Story of Kidnapped Jesuit Priest’s Survival: A Sheer Miracle
Jesuit Superiors of Africa and Madagascar (JESAM) || 02 June 2017
What should have been a tranquil retreat week in the Eastern Part of Nigeria turned into an unending nightmare...
It was April 18, a Tuesday. I was scheduled to leave for a retreat in the Eastern part of Nigeria. I was going to be away and as the Director of the Spirituality Centre where I work, I began the day by organizing a few house issues as two of the men who lived in the Centre had left for other works outside giving retreats to religious women. The retreat was with a group of sisters from the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters (IHM) on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius, in a place called Onitsha, Anambra State.
Before leaving the house around noon, our provincial who is coming in now, Fr. Chuks Afiawari SJ, had called and we were just chatting, and at one time made a joke saying "Make sure where you are going they don't kidnap you", we laughed about it...
Road to Onitsha
I left the centre and drove to a bypass that takes you to a highway between Agbor and Asaba road. When I was ascending I heard gunshots, sporadically. I became alarmed and very troubled as...I'm not used to gunshots having travelled along that road severally.
On glancing back, I saw all the vehicles behind me stopping, and trying to reverse...that's when it hit me that there was something dangerous ahead of me. On looking up I saw masked men with AK47 riffles 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 was very close to me, then I heard a shot in the air. I didn't know it was my vehicle that was hit.
In the car I had my two phones besides me...the man came close to me and said, "If you don't get out of the car I'll shoot you." I made a quick glance outside and near my car was a big black jeep, a Mercedes, also trying to get away and the other armed men went after it, they got two men out of the vehicle.
I think that was the attraction...that was their target because they just don't go after any vehicle.
When I saw guns pointed at me and led into the bush I felt like someone watching a movie whose ending is not real. I surrendered, raised my hands up and then left my phones deliberately in the car and came out.
Outside they pointed to what seemed like a path in the bush and pushing me, said "come on...Move! Move!"
I saw the other two men from the black jeep, also kidnapped following me this was around 12:30pm. The seven armed men were all holding very powerful AK47 riffles. By a quick glance at them, they were all Fulani herdsmen from the northern part of Nigeria. We walked that very day for about 8 hours in the bush and through the forest, going through people's farms. Our captors knew the terrain so well they were not mistaken as to where they were taking us. The amazing thing is that they never stayed in one place for more than an hour, we kept moving, and moving...until it got dark.
While on the trek through the forest, they let one of the guy kidnapped with us go, because he was sickly and couldn't keep up with the pace. The kidnappers were agitated that he was slowing us down; they even deliberated on killing him at one point. What they did we eventually found out from them was that they used a knife and scrapped his foot to slow him down in getting out of the forest. 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!
And then they began to ask for our phones...
Captivity 'Into the Jungle'
I was so shaken, and began to ask myself, is this happening to me? What I'm I doing in this forest? What I'm I doing here? I felt extremely cold and in my confusion I said nothing! I'd mutter to myself, this can't be happening, God. This can't be happening.
I had heard many stories about kidnappings yet here I was. I even refuse to believe that I had just been kidnapped, until reality set in when we were seated, blindfolded in the dark, in a forest with strange men pointing guns at us. It then dawned on me that yes I have been kidnapped. I began asking God, why? Why? God, why?
That night they asked me who I was, I said that I was a priest. But they were suspicious because of how I looked. I had a moustache, and they presumed that I could be an undercover cop, a thing in Nigeria. They taunted me with questions like. How old I was? Who told me to be a priest? Why I didn't have children? Why I'm not married?
All these became moments of emotional torture and later translated to physical abuse...
They stripped us off all the belongings that we had, they took my wrist watch, my ring, a chain, my wallet and a rosary. The other guy's jewels were all taken and they were very expensive, but, the kidnappers didn't seem to know their value. There was no questioning these men...at all...they were rough.
That night we walked till the wee hours of the morning and as we maneuvered through the forest they would stop and listen keenly to sounds, and then move, dodging any signs of people guarding their farms or from the highway.
We were sandwiched between the seven armed men all clutching guns tightly...there was no escape! We begged to stop and rest but they kept going...there was no way you could stop because then they would hit you with their guns.
Deep in the jungle, we slept and sheltered under a palm tree...
