NIGERIA – Priest kidnapped by Fulani describes his ordeal
Fr. Sam Okwuidegbe, a Nigerian Jesuit priest and director of a local spirituality center, was looking forward to a quiet retreat weekend last April Before he set off, his new provincial, Fr. Chuks Afiawari, joked “Make sure where you are going they don’t kidnap you.” They laughed about it, not realising that the joke would be an unfortunate prediction of what was about to happen.
On his way to the retreat in Onitsha in the state of Anambra, Fr. Sam took a familiar and usually safe highway on which he had traveled many times. Suddenly he heard gunshots and realised that all the vehicles behind him had stopped and were trying to reverse. That’s why he was so surprised when he heard gunshots. “That’s when it hit me that there was something dangerous ahead of me,” recalled Fr Sam. “On looking up I saw masked men with AK47 rifles shooting. I was so scared. I also stopped my car abruptly and began to reverse, but as I was trying to do that, a man suddenly appeared … and said, ‘If you don’t get out of the car I’ll shoot you.’”
The priest could see that the men had also stopped another car behind him and were forcing two men out of that car. Getting out in a hurry, Fr. Sam left his phone in the car. He soon realised the armed kidnappers were Fulani herdsmen, the fourth most violent militant group in the world who have killed thousands of people in Nigeria over the past two decades.
The kidnappers forced Fr. Sam and the other two men to walk through the forest at gunpoint for eight hours, barely stopping for breaks. Eventually they let one of the two other men go because he could not keep up with the pace, but they first cut his feet so that he could not escape quickly. Fr. Sam said “The pace in the forest was jogging, jumping over tree trumps, going over leaves, which often cut through our skin, so it was quite brutal. I was shaken and began to ask myself, is this happening to me? What am I doing here? I felt extremely cold and in my confusion … I’d mutter to myself, this can’t be happening, God. This can’t be happening.”
The kidnappers started questioning Fr. Sam and the other man and became suspicious when Fr. Sam told them he was a priest, thinking he might be a government spy. They stripped him of all his belongings – his watch, wallet, and rosary – and were very angry when they found out he had left his mobile phone in his car. They asked Fr. Sam if he could remember the number of anyone who could negotiate a ransom for his life but he was too traumatized by his experience to remember any phone numbers.
“That triggered a series of beatings…they huddled me up, hands and feet tied to the back with a rope like a goat before a kill. They removed my cassock, then my shirt, threw me into the dirt on the ground, and began to beat me with the back of their guns, they’d kick me hard on my sides, slap across my face, push and pull me hard across the ground…one of them said ‘We are going to burn you alive!’” the priest recalled. “I really believed that they were going to do it…I began to pray in silence…I said, ‘God, I commit to you, I commit my spirit’ and I resigned to the thought of my fate, that I was going to die that day.’”
Fr. Sam remembers praying constantly through the whole experience. “I hoped for a miracle…every minute I’d pray saying all kinds of prayers, I’d pray to Saint Ignatius, say the rosary and the Divine Mercy (chaplet)…at one time I found myself singing heartily but in the inside, a Ghanaian song that says ‘God speak to me…God where are you?’ I kept humming in my heart…it gave me hope,” he said. Finally, the beating stopped.
Eventually Fr. Sam was able to get the phone number of another Jesuit priest through the contact of the other man being held captive with him The Jesuit provincial, Fr. Jude Odiaka, began negotiations with the herdsmen. Fr. Sam felt better once he had made contact with the Jesuits. “I knew that word must have gotten around about the kidnapping, and that the sisters at the retreat centre and people who knew me must have been praying for me.”
The other man who had been captured with Fr. Sam also was a great comfort, he recalled. “He was a grace for me, a gift from God. I hope I was too for him because we exchanged words of encouragement silently, as we were not allowed to talk to each other.” Finally, the captors seemed to have got what they wanted as they started talking of letting the men go. “I intensified my prayers and I prayed to God ‘Please God, make this end well,’” Fr. Sam said. When the two captives were eventually released, they were left to wander alone together through the forest, trying to find a way out. Eventually, they were able to make it to safety and return home.
While the experience was “painful and traumatizing,” Fr. Sam said his greatest consolation upon his return was hearing from many people, near and far, that they had been praying for him. “In all these things God revealed to me that I was never abandoned while in the forest, even if I was out of reach and in danger, that God heard the prayers and was with me,” he said. “It has renewed my faith in God, my faith in people.”
Fr. Sam now plans to use his kidnapping experience to help other people. “This has also given me an understanding to accompany those who come to me for help seeking solace, encouragement, strength, hope, …maybe that’s why it happened.”
“I’m going to use it in my work as a counselor and psychologist to help those who come to me for help, because what support can be given to people that have been kidnapped? What help can we give such people? I think I have become part of that help with what I have experienced.”