At about 2.30pm on Thursday, July 9, when I passed the infamous exact spot where kidnappers were known to usually pick up their victims on the Benin/Ekpoma road, I expressed a sigh of relief as I always do after passing that spot. But this time with some little concern that there was not the usual police check point there, although I passed one just about 5 mins earlier. Then just as I was trying to overtake a trailer, still within the same area, I heard some distant noises, that sounded like one from the exhaust pipe of the trailer. But as the noise got louder and nearer, I heard and felt a heavy noise inside my car. I immediately checked if anything hit me, but I saw that I was unhurt.
Although I did not see or notice anything in my car, it was clear to me that something was directed at me. As I looked up, I saw some masked men shooting up and also pointing in my direction by the right side of the road in the driver’s direction. Immediately, I knew they were kidnappers. This first thing I did was to turn off the engine of my car, at least to stop the aggressive shots. As I was alighting from my car and went down with my two hands up, one of the kidnappers ran towards my direction, shouting lie down.
Then he asked me to get up, and take a little bag at the back seat of my car, but before I did, he took the bag himself. The bag contained my vestments for Mass, as I just finished a Mass at Benin and was on my return to Ekpoma. As he was hurriedly taking me away, I reminded him that I have not taken my phone. I knew having my phone was very important for them. So I was immediately thinking of how to douse anything that would cause further aggression. He asked me to take it. Then he took me running into the bush. When we got to somewhere and we were about to climb the hill, he saw that it was difficult for me to climb because of the cassock I was putting on. He opened my bag, saw a green chasuble within and asked me to put it on. I wanted to protest that we only put that on during Mass, but it occurred to me that I was in an atmosphere where I was to take orders. If nothing was intrinsically evil, it is prudential to obey. I eventually put on the green Chasuble for the four nights and five days I was in their captivity. But with time I tried to find a spiritual meaning to this. Maybe it was a way to spiritually participate in the Mass at that time since I could not do so sacramentally.
The chasuble, was however very helpful to combat the cold of the night and insect bites in the bush as I slept on the bare floor throughout the four nights under rain and sunshine, but with little of the latter, which I often yearned for to dry the wet clothes I put on throughout the days. My cassock either served as my cover cloth or I used it to cover my head. The vestment bag still containing my alb and another white chasuble served as my pillow.
After about 30mins, they got to their destination on the hill. They asked me to sit on the floor with my back against them so that I don’t look at them. They always told me not to look at their face, and when they came near me they were masked. After some time, they came to me to ask some questions about my identity. One of them immediately told me that the fact that I am Rev. Fr. is not an excuse for me to tell them that I don’t have money. They then brought out my phone and told me to call my contact person. I called just one person, and they asked if I wanted to call more persons, I said no. This is because I felt it was better to manage situations like this when one speaks to one person who can reach out to others than different persons as all calls were on loud speaker and they interjected every conversation.
Ironically, contrary to the experience of some others, they never searched my phone, or read any of my messages. When they were asking for money I told them to check my bank alerts in my phone to see that I did not have the kind of money they were asking for. They did not show any interest in this. They only put on the phone to call my negotiator and thereafter it was switched off.
Then later that night we all moved to a different location across the road. Each time they crossed the road at night they were always very careful to avoid any oncoming vehicle or anyone. So they always endeavoured to hide from the vision of anyone. I realised that this was not because they were really afraid as persons who raid the road on broad daylights, but it was because they did not want any distraction since they had their victim with them. When crossing the road they would hold my cloth as if to ensure that I did not escape. But I wondered how someone in his right senses would think of escaping from about eight trigger happy men in their familiar terrain.