When the kidnappers began asking for phones, I told them I didn't have mine that I had left them in the car hurriedly when I was forced into the bush. My phones had financial information of the centre. So, it was smart at the time to leave them as that would have given them more bargaining power, but then, I paid dearly for it... they didn't believe that I was a priest. In a way they were a little suspicious of me.
They then told me to recall any number that I know; but trust me...I just couldn't remember a number and I wasn't fooling anyone. I have not taken time to memorize a number, except one of my friend's and even that I couldn't remember.
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. They then brought a cloth close to my nose...I could smell paraffin. One of them said "we are going to burn you alive!"
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. My hands went numb, and I was crying and shouting begging them to help relieve me of this pain, and they wouldn't. I could smell the rusty scent of blood across my cheek. Tears made their way down my eyes, sobbing, whimpering in pain. When they finally untied the ropes, I tell you..."ahhh", I sighed with relief as the ropes around me finally gave way, and I could practically hear the blood rushing back into the feet and ankles. I felt relief wash over me at that instance...however, that, was the most painful way to torture someone.
I wondered how much longer I would be alive...
There were bruises and deep welts where the ropes had been on my arms and on my back. I hoped for a miracle...I was at their mercy...so I became very submissive to whatever they asked me to do.
Again every minute I'd pray saying all kinds of prayers, I'd pray to Saint Ignatius, say the rosary and the divine mercy...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.
On Day 2, Wednesday, we went to a different place in the afternoon we sat there and they would come and ask, do you have a number...and I would say no, then they would slap me.
Meanwhile the other person had managed to contact his brothers, and they were negotiating and I begged to speak to the person so that he could check on the internet the Jesuit Fathers Nigeria, find a number and call, but they refused. They seemed afraid of being tracked, tricking them into being found. But after carefully asking again, they reconsidered, and that night they agreed to the request. We finally got Fr. David Ogun's number, a Jesuit who works in one of the parishes in Benin. Then he directed all negotiations to the Provincial, Fr. Jude Odiaka, who handled the negotiations on phone.
This was the second day, we hadn't eaten, or had water, and they'd bring only half a glass of water from either a stream nearby or from the farmers' reservoirs and ask us to drink. I was afraid mostly of getting sick, so I would avoid at times, even when thirsty, the guy I was with would encourage me and say, "Just drink a little, for some strength to walk".
At some point I even began to think about death, to imagine what it means and what is like to die. Imagine...praying for death. Yes I did pray for death that night. But...I had consoling thoughts as well, I knew that word must have gotten around about the kidnapping, and that the sisters at the retreat centre and people who knew me all over, must have been praying for me.
...this thought gave me hope, to live, to survive.
One of the light moments all this time was with the guy I was kidnapped with because 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.
Road To freedom
Day 3, Friday morning, they told us to call our people, that day, was the last to pay up... "We just don't kidnap and let you go without getting something out of it", he retorted, "If your people don't pay the money, we will kill both of you!"
So we talked to our people and relayed the information. Around noon they came to me holding my wallet, and fished out many notes. All foreign currency from different countries. They called somebody on the outside and enquired about their worth surprisingly, because after all they had phones.
The absurd thing is that...these kidnappers were making calls from the forest without fear; there was no impression from either the government or from any one to come and rescue us. They were relaxed, they didn't feel any pressure and took their time, and they never felt the need to run away. They were at ease in the forest.
I don't have enemies, but I wouldn't wish this on anyone who might be an enemy...No! I wouldn't.
They found out about the exchange rates and they seemed happy with it. That Friday evening they promised to let us go but only if there was no police involved and after the ransom.
A glimmer of hope, holding on to Faith in moments of despair
I intensified my prayers and I prayed to God "Please God, make this end well". I recalled a saying that "God will not bring you this far, then abandon you", so this brought some assurance to my heart. We had been left with two of the kidnappers, at around 5pm, some went for the ransom and the other left to buy food stuffs and drinks to celebrate their success. We were released around 8pm.
Before this I had told myself that I was going to tell my Provincial that I didn't want to do this work anymore, that maybe I should do something different, and to take me out of this place.
Saint Ignatius always said, "do not make a decision when you are in desolation", and I think because I was desolated I forgot what I should have known as someone who teaches this.
I forgot...yet there I was making a decision...
Left Alone in the Jungle
We could smell freedom, and with anticipation we followed the two who were guarding us, I was happy that we were going home. When we got to where the other kidnappers were waiting, they said, "See...go...go...straight ahead, you will see a tree pass it and keep going...your people are there waiting for you!"
