By Chidi Nkwopara
The Catholic Ecclesiastical Province of Owerri was visibly stunned beyond description when it got information that an Indian-born Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. Matthew Cherian, had been kidnapped by gun-toting gangsters at Ulakwo, Owerri North local government area of Imo State.
Our Correspondent, Chidi Nkwopara, cornered the victim and he naturally opened up narrated his experienceÂ on how itÂ all begin and how did it end..
What brought you to Nigeria?
We are Catholic missionaries. As missionaries, our Congregation can send us to any part of the world to propagate Christ and that is exactly what we came to do in this country.
Apart from helping to raise missionaries from among Nigerian citizens, we are also charged with the responsibility of assisting the less privileged, as well as help in the development programmes of the government and communities. There are other issues but I would like to limit myself to these.
We understand that you were kidnapped by hoodlums. How did the drama begin?
The Congregation is constructing a seminary at Ulakwo, near Seat of Wisdom Seminary.
As was the usual practice, I went to the site on Friday, June 27, 2008, to supervise the works currently going on in the place. A borehole project was going on and my attention was needed and I had to go to attend to the problem. I was there till about 7pm that evening.
At the end of the supervision, we entered our bus and moved about 15 metres away from the project site when a motorcycle with three men on it arrived the scene. They started firing indiscriminately into the air with their AK47 rifles.
How many of you were in the vehicle?
There were about four of us in the vehicle. The driver, the site engineer, another brother and I were in the bus. They(gun-toting young men) ordered them to quickly get out of the vehicle. Some of them were beaten up.
They also collected our GSM telephone handsets. They equally wanted to snatch the bus but the keys could not be found. In anger, one of them aimed at the driverâ€™s feet but missed it by whiskers.
Since they could not get the vehicle keys, they blindfolded me and forced me to join them on the same motorcycle that brought them to the site. Four of us were now riding on the motorbike.
They took the village road. We fell down about three or four times as they rider was moving fast to get away from the scene. The road was slippery and muddy.
Where did they take you to?
They brought me close to the Airport (Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport) and dragged me into the nearby bush. I recognised this place because it was a familiar place.
We were there for between three to four hours, that is until about 11.30pm. The armed ones among them stood beside me and continued to breathe threats on poor me.
They made several calls and later brought a car. They lifted me into the waiting car as I was very tired and weak at the time. Their guns were all pointed at me.
They warned me not to make noise or they will summarily snuff life out of me.
They drove for about 30 minutes. We arrived a building and stayed for another half an hour.
They arranged another vehicle and took me away. We passed through some checkpoints but nobody was guarding them but lamps were on at these checkpoints.
They brought me to another house and locked me up in a tiny room.
Can you describe the room?
The room was not more than the size of a toilet. It must be a toilet room with small ventilation. They gave me a chair and window blind. They also gave a broken bucket, which served as my urinary.
The room was full of mosquitoes. The armed ones amongst them came periodically to check if I was still in the small apartment.
What happened the next day?
On Saturday, about four of the gangsters came to see me where I was holed up. I told them I was very thirsty and hungry. They gave me little water and two fingers of banana.
They asked what I was doing in Nigeria and I told them I was a missionary. They requested that I should contact my people to bring N100 million. They threatened to kill me if they failed to bring the money and use my body parts for rituals.
How did they reach the catholic Archdiocese on phone?
They asked me to give them a telephone number they could call. I told them I didnâ€™t have any of them off head. They quickly brought my phone and I gave them the telephone number of the Archbishopâ€™s Secretary, Rev. Fr. Jude c. Ike.
They telephoned him and told him that they had me in their custody. They were asking both Fr. Ike and I to pay money as ransom for my release and I told them that Jesus Christ had paid the ransom for our salvation.
I also told them that we are poor Catholic priests, who are working for the poor in Nigeria. I told them that I will be happy if the poor youths for whom I came to Nigeria and working for, decide to kill me. I will be happy if you kill me but no ransom would be paid by anybody
What did the hoodlums discuss with the Archbishopâ€™s secretary?
They called Fr. Jude Ike and he told them that the Church would not pay any ransom to anybody and for whatever reason. At times they told Fr. Ike to go and pick my remains somewhere.
I am sure it was all in their bid to make the Catholic Church change their mind on my kidnap.
Are there no persons living near this house where you were imprisoned?
I always heard children playing and singing around this building where my captors kept me.
The presence of these children makes me to believe very strongly that there was life around the place of my illegal detention.
How did you regain freedom?
On Saturday evening, something very miraculous happened. I heard the loud voice of a lady. Indeed, she was making a loud noise that she would not live to see a Rev. Fr. Brought to the house and killed. She said this repeatedly and even threatened fire and brimstone.
At this time, I had become very tired and down with malaria. I was coughing endlessly and it was enough indication to whosoever was close to the house that somebody was being kept inside the house.
About 11pm that night, these boys came into my small apartment and prayed for me.
They wanted to take me to another place and I refused. One of them told me they were going to free me since I was very sick. Within me, I reasoned they wanted to shift base since the family that owns the house had turned against them.
How did you accept to follow them?
Early Sunday morning, precisely at about 3.30am, they decided to set me free. Three of them took me in a car to the express road and left me there to my fate. They showed me where to walk towards.
I walked for about three and a half kilometres that night before I sighted a filling station.
I walked into the filling station, narrated my ugly story and asked those repairing their vehicles where I could find a Catholic Church around the place. It was then I got to know that I was in Abia State.
They gave me a chair. I sat there and waiting for the dawn of the day for another 30 or 40 minutes.
It appeared an endless wait and I decided to walk on. I trekked for about 35 minutes before I saw a motorcyclist. I told him my sordid story. I also told him that I had no money on me to pay for his service. He took pity on me and moved me to a nearby Catholic Church, Saint Theresaâ€™s Catholic Church, Osisioma Ngwa.
What did the Parish priest do?
The Parish priest, after listening to my story, directed the Parish Catechist to take me to Christ the King (CKC) Cathedral, Aba. It was at this point that I got the telephone number of one of the priests in Owerri and informed him that I had been released.
After about 10 minutes, Bishop V.V. Ezeonyia, came into where I was waiting to see me. He was visibly sad after listening to my story. He gave me breakfast and sent his driver to drop me at Owerri in his vehicle.
I was driven into Owerri at about 9.45am and into the warm embrace of the people that were already waiting anxiously to receive me after the Sunday Mass. It was jubilation galore.
Tears of joy freely flowed down the cheeks of people around me. Some of my brother priests also came to see me. I was really overwhelmed by the show of love.
What was stolen from you?
They collected my wrist watch, shoes, telephone handset and about N40,000, which I had in my purse. As a replacement for my shoes, they gave me rubber bathroom slippers to wear as I journeyed into freedom.
Did you see your doctor after the ordeal?
I immediately went to see my doctor. I have been on treatment since I was released. It is pertinent to remind us that I was even sick before I was kidnapped. The sickness only worsened when I could not access my drugs in captivity.
Has this experience shaken your faith in God?
My experience cannot shake mission. My mission in Nigeria will continue. The kidnap saga has not shaken my resolve to serve Christ and humanity.
It is now that I appreciate what Jesus Christ passed through. He died on a Good Friday and resurrected on Easter Sunday. I was kidnapped on a Friday and released on a Sunday.
To God is the glory that I passed through the ordeal in three days as Christ did.