LET NOTHING DISTURB YOU, LET NOTHING FRIGHTEN YOU, ALL THINGS ARE PASSING, GOD NEVER CHANGES. (St. Teresa of Avila)
The Abduction and Liberation of Fr. Giampaolo Marta, Sister Gilberte Bussière, and Fr. Gianantonio Allegri
Gianantonio Allegri’s account (August 2014)
About two months have passed since our liberation.
I just wanted to put in writing the dramatic event that affected us, Fr. Giampaolo, Sr. Gilberte and I, the abduction carried out by the Nigerian fundamentalist Islamic sect, called Boko Haram.
The kidnapping occurred at about 23.00 (11.00 pm) on the 4th April 2014 in the Catholic mission of Tchère (in the diocese of Maroua-Mokolo, in the very North of Cameroon).
The event ended happily after fifty seven days, with our being freed and handed over to Cameroonian Security Forces, on the night between Saturday 31 May and Sunday 1 June, 2014.
Two months have passed since our liberation, two months in which I have been able to give an account of those 57 days on various occasions, frequently together with Giampaolo, deciphering, rather than the details of what happened, the sense that we have managed to discover it to be “a treasure hidden in a field”.
So it is time to write, both to get my often fragmented thoughts as I give an account into order, and also so that this treasure in the field may be shared with those who, from near or far, shared in our suffering through friendship, affection or prayer.
I especially wish to recall here the special brotherly closeness of Don Maurizio and Don Leopoldo (both of them also Fidei Donum priests from Vicenza to Maroua, in the Loulou Mission) who shared our story from the first moment, accompanying us in friendship and making of themselves a point of reference for friends and our communities.
From now on I will speak in the plural, because I am sure that what I write now is not simply the fruit of my thoughts and my heart, but an account that comes from the three of us, already while we were being held as prisoners. Of course some touches are my own, coloured by reference points in my own vocational story and my spiritual journey.
A little hell
From a physical and psychological viewpoint, the kidnapping, the time of imprisonment and the circumstances of our being freed (yes, those too!!), can be defined as a little hell, an experience that we would never wish to live through again and which we would not wish on anyone.
Being taken at gunpoint; feeling helpless, always at the hands of hostile strangers; living in a contested war zone with the real danger of suffering violence; living in poor physical conditions: in the humid heat of the savannah at the start of the rainy season, with zero hygiene conditions, with shortages of water and food, with the irksome presence of insects and other animals, and sleeping on the ground.
This was not only a lived experience of radical poverty, but also an experience of being subjected to violence, deprived of liberty and friendship and being forced to remain at gunpoint the whole time. Even if we must say we were not ill-treated, not tied or beaten.
A little hell under two large trees in the forest of the Nigerian savannah.
What helped us
Moments of discomfort were certainly not lacking, but mutual support, our speaking to one another and sharing our thoughts, led us to look on what was happening with greater serenity. In certain moments fear seemed to have the upper hand, but then recalling the words of Jesus in many gospel texts that recounted similar experiences (e.g. the calming of the storm) helped us to make the Gospel real…the sunshine after the storm, the dawn after the night.
Then was the time to check how much the faith believed and proclaimed (as apostles and missionaries) really had the capacity to light up our steps.
We gave time each day to prayer, to fraternal sharing and to meditation on the Gospel. Then in silence, personal prayer sealed what we had shared together.
The communion of saints
Our faith, nourished by the communion of prayer and affection of so many, many people and communities sustained us, giving us serenity and peace.
Only after our liberation did we realise that what we shared among the three of us in prison has been the “communion of Saints”, not just believed, but lived as a shining chain of communion and prayer with the Church reaching “to the ends of the Earth”. The Communion of Saints has been truly extraordinary and has allowed that the grace of God sustain and ultimately save us. For sure, we thought that there were people and communities who were praying for us, just as we never stopped praying for all those dear to us and for our communities, because we imagined the great suffering of not knowing how we were. But we could never have imagined the mobilisation of graces deployed for the three of us.
So the Word of Jesus always kept us never abandoned and transformed the drama of the abduction into “a treasure hidden in a field”.
Signs of light
From the first moment we experienced signs of light that most might judge that it was chance, rather than the loving presence of the Lord, that brought about certain circumstances favourable to saving our lives. Here are some examples: how did it happen that on the night of the kidnapping our bare feet, were not scratched or pierced by some millet stalk or stone or thorn, while traversing in the dark the route from the Mission to the paved road where a car was waiting to take us away? We do not know. Luck? Chance? (Thank you, Lord)
Upon arrival in the morning, after eleven hours of travel, at the prison camp in Nigeria, we were given some things that the kidnappers had robbed from our rooms: a small bag with my spare glasses (thank you, Lord!), pen and paper, later used by sister Gilberte to write a diary (thanks, Lord!); and finally – get it! – my bag with all the things to celebrate the Eucharist. Stunned and incredulous we thought that surely they must not have known what they were, probably taking them to be things to eat or some medicines. Thus we made use of them and for four days, there on the mat on the ground, we celebrated the Eucharist, while our guards, just 5-6 metres away were exerting themselves obsessively chanting the Koran out loud.