That night we walked for about two hours. When we got to one spot under the palm tree that looked cleared, one of them told me this was their ‘hotel’. They instructed that I lie down in their middle while the eight of them with their ready to shoot gun lay down around me. Then one of them gave me what he considered a very important advice that I should never stand up on my own to ease myself. Rather, before doing so, I should call ‘sergent’, then someone would permit me to go. He said failure to heed this advice meant that I could be gunned down. Even though they were not particularly brutal as I had feared, they frequently handed down such threats. They will often tell me that if I did not cooperate or my people messed up, I will be shot and killed and no one would find my body. So at every point I will call on sergent: ‘sergent, I wan piss’, and one would reply, ‘O ya go piss’ and the exact direction will be pointed out to me. At some other time, if I need to stand, ‘sergent, I wan stand’ and the response will be ‘O ya stand.’ I have never experienced my freedom as an adult so restricted in life. But this did not cause me much worry. I was more concerned that they did not also take my inner freedom; that the atmosphere of fear does not consume my inner peace. That would mean surrendering everything to them. As I would explain shortly, one of my constant struggles was how to ensure that the ocean of fear on the outside does not get an opening to flood my inner peace. Recourse to prayer was my best way to ensure this. I was quite conscious of the fact that it was only when I maintained my inner peace that I will continue to act rationally, in a most irrational atmosphere where might is right.
We stayed under the palm tree till in the evening of Friday. As we left this location to a different place, they stopped in a farm where they plucked corn from the farm and roasted. Then they gave me my first meal. That lasted till the evening of the next day, Saturday, where they also got some corn and pineapple from people’s farm. That was the second meal they gave me. Then they relocated to a nearby place where we slept for the night. Leaving there, we relocated to a third place on Saturday night and on the way, at some point, we stopped. About four of them went somewhere while the others remained with me. Those who went came back with some chickens. I suspected they must have also stolen the chicken from someone’s poultry farm.
Virtually all the food they ate were taken from people’s farms. I had initially thought about the morality of partaking in that. But I reasoned that since I was in captivity and not exercising my freewill, there cannot be sin without freewill, especially for an action that I did not directly commit. Although I had psychologically prepared not to eat for some days, but it would have been difficult to embark on such long journeys without eating anything. I know if I fainted or was not able to walk, they would blame me and become more aggressive that I am in their midst because I am refusing to cooperate.
On the last night, that is, on Sunday night we had a very long trek from about 8pm till about 4am. They stopped at a farm in the night where they harvested plantain from a farm, and used it to cook plantain pottage that we all ate. Perhaps for security reasons, they don’t remain in one location. They have totally mastered the bushes. They walk purposely in the night and sometimes they use google maps to confirm their location. Were it not for the fact that I was used to taking some daily walks, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to trek those long distances with them. I also thanked God that I was putting on a shoe with socks. The journey would have been terrible with palm slippers or just sanders.
But the more challenging part for me was climbing the hills. I was not so used to this. I panted heavily, and they asked me as some point to sit and rest. At some other point, when I was tired and not able to follow their pace, they told me that my refusal to cooperate is the cause of the trouble. They also told me to see what they go through to work for their money. But they were not very aggressive as they said this, even though they would warn that their patience had a limit.
Before we embarked on the long walk on Sunday evening, one of them became very aggressive. He asked me to listen to the noise of cars along the road, as the three camps we stayed for three nights was not so far from the road. It was around the power line that was even visible from the road. As he walked towards me angrily, the abductor asked whether I was not hearing the sounds of sirens, and that if not for my refusal or those of my people to cooperate they were supposed to have released me and gone now to pick up one of those big men driving past. He was about to beat me up, but another of his colleague prevented him. But each time, I tried to appeal to them telling them my negotiator is trying his best. They were however always clear that the negotiation had a time limit, after which the life of the victim was in danger. I understood this to mean that they would not have me alive beyond Tuesday evening.
They were able to reach an agreement with my negotiator on Monday afternoon. And when they were about to release me, one of them told me congratulations. Although, I tried to generally avoid talking to them in order not to stir up their aggression, but seeing their relaxed mood that evening, inquisitively, I asked them how I can avoid falling into their trap again since I do take the road often. One of them replied: “Na God dey protect person.”