Can you imagine! A pitch black thick forest, and that's the direction you are given? Yes! There was no clear path, we just left the kidnappers, and began walking, not knowing exactly where we were heading.
It was one of the most dangerous moments of captivity when they let us go at the middle of nowhere. We kept walking in circles, this was around 9pm, walking in people's farms where there were traps, a forest with possibly snakes, scorpions, and other would-be dangerous animals, or even other vigilantes watching out for intruders.
We walked for close to an hour looking for this place. I often stumbled because it was so dark...but the guy I was with would lend a hand, and we walked hand in hand, hoping for a clue. Luckily we came by a tree that had a path, from a distance we could see what looked like a new building, we walked towards it and heard footsteps, and then we cried out, "anyone here?" And I heard a woman's voice asking who are you? I said, "Please we need help, we had just been kidnapped". The moment she heard kidnapped, she became alarmed and said, "Let me call my 'Oga'...my husband".
The guy I was with said, "madam could we please get some water to drink we are very thirsty". That request touched her so she came out with her husband. I said to them, "I'm a priest as you can see my cassock here", they asked, "Where had you been kidnapped?" I said, "We were in the forest". The two took us into their veranda and gave us water to drink.
I just sat there and began to cry, so did the other guy. The man gave us his phone and asked us to call the number of the people waiting for us.
When they reached us that was the first time to see people we knew, the relief, the emotion on our faces...and then I began to feel the pains now, all the torturous moments at the forest came flooding over...I sobbed uncontrollably my pain, exhaustion and fear...with relief, with joy, but also with deep sadness at the thought of where we had just been.
We drove to the Centre, still unable to utter a word, we arrived around midnight and Father David's was waiting for us, and took me to the hospital to get checked.
I must say I craved an Ice cold coke or a beer and certainly started with the coke...
I remembered the decision I was trying to make in the forest and again I began to cry because of the calls I received that day, the people flocking to see me at the parish where I was, bearing fruits, and gifts and asking Fr. Sam are you okay? My brother, my family, former classmates, people I hadn't even seen or spoken to for years, this incidence brought them back to my life.
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.
Sometimes I cry, in consolation whenever I recall the harsh conditions, having been so afraid of things like snakes scorpions and any crawling animals; yet God gave me peace to sleep through the three nights without thoughts of fear...a miracle for me! I was in the valley of the shadow of death and God intervened with all these prayers from people all over the world. If it were not for all these prayers, I would not have survived this ordeal.
This experience was painful and traumatizing, but it has renewed my faith in God, my faith in people...the human person, God's gift of friendship and that if what I do matters, then also those people I do it with are also very important.
My love for the Society of Jesus has been renewed, I remember when I got to Hekima College in Nairobi a young man from Zimbabwe came to me and said, "You look familiar, are you Father Sam?" I said yes, and he continued, "We have been praying for you in Zimbabwe". It was so wonderful to hear that. God has been faithful and my love for the Society has grown and I also pray for the many people who might be kidnapped tomorrow because of the inaction of the government.
Life of priests matter!
There are many priests who have been kidnapped but I hope that each time that happens it will inform our government and our church to raise our voices louder to speak against and act upon such evil deeds. The church has to realize the importance of human life that they don't have to frown or take eyes away when such a thing happens. We have to consistently and sorely speak for life. My life is what was at stake, my life!
I'm really beyond grateful to my brothers, to the opportunity to come to Kenya, I love Kenya. Thank you to my Provincial, Fr. Jude Odiaka SJ, for allowing me to come to Nairobi, Fr. John-Okoria Ibhakewanlan SJ, who constantly spoke to me and encouraged me to visit and for welcoming me to Hekima College. The JESAM President, Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ, for the support and encouragement to tell my story. A thank you to my brothers, you are wonderful, I was at home in Hekima. It was great to meet old friends, and now I am back in Nigeria...I will tell my story over and over again.
Life after this ordeal
My background is mental health, therapy and counseling so perhaps God was trying to show me something, I don't know! But this has also given me an understanding to accompany those who come to me for help seeking solace, encouragement, strength, hope, renewal...you know...maybe that's why it happened, I know I'm not going to hold in the strength and knowledge that I have gained from this, I'm going to use it in my work as a counselor, psychologist and 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 received, and experienced.
I'm more than ever encouraged not to turn my back to all the help, to the people who need assistance to begin to live again after such an ordeal.
Thank you P. Sam for sharing your story, God bless you!