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On the 28th of October, his captors took a video of him and asked him to speak to the Italian authorities and to Pope Francis. He was told to declare that he was held hostage by an Islamic group of Aqmi allied to Al-Qaida.

Pier Luigi was later taken to the sand dunes. There was no vegetation out there, and for six months, he was guarded by a group of the Mujahidin. They took turns and often changed places. Later again he was taken back to a place where there was some vegetation. And then they brought Luka, a young Italian hostage; and they spent the rest of their captivity together.

Pier Luigi and Luka hoped for some kind of negotiation that would have quickly triggered their liberation. This did not happen, and a year passed by before they were brought to a desert of stones. Here they met a third Italian hostage. Then they thought their liberation was imminent but no, they were wrong and were kept there for months.

Hoping against hope, the hostages were informed that they would be released within a week. They were given new clothes and set out to look for Edith a young girl that was kidnapped with Luka. It transpired that she was Luka’s girlfriend. Then the promise of liberation was blown away by the desert wind. The four hostages were informed that negotiations for their liberation had hit a snag. Weeks passed, then months passed as the quartet continued their captivity. 

One fateful night, Luka and Edith escaped and there was no news about their whereabouts. As a result, the remaining hostages were once again subjected to chains from dusk to dawn. This went on until the day of their liberation.

The most awaited news came on the 7th of October, 2020. “It is over,” “freedom” the jihadists announced. The prisoners spent their last night under the open skies of the Sahel, and the next morning they met with other hostages namely, Sophia Petronel and Soumaila Cissé. The quartet was brought to the mediators in the presence of the Malian military men and the last photos were taken.

The hostages were driven to Tessalite and boarded a plane for the capital, Bamako. The next morning, Pier Luigi boarded a plane destined for Italy.

Recently, Fr. Pier Luigi Maccalli made a pilgrimage to Lyon. He came specially to climb the hill of Fourvière to thank God through Our Lady of Fourvière for his liberation on the 8th of October 2020. He was there also to thank all those who prayed for him during his captivity. He came too to offer prayers for all the other hostages being held in the Sahel.

RCCThe most productive years of ministry

During his captivity, Fr. Pier Luigi “felt abandoned and forgotten by everyone.” He cried to God, “why have you abandoned me?” It is said that ‘real men don’t cry,’ but Fr. Luigi shed enough tears. He thought he was the most hated missionary with chains on his feet. He kept asking, “what kind of a missionary am I?” He came to the realization that though his feet were chained, “my heart was not chained.” He decided to be like St. Therese of the Child Jesus. Even in chains, “I am still a missionary from the bottom of my heart.”  He committed himself to praying for the community he left behind in his mission. He made himself a rosary from a piece of cloth that he used for covering himself and carved himself a cross with the desert wood.

“Today I am a free man and thank God and all those who accompanied me. I thought they stole two years from me, but the two years were the most productive years of my life,” said Fr. Pier Luigi, “people who did not know me and the mission all joined in prayer,” he added as his emotional voice gave him away.  

Steadfast faith in God

Like most people, there are certain things that parents are remembered for. Fr. Pier Luigi was told, “to be faithful to God despite all that can happen to you.” It was this - and “the Word of God that I meditated upon in my heart in silence”; and the poor of the community that he served because he always told them to be faithful- that kept him going. In the second book of Maccabees, Eleazer was forced to eat pork against his Jewish belief, but opted to be flogged rather than betray his belief… “the Mujahidin asked me to convert to Islam, but I told them I would be faithful to Jesus till the end”. Cut off from his community, he said: “Every Sunday, I isolated myself for celebration without Eucharist”.

GG was encouraged by the clear sky that gave him hope because even in the night there was some light. All this made him marvel like the psalmist “what is man that you should think of him. The polar star and the southern cross the “alpha and omega were with me who was like a small grain of sand.” As a matter of fact, it was his faith that helped him to “confide in this God and I gave him all my littleness.” Every passing day he went to sleep saying, «today is gone, let’s hope for another day.”

Fr. Pier Luigi started his day as soon as they “removed the chains from my feet” with prayers while walking. He prayed the psalms, and the rosary, “I did the same in the evenings before sunset.” He said to himself that he would be faithful to prayer every day, and the prayers really consoled him in the situation he was in. “I believed in my heart that God was with me and I did not want Him to abandon me. Prayer sustained me despite the fact that my companions told me it was worthless.”


DesertThe hostility of the desert

The desert is characterized by harsh weather conditions and Fr. Pier Luigi had to adapt.“I suffered cold, thirst but not hunger.” January is very cold in the desert, so “I wore two boubous, with a poncho cover, a blazon, a hat, socks, and two blankets, but from 9 each morning we began to remove them as it became very hot.” So, the strategy was to take a piece of wet cloth and “put it on my face and hands”.

