After gaining his freedom, abducted Seminarian shares his story.
Serge Zihalirwa Boroto, M.Afr. - Vatican City.
Ten minutes after going to bed on the evening of 2 August 2023 at 23 hours, Dominic Merikiory Mahinini had no idea how his life was about change.
I ran into the hands of bandits
At first, Dominic thought the rat-tat-tat sound he heard was from a group of night hunters in the area. It soon dawned on him that these were not far-off hunters in the distance of night. It is they who were being hunted.
Living in a storey building at St Luke’s Parish Gyedna, Minna Diocese, Niger State, Nigeria, the Seminarian’s room was on the first floor. Looking outside, Dominic noticed two armed men destroying everything in sight. In a flash, the men were at his door and banging on it as he prayed, asking for God’s intervention. He saw his motorbike helmet and immediately put it on. He broke the window in his room and then jumped to the ground outside from the first floor. The helmet protected his head, but he injured his legs. Instinct told him to run and hide in the garden.
“I ran to the garden hoping to hide, but instead, I took myself to several other bandits waiting in our garden. It is like I actually took myself right into their hands,” said Dominic, who could now afford to laugh at the irony of his short-lived escape.
It all began on the night of 2 August 2023 when some unidentified armed gunmen attacked the priests’ residence at St Luke’s Catholic Parish. They abducted Dominic, a Tanzanian seminarian, from the congregation of the Missionaries of Africa.
He was in Nigeria assigned to St Luke’s Mission. Together with Dominic, the bandits took away Fr. Paul Sanogo, a citizen of Mali who was also working at the same parish.
Now safely back in Tanzania, Dominic narrated his ordeal in KiSwahili to Tanzania’s Ibrahim Gores, who has a YouTube channel, Jugo Media.
Nightmare at the new parish of St Luke’s
The Nigerian Mission of St Luke’s, run by the Missionaries of Africa, popularly known as White Fathers, is relatively new.
St. Luke’s Parish is located on the he boundaries of Abuja Archdiocese, Kaduna Archdiocese, and Minna Diocese, in a remote area named Gyedna, in Kwamba Deanery. The mission parish has five outstations or Mass centres: one is predominantly for the Igbo, while the other four are mostly inhabited by the Gbagyi people. Some people also speak Pidgin English and Hausa. The population comprises 250 parishioners, most of whom are young people. The average age is between 20 and 45 years old. Gbagyi is the tribe and main language of the area. The first Parish Mass was celebrated on 2 December 2018.
So, once the bandits got hold of Dominic in the garden, they brought him back into the house. He then noticed that Father Paul Sanogo had also been captured. The other two priests in the house had found a place to hide without being noticed. The bandits severely beat up a visitor in the parish house who had to be hospitalised but was not taken hostage.
The long march into the forest
After damaging and destroying whatever they could see inside and outside the house, the bandits took the two victims away.
“We started our Way of the Cross, so to say. We walked and sometimes fell, but we kept getting up and were made to keep walking. We did not know where we were going, but we walked a very long distance. I had already injured my legs from the jump, and I felt I could not take the walking anymore, but I was threatened that I would ‘receive a bullet if I stopped walking.’ It was God who gave us the strength to keep walking the long distance we covered. We walked across several villages in the thick of night till we entered the forest,” explained the Seminarian, Dominic.
When they reached the forest, their captors revealed their intentions of either returning them home alive or not. They said the first option would be possible only if they contacted “their people,” who would negotiate for their liberation by paying a ransom. Luckily, the Seminarian had his phone with him when he was taken, which was now in the hands of their captors. Using the phone, they contacted the Provincial Superior of the Missionaries of Africa in Ghana and Nigeria, Father Dennis Pam, who happened to be in Nigeria at the time. This was the only time the two abductees spoke to their Superior. All further communication was done by the captors.
In captivity, all that Dominic and Father Sanogo could do was pray. They did not know if they would live or die.
