SALEM, Ohio – Angry eyes peered through the van windows.
The 19 Americans inside squirmed in their seats, taking quick glances at the hard, unforgiving faces.
It was hot. At least 95 degrees.
The van had air conditioning, but when the driver was forced to stop, the vehicle overheated and the air had to be turned off. Opening the windows seemed like a bad idea.
The van got warmer and warmer as the group sat along the Occidente highway.
Beads of sweat formed on their foreheads, dripped down their backs.
They were trapped.
And Greg Courtney was pretty sure the Honduran natives who forced them off the road intended to kill them.
* * *
The van’s passengers were professors, students and administrators from Kent State University. The group was on a weeklong geography tour of Honduras, studying the culture, landscape and history of the country.
The group was led by John Allensworth, a geoscience professor at Georgia State University, and Frank Erickson, a geography professor at Kent. Courtney, a longtime friend of Allensworth and Erickson, had brought his 14-year-old son, Kamil, along for the trip. This was the 10th year Courtney, of Salem, had joined the university’s geography tour.
It was March 26 and the group had left home just three days earlier.
Three Honduran tour guides from Garifuna Tours had been escorting the group around the country and the visit was going well so far.
The fourth day of the trip was a Monday and the group spent the morning at the Mayan archaeological site of Copan. In the early afternoon, they were on their way to the city of San Pedro Sula when they approached Seis de Mayo, a small village in northwestern Honduras.
As the van moved down the highway, the group saw hundreds of men, women and children emerging from the underbrush along the road. They flagged down the van and told the group it was OK to proceed. It was a strange message, Courtney said, but it didn’t seem like a reason to turn back.
The van continued on its way and a mile later, another huge group of people appeared in the brush. They moved toward the road, carrying machetes and sharp tools on long sticks.
The driver tried to turn the van around, but it was too late. The same villagers who’d waved them through moments earlier formed a barrier on the road, their faces etched with rage.
The driver had no choice but to pull over. When the van stopped, three semitrucks immediately surrounded the vehicle.
* * *
An hour after the villagers forced the van off the road, one of the group’s Honduran tour guides, Mark, ventured out. He asked the crowd congregating around the van to leave and many did. But they demanded the Americans stay put. If they didn’t, the consequences would be violent.
As Mark used his cell phone to reach the owner of Garifuna Tours, the Kent State group walked to a nearby banana grove. It was shady there, and much cooler.
Although Courtney speaks some Spanish, he couldn’t understand all of the Hondurans’ grumbling and angry shouts.
But he did understand “mas Americanos.” More Americans.
And he understood the contempt in their voices.
While they waited in the banana grove, the group called the U.S. Embassy for help, but their stomachs dropped at the response. Officials said the group would have to wait it out.
As the minutes ticked by, Honduran natives walked back and forth, staring at each member of the group. A 16-year-old girl shook everyone’s hand before patting their pockets in search of money.
Out of options and desperate not to draw further attention, the professors, students and administrators stayed close together, their eyes darting nervously around the grove.
* * *
As the afternoon wore on, it became apparent the group would be spending at least one night in Seis de Mayo.
Across the street, a cement compound stood behind a barbwire fence. The compound was a simple building – four windowless walls with a thatched roof.
Before evening, Mark made an arrangement with the family living there – money in exchange for shelter.
When the travelers moved to the compound area, Courtney felt oddly safer behind the thin strands of barbwire. Another group of Hondurans had gathered nearby, but they didn’t trespass onto the property. There seemed to be an unspoken rule about crossing through the fence uninvited.
The Americans moved away from the street, trying to attract less attention.
Inside the house were two rooms, plus a bathroom. The toilet flushed, but the waste simply drained into a ditch out front. The only way in or out of the building was through a single steel door.
It was the nicest place on the street, Courtney said. Other homes were made from mud brick or bamboo.
As dinnertime neared, the women in the house ground corn on rocks and killed a chicken for food. The cornmeal and meat, plus some rice and beans, made for a good meal.
But the food didn’t calm any nerves. The students were edgy, anxious.
“Let’s just get out here,” one student repeated over and over to Courtney.