Thank you Lord for coming with us to the forest and for breaking the Bread of your presence. Thank you Lord for “laying your mat among us”, for accompanying us in what was a long Lent, a desert of temptations and a special advent in confident waiting for liberation.
However, after four days, following complaint by a young guard who had sensed that we were praying, the bag was taken away from us, with the promise that it would be given back to us at the moment of our liberation. This in fact did not happen for unforseen circumstances; so the chalice, paten, hosts and wine have remained there as a sign… like the “empty tomb”.
The Eucharistic celebration was taken away from us, but in fact what was not taken from us was the Eucharistic bread of the Word of Jesus, which we shared, meditated, and contemplated each day, selecting Gospel passages, recounted from memory; the Eucharistic bread made of other moments of common prayer which we took turns to lead: the Rosary, morning and evening prayer; the Eucharistic bread made of our lived fraternity in spiritual conversation, telling our life-stories (we had the time!), along with keeping each other going in moments of greatest discomfort and in the service of caring for one another.
A “different” missionary presence
With prayer on our lips and the Gospel in our hearts we told ourselves that that experience, though unwanted, was turning into a great call to live, although in the extreme, a missionary presence, a missionary Church presence, (“where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”) where no missionary would have come to on his own initiative. It was the last place that a missionary would have chosen, and we were there, “moved by the Spirit”. We do not know how Jesus might have met the hearts of our captors, certainly, however, he met them with our fraternal presence, our serenity and our prayer for them.
These were, in this manner, an experience and an advertisement for a poor Church, stripped of all means, even of the “spoken word” (they couldn’t understand us), leave space, the whole space to the Spirit who blows where he wills, when he wills, on whom he wills, by means of the presence of a powerless Church.
This awareness questioned us and among ourselves there was much discussion thinking of the missionary life in the parish of Tchere. What is the Lord saying to us? Why did so well established a Mission (this year we would have celebrated 20 years since its foundation) now unexpectedly find itself having to rethink things? While continuing to support it with a certain amount of aid, we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that it will no longer be as before. Should we nevertheless not then rethink our missionary work? Our presence, priorities, style and means? Perhaps the New Evangelization affects not only the countries of ancient Christian tradition, but also the missionary Churches on the different continents.
A path of conversion
The discovery of this treasure hidden in a field led us also to review our personal lives in terms of conversion.
What is the Lord calling us to be and do after making us live this long Lent and this advent of liberation?
A powerful word that often emerged in our conversation was: stripping.
Indeed, there we experienced what ‘stripping’ means in all senses: we were impoverished, helpless, and fragile, at the mercy of men and of nature. And in those conditions we came into contact with the fatherhood of God through our own fraternity and the inspiration of the heart.
Thus an awareness took root in us that the poverty of spirit of the Beatitudes can only come through a certain poverty of means, through a real stripping of securities, through helplessness. Only in this way can there also be a real and respectful sharing with the poor.
In this context, for me personally, the Prayer of Abandonment of Charles de Foucauld became more concrete and intelligible and choosing the ‘last place’ a path to follow with confidence.
Another strong word was: fraternity-communion
We lived understanding that the Lord had given us the gift of “being together” to face the storm. We learned that what unites is stronger than that which divides; that one’s strength is the strength of all and that one’s weakness is the opportunity to draw on the power of God and the light of the Resurrection.
The mercy of God comes through the mercy of a brother.
The prayers of various Christian communities for us prisoners brought out forcefully the image of the body whose strongest members bend to support the weakest members.
Another strong word: peace.
A peace to search for, to ask for in prayer. Peace for Nigeria, for Cameroon, peace for the churches involved, peace for the various religious communities, Christians and Moslems. Prayer to open doors to the Spirit of God who by wisdom and grace can touch souls and find paths of reconciliation, of understanding and of freedom.
A peace worth fighting for, rejecting all violence as a way of finding justice.
Violence, while searching for one’s rights, tramples the rights of another. Arms, the manufacture and trading of arms, are not in the heart or plan of God.
Holy Week 2014 will remain unforgettable.
Participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus has been fully existential this year: on the night of our liberation at a certain point we had serious and palpable reasons to believe that the negotiations and accords had turned sour and that we would therefore have to return to “the tomb” in the forest, the savannah. We intensified our prayer, our abandonment, and our humility in pleading for the impossible. “All is possible for one who believes…” (Mk.9,23), Lord if then all is possible…all is possible…free us!
At the moment of death, when all seems to be truly finished (“…He is already four days in the tomb” Jn.11, 39), it is at that moment that the light of the Resurrection becomes reality.
On Saturday 31 May, the feast of the Visitation of our Lady, we left the prison camp for what was to be the previously announced freedom and that night we feared our not achieving it, but through the intercession of Mary the mother of Jesus and our mother, we were finally freed … on the feast of the Ascension, ”he took captives with him” (Eph. 4, 8), to our joy and the joy of those who love us.
For the glory of God.
“We fly to your protection, Holy Mother of God”.
(Translation to English by Liam -thank you!-)