Life in the forest with the captors
What was their life like during the 21 days of captivity, living in the forest with the captors?
“First and foremost,” said Dominic, “It is God who sustained us. Interiorly, there was that voice encouraging me saying do not be afraid, I am with you, and I will be with you always,” he narrated. Devotions and prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Rita, and Padre Pio sustained the young missionary to endure and to wait for God’s will to be fulfilled.
In the forest, Dominic and Fr. Sanogo were beaten morning and evening. The captors cynically characterised the morning beatings as ‘morning tea.’ Food was a problem. There was not enough of anything, and meals were far in between. The two missionaries were made to prepare meals for their captors. They also were given chores to do by the captors: They were made to carry the luggage of the captors and fetch water from a river as well as the cooking.
Sleeping was a challenge as they were in the open forest, exposed to the elements, without any covering. They became a feast for Mosquitoes. A photo seen by Vatican News shows the swollen hands of the two missionaries from Mosquito bites and beatings.
Day and night, they were exposed to whatever weather in the forest. They witnessed the sunrise and sunset. They were soaked to the bone when it rained until it stopped. For 21 days, they did not change clothes. Their hands were usually tied, and their eyes were blindfolded often except when they had to do some chores.
Dominic and Fr. Sanogo prayed that they would not be injured or permanently maimed because of the severe beating. In the end, Dominic said, like Saint Paul, they offered their sufferings to God. They felt they were participating in the suffering that Our Lord Jesus underwent on the Cross, albeit in a small way. Constantly praying, they felt increasingly fortified in their faith. They were praying all the time throughout their ordeal. Their captors also took note but did not relent in mistreating them.
Dirty and wounded after 21 days of captivity
The unexpected big news of their liberation arrived on Friday, 22 August 2023. They were told they were free, just like that. They could not believe it. They thanked God, and Fr. Sanogo told Dominic that their first duty would be to celebrate Mass. In releasing them, their abductors simply indicated one direction to follow. They walked away in trepidation, afraid of a trap in their release or meeting other bandits. It was about 16:00 in the late afternoon when they were allowed to leave. They arrived at the first village around 22 hours in the night. Unfortunately, the people of that village spoke a different language.
“We were dirty after 21 days without bathing. Our bodies were swollen and wounded. Whoever looked at us would be afraid and suspect we were dangerous people. For this reason, we decided not to stop in any other villages where we could not express ourselves in the language of the people,” said Dominic.
The Malian priest and the Tanzanian Seminarian trekked unfamiliar territory, continuing on the road and hoping it would lead them home. Eventually, they encountered a Police Post.
The police officers knew about them and were aware of the whole story of the abduction. They offered them the first meal before taking them on motorbikes for another two-hour journey to a Catholic Church near their destroyed parish house. Their fellow confreres, the Missionaries of Africa, met them on their arrival.
The process of healing and treatment started with spending 8 days in hospital. They were then granted leave to go and see their families. They too felt the need to thank the local Church in Nigeria and in their respective countries and all those who prayed for their safe release.
A pervasive sense of powerlessness and fear
Back in Tanzania, the whole experience seems like a bad dream to Dominic.
Fr. Sanogo and himself keep repeating how grateful and overwhelmed they are upon realising that so many people were praying for them in captivity. They believe that it is the network of prayer which joined together to implore God’s mercy for their liberation and spread the news about their kidnapping worldwide. Their story and ordeal spread beyond anything they could have imagined: Among the Missionaries of Africa, the local Nigerian Church, Governments in Nigeria, Tanzania, Mali, Italy and the Vatican.
Looking back, Dominic said apart from the physical beating and fatigue, the deprivation of freedom, and fear that anything could happen to them at any time -including attacks from wild animals or snakes; there was also the pervasive sense of powerlessness and the constant lack of peace of mind. It is this kind of suffering that he says is difficult to quantify.