Sunday, September 24, 2023

‘We came back stronger’: Priest, seminarian abducted in Nigeria recall three-week ordeal

Father Paul Sanogo seminarian Melchior Maharini

Father Paul Sanogo and seminarian Melchior Maharini, who were kidnapped from their Missionaries of Africa community in Nigeria’s Catholic Diocese of Minna, came back to the community on Aug. 23 weary, traumatized, and sick.

The two had spent three weeks in captivity, where they were flogged almost daily, made to sleep on rocks out in the open, and forced to walk for miles barefoot as their kidnappers moved from spot to spot in the forest they were taken to following their Aug. 3 abduction.

When they spoke to ACI Africa on Sept. 1, about a week after their release, the two said the trauma they experienced during their captivity was a blessing, as it had strengthened their faith.

“When the men took us, I had so much fear in my heart, thinking of the worst that could happen to us. I couldn’t stop praying. And as time went by, I felt my faith grow stronger. I accepted my situation and surrendered everything to God,” Maharini, a native of Tanzania, said.

He added: “I thought about the suffering that our fathers, the early Missionaries of Africa, endured at the start of our congregation in Africa. Many died, but those who survived didn’t give up on the mission. While I was taken captive, I made a firm decision never to give up on my mission. For me, it is forward ever, backward never!”

Sanogo, a native of Mali, reiterated Maharini’s sentiments, adding: “What we have is faith built on persecution. Everything I experienced while in captivity is what priesthood entails. Jesus himself tells us that he is sending us out like sheep among wolves. We leave our homes not knowing what will happen to our lives.”

“What we went through is nothing compared to the passion of Jesus. I found great joy uniting my pain with the passion of Jesus,” the priest said.

Sanogo and Maharini remember being taken away at about 11 p.m. on the day of captivity by a gang of 12 men who broke into their community in Gyadna village in Nigeria’s Niger State.

“There were five of us in the house and we were just going to bed. The incident happened very fast. First, we heard gunshots and in a matter of minutes, the men had already broken into the house. Three of our brothers managed to escape and the two of us were taken,” Maharini recalled. “We were taken away barefoot and in our sleepwear. We didn’t have any other clothes for the whole time we stayed in captivity.”

The two remember walking for more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) and finding themselves in the middle of a thick forest the following day at 6 a.m.

In the forest were seven other people who had been taken captive, Sanogo said. “We never interacted with the other captives as they were released much sooner.”

“The men wanted money from us. We kept saying that we didn’t have any money. That infuriated them and they constantly beat us. We were in a very big forest and there were no villages nearby. They would give us something to eat and we slept on rocks and on the grass in the open,” said Sanogo, who has been in Nigeria for only a year and a half.

“We were their slaves,” Maharini added, “and having no freedom, not having the slightest idea of what they would do to us was troubling at first. We were very happy when one day they told us, ‘You are free. You may go back home.’”

Back at the community, the two found a festive mood. News had been spread across the congregation and to their families that their sons were alive and had regained freedom.

When Sanogo and Maharini spoke to ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, on Sept. 1, they were preparing to travel to their respective countries to spend some days with their families.

The two expressed gratitude to their congregation for working tirelessly to secure their release and the people of God who prayed for them while in captivity.

They said that they had forgiven their abductors and were praying for their conversion.

“I started praying for the men who abducted us on the day they took us. I kept praying for their conversion so that they may one day realize that what they are doing is not right. I also forgave them a long time ago,” Maharini said.