.
The next morning, thoughts of a different sort—the prospect of happy family reunions—occupied all the passengers during the trip to Bogotá. On arrival we made our way as best we could through the throng of reporters and police, finally reaching the welcome embrace of our wives.
Over forty-eight hours had passed since the beginning of our trip. Now we were thankful to Jehovah God that we had arrived safely and in time to attend the first day’s session of the assembly. We found that the newspapers had been filled daily with accounts of the hijacking. This publicity served to acquaint many more people in Bogotá with Jehovah’s witnesses’ assembly. It no doubt contributed to the fine attendance of 23,409 persons at the public talk on the assembly’s concluding day. So our unhappy experience was not entirely without good results.—Contributed.