A Jesuit priest, Fr. Samuel Okwuidegbe , has recalled what he describes as “horrific three days” in the hands of kidnappers who stole him while driving on the Benin Asaba Highway, leaving his car.
He was on his way to Onitsha for a retreat, he says. He says he is lucky, as he survived, to tell his story.
“It was supposed to be a quiet retreat weekend last April,” says Fr. Sam Okwuidegbe, a Nigerian Jesuit priest and director of a local spirituality center.
Before he left, he chatted with his new provincial, Fr. Chuks Afiawari, who joked with Fr. Sam: “Make sure where you are going they don’t kidnap you.”
“We laughed about it,” Fr. Okwuidegbe recalled.
Little did the priests know that the joke would be an unfortunate foreshadowing of what was to come. In a testimony posted on the website of the Jesuit Superiors of Africa and Madagascar, Fr. Sam recalled how his faith carried him through the traumatic and harrowing experience of kidnapping.
On his way to the retreat, which was to be in Onitsha, Anambra State, Fr. Okwuidegbe took a familiar, seemingly safe highway on which he had traveled many times.
That’s why he was so surprised when he heard gunshots.
“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,” he recalled.
“On looking up, I saw masked men with AK-47 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 behind him that the men had also stopped another car, a black Mercedes, and were forcing two men out of the car. As he was being hurried out, Fr. Okwuidegbe left his phone in the car.
He identified the armed kidnappers as Fulani herdsmen. He said the kidnappers led him and the other two victims into the forest at gunpoint, where they trekked for eight hours, barely stopping for breaks.
They eventually 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. Okwuidegbe recalled.
“The pace in the forest was jogging, jumping over tree stumps, going over leaves, which often cut through our skin. So it was quite brutal!” the priest said.
“I was shaken and I felt extremely cold. Several times, I’d mutter to myself, ‘This can’t be happening, God. This can’t be happening,” he said.
The captors started questioning Fr. Okwuidegbe and the other man, and were suspicious when the cleric identified himself as a priest, thinking he might be a government spy.
They proceeded to strip him of all his belongings – his watch, wallet, and rosary.
When they questioned him about his phone, the captors were enraged that he had left it in his car – which was fortunate, the priest said, because he had saved financial information from his work on it.
The militants asked him if he could remember anyone’s number – someone to call who could negotiate for his life and pay off the herdsmen. But he said he couldn’t remember any phone number because of the trauma.
“That triggered a series of beatings. They huddled me up, hands and feet tied to the back.
They removed my clothes and threw me on the ground, and began to beat me with their gun butts. They kicked me hard on my sides, slapped me across the face, pushed and pulled me hard on the ground. One of them even 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 that I was going to die that day.’”
Finally, the beating stopped. Fr. Okwuidegbe said he remembered praying constantly throughout the whole experience.
“I hoped for a miracle every minute, 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 in my heart 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.
Eventually Fr. Okwuidegbe was able to get the phone number of another Jesuit priest through the contact of the other man in captivity. This priest, Jesuit provincial Fr. Jude Odiaka, began negotiations with the herdsmen.
And while at times he prayed for death, Fr. Okwuidegbe said he 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 all over must be praying for me.”
The other captive was a great comfort, Fr. Okwuidegbe recalled. “We exchanged words of encouragement silently, as we were not allowed to talk to each other.”
Finally, the captors seemed to have gotten what they wanted, and started talking of letting the men go.
“I intensified my prayers and I prayed to God, ‘Please God, make this end well,’” the priest said.
“I recalled a saying that ‘God will not bring you this far, then abandon you.” So, this brought some assurance to my heart.”
When the kidnappers finally released the men, they were left to wander alone through the forest, trying to find the pathway out. Eventually, they were able to make it to safety and back home.
While the experience was “painful and traumatic,” Fr. Okwuidegbe said one of the best consolations upon his return was hearing from many people, near and far, that they had prayed for him.
“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