How I lived through the moments
In a certain sense, when it was clear to me that I was in the midst of kidnappers, I knew that the expected but never desirable moment has come. This is because there are some persons around me who have been kidnapped on that road and they have told me agonising stories about their experiences. And it is a road that I should ordinarily take often for my pastoral ministry. So when I saw the kidnappers, I knew I was in captivity. This made me to immediately submit myself and lie down as I alighted from the car. At the same time, I also knew this captivity was only in my external world. They had no way of enslaving my inner self. So I tried to make sure I preserve and enjoy the freedom I could not enjoy without, within. In as much as there was an atmosphere of fear around, I also knew that the fear could be prevented from capturing me within. The words of 1 St. John 4:4 kept ringing in my ears: ‘Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world’. My task at this moment was to endeavour to live from within. So each time I get afraid or they threaten me with their guns, I try to remind myself that the God I serve is greater than their guns, and they will not be able to use it if he did not permit it. Christ’s words during his passion also sometimes came to my mind: “You will have no power over me if it has not been given to you from above.” (John 19:11). I lived the whole moments with lots of ejaculatory prayers. I also said the prayer to St. Michael often, because there was something quite demonic in an atmosphere where human life does not matter or when money is priced above life. When the external fear becomes so much or when immediate needs are not answered, I try to use those occasions to talk to God. At some point, I had asked God why he allowed this to happen. I have always trusted in the special protection of the rosary, and I was saying the rosary when I encountered the kidnappers. It is always consoling for me to be reassured that God’s special protection is not one that simply prevents misfortunes from happening, rather he prevents such misfortunes from consuming us. In the latter, he does show a greater power and love.
This was the logic of my reasoning all through. I tried to accompany different moments with prayers because it was virtually some long days of retreat. One time, it was threatening to rain heavily and I was lying down on the bush floor. I asked God to have mercy, with lots of Memorares so that it would not rain. But it rained heavily. In one sense, I did not feel totally disappointed since I was often used to qualify such kind of prayers to ‘happen according to his most holy will.’ But the next time when it was about to rain, I chose to ask God to give me the grace to live through the discomfort of the rain. It was on one of those occasions that one of the abductors gave me an extra nylon (beyond the one spread on the ground) to cover up in the rain.
I later understood this special protection more after I was released and I retrieved my car from the police. Unknown to me, the loud noises I heard around my car were actually bullets that shot through the burnet to the passenger’s side of the car until it hit the back windscreen and shattered the glass. Two entry bullet points were found inside my car. Usually, the kidnappers would fire at the driver’s side to halt movement. Perhaps, because they were on my right side and the trailer in front gave me some shield, they could not aim directly at me. But I owe this more to God’s grace and our Lady’s special intervention especially when I also learnt that the driver at the car either before or after me was shot dead, and thereafter they abducted his co-traveller. (May the good Lord grant eternal rest to the soul of the slain man). I gathered that about 15 kidnappers were involved in the operation. Eight went with me, while the others went with the other victim to a different location. We never met at anytime.
Any of the two bullet holes that was found in my car could have been fatal. The one that passed through the burnet to destroy the back windscreen stood hanging at the back, and the other one got stuck around the burnet. Thank God too that I was the only one in my car. A priest friend was supposed to travel with me. But the trip was later called off. It could have been fatal for anyone sitting on the front seat of the car or on the back right seat of the car.
Perception of the Kidnappers
I realised that I did not feel a particular animosity towards the kidnappers. But I was really full of pity for them. If these men (some of them seemed to be in their twenties and others in their forties) could use the prime of their life to engage in these activities what would they do in the later days of their lives? Most of them, I believe were married and had children. I often wondered what they will tell their family and children that they do. (Some of them could not understand why I was not married. One of them pointedly told me to get married when I return).
What was particularly surprising is their attitude towards money. All the shootings on the road, killings and threats to kill had no other motive than money. One day as I lay down, one of them came close to me and asked me if I was praying, I said yes. But he replied ‘no be prayer go save you now, but na money.’
