MMM Blog Editor Ireland 19.08.2022
Editor’s Note: MMM Sisters regularly face situations of war and civil conflict as they go about their medical missionary work. This is the story of one Sister. The original document contains names, dates and places. All have been generalized to protect the identity and safety of the Sisters still working in this country.
On June 19th, I arrived in this country and was privileged to work in ministry with another group of Missionary Sisters I will call “Angels”. We ministered to the poorest of the poor in this war-torn country, providing primary healthcare and health education. We also empowered women’s groups to set-up small businesses to sustain their families. We did all this while working closely with and in support of the local Church. One month into my stay, on July 20th, I was returning from the city to our Mission station with another Angels Sister. We had permission from the local police and military to do so. When we arrived, a group of rebels (the local guerrilla force) was looting our mission for food and medicine. We were greatly alarmed! I shouted to get quickly out of the car because there was a hand grenade under the car. We jumped out of the car and flung ourselves to the ground as there was a hail of bullets around us. We crawled behind a tree and stayed frozen. We were terrified and thought we would be killed.
Finally, we made a dash for the house. Both of us lay flat on the chapel floor as the shooting continued endlessly: it seemed like an eternity. We lay and prayed what seemed to be our last prayer.
Eventually, the shooting stopped, and all was still. We heard voices approaching the house. We decided to shout that we were Sisters and unarmed. They shouted back, “welcome, welcome”. We replied the same as we emerged from the chapel and were met with pointed guns. They beckoned us out and simultaneously removed our glasses, crosses, watches, and sandals, as they proceeded to drag us across the compound with much protest from me. At one stage, I sat down and refused to go any further until they returned my sandals. Before giving me back my sandals they insisted we get up, waving their guns at us and shouting at us in an agitated manner. I kept demanding to be sent back to the city and they insisted we had to see the leader of the group.
They identified themselves as the guerrilla force we had suspected, and pressured us to get up and continue to walk. They assured us there was “no problem” a phrase we were to hear repeated endlessly throughout the ordeal. We were forced to march for what seemed to us many hours.
I developed some rapport with our captors on the journey and for me it relieved the tension. Our poor efforts at keeping up with them was a source of amusement to them. They laughed and joked repeatedly at our expense. We reprimanded them and pointed out that it was not funny but to no avail.
During the March they made sport with hand grenades, pulling the pin, tossing them into the air and trying to shoot them. They also shot at vultures. We passed through several deserted villages, heavy with the smell of decomposing flesh. They were boasting of their killings and lootings,
We arrived at the camp in the middle of the afternoon to an uproarious welcome from about 200 or so soldiers, who were laughing and howling. We made an effort to shake hands like any normal Sunday afternoon and it was received that way.
There we joined another small group of hostages and spent a few days at this camp which was out in the open. The Commander of the local guerrilla force greeted us and told us not to worry, or to be afraid. He said we would be safe. We appealed to him to broadcast our capture to allay the fears of our community. He did so two days later. He advised us to leave the country by way of the city. He also warned us that planes leaving from this area would be shot down. Would we ever get to the city?
I tried to make friends with the guards who watched us for 24 hours and did not leave us alone for one minute. They held AK 47’s on us the whole time. We were a source of curiosity in the camp and the soldiers would just come in and stare. Our feet were very sore from all the walking we did. One soldier removed thorns from our feet to the amusement of all the others. Many spoke English and wanted to talk to us. They assured us that they were Christians. They talked about their cause and their commitment to it. We were given a mat, a blanket, and a mosquito net to share between the two of us. We were fed well with fresh meat, boiled milk, lemons, and peanuts.
By then it was Wednesday July 23rd. Their first plan to return us to the city was interrupted by a battle between this group and the army. It was a fierce battle. We were very frightened, watching all the explosions from the top of the hill. As the battle progressed, we were moved down the hill to a safer place. We were told that the way of return to the city was blocked, and twenty-five of the men were to march us to the River where a boatman would take us to the city. Unfortunately, the boatman was never found. We spent the night at the banks of the River. The rebels had built a huge fire to keep the mosquitos away.
In the morning, Thursday July 24th, one of the hostages with us, an old man, said he could lead us to the city. By then the local group had abandoned us. We trembled with fear as to what lay ahead of us.
We marched for one hour. I carried a flag of truce, which had been given to me by the guerrillas. Eventually we walked into the Army who treated us kindly and gave us some food. We remained in their trench until 10 pm and then 100 paratroopers came from the capital by helicopter to rescue us and escort us by foot and lorry to the city. They were very respectful to us as women because in their culture they are not allowed to touch women. They asked how they could carry us across the river. They suggested piggyback which we availed of. We arrived in the city by foot and army truck at about 3 am. We were given a cell in the Army Barracks where we slept for a short while and then were interrogated. Later that morning, July 25th, my community arrived. We were allowed to go back to the Mission after this joyful reunion, filthy, but elated and very thankful to God.
I learned so much while I was a hostage about living in insecurity and uncertainty as the local people who suffered this daily. It was a real lesson in solidarity with those who suffer the atrocities of war. I also identified more with the brave faithful people of this country, including many women, who have lived amid war for over four decades. After this ordeal, along with the other Angels sister, I was expelled as a persona non grata and told to leave the country. The Bishop advised us to go the neighbouring country and to wait until he invited us back. I returned, by road, about a month later. The celebration of the Mass welcoming me back was filled with thunderous applause and festive singing. It was like a healing balm to all the previous wounds of trauma which now the people of God were pouring forth on me in great abundance and great love making me feel like one of their own!
We continued working in public health care and health education, ministering in the camps and daily out-stations in the surrounding area.
During all this time of abduction, I was conscious of the presence of the missionary priests who joined the team effort to rescue us. Their prayer, support and, as always, their good humour during this terrifying ordeal certainly made a difference to me in living this adventure in faith.