But there was nowhere to go. Even if they ran, what were they running to? What was happening outside the village?
The administrators and professors were calmer, willing to wait before making any big decisions. As night settled in, they sat in lawn chairs behind the barbwire, talking about the situation.
Courtney worried about his family at home. Was his group’s plight being broadcast around the world? Would his wife see a story on the news and panic? He wanted to call, but his cell phone didn’t work.
The group had learned earlier that the unrest in the village had something to do with a government conflict, but they had no details and didn’t know why they’d been detained.
One of the professors used “hostage” to describe their situation.
“Let’s not use that word,” said Kent State’s Erickson.
* * *
Darkness brought violence. Half a mile from the compound, the sky lit up and smoke rose into the air. Courtney heard gunshots snapping back and forth through the streets.
He suspected the villagers were clashing with the police or military.
Nearly all of the Courtney’s comrades went into the compound when the gunshots started, but Courtney couldn’t make himself go in. He stood in the yard, his ears trained on the mob. Were they getting closer to the compound? How far away was that gunshot?
He strained to hear or see anything that might give him a clue.
In the early morning hours, Courtney, a father of 10, surrendered his post outside. He walked into the compound, closed the steel door behind him and slid down until he reached the floor.
“I literally had my back against the door until daylight,” he said.
* * *
When the sun rose, the streets were quiet. The crowds from the day before were gone, replaced by a few lone silhouettes slinking in and out of the shadows.
The morning passed slowly, giving the group several hours to wonder what would happen next.
But before lunch, the owner of Garifuna Tours called with the news they’d been waiting to hear – they were free to leave. The owner had spoken with the country’s minister of tourism, who said the Americans could go. They couldn’t take the van because the roads were still blocked, but they were free to walk out of the village to a bus that would be waiting for them.
Unfortunately, the bus was parked three hours away. It was 90 degrees and Courtney wasn’t sure if everyone in the group could walk that far in such heat. Unsure of what to do next, Courtney and Georgia State’s Allensworth decided to walk up the highway to find the bus.
They passed burnt tires and smashed vehicles. Stolen semitrailers were still positioned across the road and rock barricades were piled high on the asphalt.
The crowds of Hondurans had gathered again and although danger still existed for the Americans, the rage from the day before had lessened.
As it turned out, the bus was parked only an hour from the compound and Courtney and Allensworth returned for their fellow travelers.
As they left, Allensworth instructed everyone to “walk confidently” and “act like you know where you’re going.”
Mark stayed behind with the van and luggage, so the group hired two Honduran men to escort them through the maze of damaged, hijacked vehicles. As they approached a large tour bus parked across the road, the villagers in it, around it and under it stared at them. When the group tried to walk past the bus, the crowd swarmed around them.
One man shouted in Spanish, “Go back! You must go back!”
But the Honduran escorts insisted it was OK, these people could go through.
The group walked on, refusing to slow down. Eventually, the man gave up.
Relief seeped through Courtney’s veins once they boarded the bus. But it didn’t take him long to realize that he didn’t recognize anyone. Was this a setup? Had they been tricked? If they had been duped, what could they do now?
* * *
Courtney’s fears were soon soothed, however, when the owner of Garifuna Tours met them nearby.
Eating at McDonald’s for lunch, the past 24 hours seemed like nothing more than a bad dream. But the next day, Courtney saw proof.
There they were, on page 15 of LaPrensa, Honduras’ largest independent newspaper. A photographer had captured the group on film as they made their way back to the bus.
In the following days, the travelers also got an answer to the question that had been burning in their minds since the van had first been stopped: Why?
More than a year ago, Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’ president, had campaigned for election in Seis de Mayo. He’d promised sanitary sewers, water, electric, phone service, health care and education.
But Zelaya didn’t keep those promises once he got elected. So, 15 municipalities joined together and met with government representatives over the matter. They gave leaders a 90-day deadline to show some kind of progress. Otherwise, they would retaliate.
The government didn’t act and day No. 90 fell on March 26.
The protest was short – only 38 hours – but the villagers and the government reached an agreement. An agreement to supply the services and stop the fighting. An agreement to open the road and let vehicles through. And an agreement that let the captives go home.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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