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Danny Shaylor bows beside his kitchen table to thank God for the filets of balenton his wife has prepared for lunch. The huge catfish came from the wide Orinoco, which flows past the kitchen window and through the jungle northward to the Caribbean. But the blessings of catfish, yucca root, and mangos laid before him aren't the only things on Mr. Shaylor's mind.
Like his fellow New Tribes missionaries throughout Venezuela, he prays for "the hostages" as he has done for years.
"The hostages" are the three Americans of New Tribes Mission kidnapped 3-1/2 years ago by Colombian guerrillas. Earlier this year, the Colombian government announced its official assumption that Richard Tenenoff, Mark Rich, and David Mankins were dead. The New Tribes missionaries here in Venezuela, however, noting reported sightings of the hostages by Colombian nationals, and with unswerving faith in God's power to deliver, have not given up hope.
There have been unconfirmed reports of the safety and ongoing work to secure the release of the three men, but their lengthy captivity has rattled procedures and assumptions here-100 miles from the Colombian border.
Mr. Shaylor, 54, is a member of the newly formed three-man Tama Tama Administrative Council. He has spent his life here in the remote jungles of Amazonas state near the southern tip of Venezuela. In 1946, his father, Robert Shaylor, came 500 miles up the Orinoco-five days by boat from Puerto Ayacucho (called P.A.)-and pitched camp on this tropical knoll. That was the beginning of this tiny mission base, now the home of Robert Shaylor Academy, a boarding school for missionary kids drawn from the mission bases scattered across Venezuela. About a dozen New Tribes families form the local support community for the school.
Fifty years ago, the greatest physical threats were vampire gnats, grouchy tigers, and the occasional long arrows of primitive tribesmen. Guerrilla attack was never considered a threat-until last fall.
Last September, rumors drifted in from an Indian who claimed to have seen strangers with Colombian accents coming up the river. He said they talked about stealing the plane from the small airstrip behind the knoll at Tama Tama.
Then it was reported that the Venezuelan military had intercepted a radio transmission between someone with a Colombian accent and someone with a Venezuelan accent. They discussed stealing a plane and kidnapping a pilot from Tama Tama.
The rumors were pooh-poohed by Indians living here. It was rainy season, and the floodwaters of the Orinoco spread for miles into the trees, making it nearly impossible for guerrillas to survive in the jungle long enough to sneak this far from Colombia. And an ex-guerrilla who now works for the Venezuelan government said the Colombian rebels would never have revealed their plan on radio.
The Venezuelan general commanding the National Guard garrison at P.A., downstream, relayed his assurances that Tama Tama was safe. He conjectured that someone was merely scheming to get the Protestant missionaries to leave-not a new problem. The rumors, however, spread alarm among New Tribes missionaries at the secluded school.
The Colombian guerrillas have no history of hurting children-probably, say Venezuelan security experts, because they want to maintain some modicum of nobility in the eyes of Colombian peasants. But the threat of guerrilla attack prompted some of the missionary parents to want their children out of Tama Tama. Their fears were subsequently allayed and all students remained.
New Tribes Mission security adviser Guy Sier, a former Green Beret, was sent to Tama Tama from Mission headquarters in Florida to help the administrative council develop a contingency plan for evacuation if the compound were to come under attack by guerrillas.
The New Tribes supply base for Venezuelan jungle missions is in Puerto Ayacucho, an hour and a half northwest of Tama Tama by air. The exotically junky river port lies on the east bank of the Orinoco opposite the small Colombian town of Casuerito. Five pilots with NTM's Tribal Air Communications wing (TAC)-including Danny Shaylor's eldest son-are stationed there, along with the administrative and requisition team. For them the guerrilla threat is more than rumor.
Twice in recent years, Colombian guerrillas hit the small P.A. airport where the TAC planes are based. Although the guerrillas stole a plane each time, the NTM planes were spared. In one case, the hijacked commercial plane landed across the river long enough to let the passengers out, then took off again. Authorities recovered the plane, but the pilot-a friend of the New Tribes pilots-is still missing.
In the other case, the plane disappeared, but the hijacked pilot and his wounded mechanic were able to return after being dumped in Colombia.
The hot breath of the guerrillas has burned away many of TAC's traditional flight procedures. The pilots now register their flight plans in codes that change daily. They use transmitters that can receive secret "do not land" signals at tribal bases. And the missionaries at each base now display predetermined ground signals indicating the all-clear to land.
Last year, TAC pilot Eric German was instructed to pick up passengers at a remote tribal base on his way back to P.A. from Tama Tama. When he hit the grassy runway, he saw two armed men-one in camouflage with a machine gun, the other in jeans and red T-shirt, also carrying a machine gun. They were approaching beyond the point where he usually parked the plane.
As soon as he had enough runway behind him, Mr. German made a 180-degree turn and took off again. He returned 10 minutes later, after radioing the National Guard command post at Tama Tama. The officer there assured him that the two men were new national guard recruits.
In February, a man dressed as a Venezuelan soldier kidnapped the son of a local businessman in his own Puerto Ayacucho driveway, torched his car outside of town, and took him across the river to Colombia by dugout canoe. Guerrillas released the man in August after his father paid ransom.
One night several years ago, buyer Larry Fyock at the P.A. mission was awakened by what he thought was thunder. It was artillery fire. Casuerito, Colombia, just across the river, was under guerrilla attack.
North American missionaries accept the fact of their vulnerability. The whereabouts of every team member in Puerto Ayacucho is common knowledge. A pilot's wife has only to tell a taxi driver which barrio, and he'll drive her to her door. New Tribes no longer stations North Americans in Venezuela's northwest border areas up toward Maracaibo. But hostages have been taken to Colombia from as far east as Ciudad Bolivar-often kidnapped by Venezuelans and sold to the guerrillas.
Signs of sympathy for the communist cause can even be seen at P.A.'s open-air Indian market just two blocks from the mission office, where vendors sell clenched-fist necklace bobs carved in ebony.
Until now, team members have derived some sense of security from the public no-ransom policy of New Tribes Mission. "Why would the guerrillas want to lug missionary hostages around for nothing?" they ask. But the passage of time and uncertainty surrounding the three New Tribes hostages taken in Columbia is not reassuring.
Even so, it's unlikely they'll leave Puerto Ayacucho, Tama Tama, or any of the other remote tribal bases. "God made us of sound mind to make sound choices," says Tama Tama Council member Chuck Marshall. "Forsaking God's call to take the gospel to the ends of the earth isn't one of them.
"Our security," he says, "rests in our God."
Mr. Bomer is editor of the God's World series of current-events newspapers for schoolchildren.