At other times, they will tell me to pray that my people do not ‘mess up’, otherwise I will go into the grave. At some other times, they will tell me to be passionate when I call my negotiator so that he will be under pressure to look for money from anywhere. Each time they told me this was for my good, and often reminded me that I was enjoying a special privilege, as it was not their usual style not to torture their victims. In fact, on the eve of my departure one of them told me: ‘pastor pray, make you no see our true colour before you comot’.
They called me about four names: Mr. Man, Oga, Pastor and Rev.Fr./Rev. When they wanted to dish out instructions and hard commands, like when they want me to walk fast during the journeys, or not to look at them, (no dey look face!) they would say ‘Mr. Man.’ When they want to give general instructions and sometimes also with some commands, they will say ‘Oga’. Whenever they wish to be compassionately advisory in their admonitions, they say ‘Pastor’ and seldom ‘Rev.Fr.’
They also sometimes exuded some unexpected kindness. They ordinarily fetched water to drink from the pond along the street. On the first night they invited me to drink from one of those ponds. I politely refused, because I knew it would cause me more trouble. One of them quietly replied ‘big man, the water go ton e belle’. On another occasion, they came across a pond again and asked me if I would drink, I also politely refused. But I later saw that they cut a white stone and put into the water to purify it. So on the third day without water, one of them came quietly to appeal to me to drink, that I should not worry, the water is pure. Then I drank a little. Then as we trekked on the long Sunday night, we passed through a stream with water from the rock, they called me to drink now as this water was pure. There I drank about two litres of water at once. I thank God for that water. It would have been most difficult to continue the journey without it, especially climbing through the hills.
This sort of unexpected kindness (kindness to one in captivity) and the way they often referred to God really set me thinking that these men are also children of God who are called to salvation. Even though they sometimes call on God in a way that maligns him, as in some of the cases above, my overall perception is that they still live with some awareness of God’s presence. One one occasion, as I asked if could speak to my negotiator, one of them told me to wait for him to finish ‘praying.’ When one of them gave me a roasted corn, and I said thank you, he replied ‘thank God.’
These, and even more so, the wrong headed direction they have taken in life made me to pray often for their conversion. Yes indeed, they too are children of God who are also called to salvation.
As I prayed for the conversion of these kidnappers, I also believed that these were crimes that could easily be stopped if the government was serious and had just some will power. How can a group of persons be kidnapping in a particular area for years and nothing is done about it? Some routes they took me through were known to some who had been kidnapped years ago. Why is it that at the time they come out to kidnap, there is hardly a police checkpoint on the spot? It is often then you hear that the police went on break. The kidnappers who operate these routes are usually Fulanis or of some Northern extraction who now live and mix with people around the locality. This can be seen in the fluency of their pidgin English. How come they have not been trapped down with simple intelligence? We passed through a lot of farms within different villages, where are the people who live in these villages? Where are the traditional rulers of these villages? Do they still have a right to rule over a place they cannot protect? When the kidnappers come out to catch their victims on the road they hide in the shrubs, why have these road sides not been cleared to about 100metres on both sides so that they have no where to disguise?
Sometimes, it becomes a situation of the proverbial ‘the more you look, the less you see’. Who needs more prayer here: the government or the kidnappers? Kidnapping has become a very lucrative business that would likely attract more persons if not nipped in the bud. Let us pray that the government will be more up and doing in her responsibility to secure the people.
I am grateful to the prayers and support of many during this experience. While God cannot cause anything evil, he, however, permits it to happen for a greater good. I thank all those who helped me to live through these trying moments. From a human angle, it is for me an experience that one of it is already too much for a man in his lifetime. But for God who knows how to bring out the best from the worse of things, and whose arms are never shortened (Cf. Is. 59:1), we trust in his constant protection to lead us through until we reach our final destination where evil can no longer disturb our inner peace.
© Fr. Idahosa Amadasu, July 15, 2020