As a hostage he did not have a lot of food to eat; his menu as a prisoner was made up of rice, onions, lentils, sardines, dates, a lot of tea, and from time-to-time fruits. “I lost 22 kgs, but it wasn’t due to hunger.”

On the day of his kidnapping, “I was threatened that they would gun me down, (if I did not cooperate with them).” Another time, one mujahid threatened to “put a bullet in my head, and I told myself I should be careful of what I say or do because things might turn ugly, but I was also prepared to die.”  As the days passed, he thought he had a chance of coming out alive because if they really wanted to kill him, they would have done it right at the beginning. Having said that, “I was afraid that by accident I would be killed as the young mujahidin cleaned their Kalashnikov guns, or that I would be bitten by the vipers that passed by.” As a matter of fact, for two months the hostages slept in what they called “The valley of the vipers,” and they saw many of them. The company of Luka and Nicole was “for me the consoling spirit and we helped each other.”

Called to witness to the mission

When Fr. Pier Luigi met Pope Francis, he insisted a lot on the fact that Mission is a witness and not proselytism. “In my missionary life, I always witnessed to dialogue, not a theological dialogue but a dialogue that is experienced in daily life.” Meeting people and their daily needs is an adage that GG has had for a long time, and for him, Mission is nothing but humanism. He borrowed from François Varillon who said, God divinizes what man humanizes. He believes that is what “draws us closer to people” in their need of health for example, and that is “what I witnessed to the mujahidin by sharing my toothpaste with the one who had a dental problem. The one who had a wound, I took care of his wound, and the one who wanted to learn how to read and write, I taught him a bit of French.” But every time that the dialogue went to another level, he always heard the same refrain, “all the good that you do is of no importance if you do not convert to Islam.”

The human side of the Mujahidin

In the beginning, the Mujahidin came with their faces covered, but with time they allowed their faces to be recognized. The hostages tried to have some dialogue with them. GG even complained to one young mujahid because they called him “Shebani” which means an “old man,” and “I told him, in my missionary life in Africa for more than twenty years I never heard a young man speak badly to an old man”. It saddened his heart to see how young Africans had forgotten “the values that Africa has taught me” he said.  He said that because on the 5th of February, Abdul Rahman a young leader who brought them food and water every month, at the announcement of their liberation, went to see GG and said, “Shebani, I hope you will convert to Islam when you return to Italy, but before you go, I want to say sorry if myself or anyone in my team spoke badly to you.”  GG received his words with both hands and gave him some dates, and thanked him, shook his hands, the hands that he always refused to extend to him, and said to him, “I will keep this as a memory.” The mujahidin were young, and some of them were kind to him, but others were not. However, “in my heart, I always asked God to forgive them for they did not know what they were doing.”

In sync with the calendar

Left with no means of communication, it can be difficult to be in sync with the days of the week and time. But that was not the case with GG. He always kept in mind days and dates of the week by writing them on the sand until “when I was given a pen and a piece of paper. I wrote key words of certain dates,” he said. He never lost track of days and months in his captivity.“I can tell you for example that at Christmas since the day of my kidnapping there were 99 days and on the first of January there were 105 days.” According to his tallies, he spent a total of 752 days as a hostage. He made use of certain important dates that he had in mind to work out his calculations. For example, the 24th of January is his brother’s birthday.

GGnigerThe heart’s desire

On the day of his captivity, he asked himself whether he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but no. He was in the right place close to his people. “If I desire something now, it is to go back to the people who saw me disappear one day and were not able to see me again,” he said. The day Fr. Pier Luigi was set free, the community he ministered to in Niger danced in the church.  He feels he was reunited with his missionary and biological families but a puzzle piece is missing out to make his joy complete. According to him, he has not yet “returned home.” He reckons that it is not possible now, “but I hope that one day I will be able to do so.” He is optimistic that one day the war will come to an end, he has to be patient just as he was for the last two years. “I hope one day I will be able to dance with them.”

 

The mystery

Up to now, it is not clear why Fr. Pier Luigi was kidnapped; neither does he know how the deal for his release and that of the other hostages was arrived at. Certainly, there must have been some kind of negotiations that took place. Certain sources claim it was in exchange for other hostages. At their level the mujahidin always said they were not in a hurry, it can last two years or more, just like they have other hostages who have spent more than six years the Romanian Iulian Ghergut, kidnapped in April 2015, Australian Arthur Kenneth Elliott captured in January 2016, American Jeffery Woodke abducted in October 2016, German Jörg Lange kidnapped on April 11, 2018, French Olivier Dubois hostage since April 8, 2021, and last but not least, Fr. Joël Wenepanga Yougbaré, 44, former parish priest of Djibo, who has been missing since March 17, 2019.

GloriaCoincidentally, during Fr. Pier Luigi's pilgrimage to Lyon, Sr. Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti, a Colombian Franciscan nun was released on Saturday, 9 October 2021. She was held hostage in February 2017. That is why GG thinks, “I am lucky to have been detained for two years; it was a long time, but compared to other hostages, I think of the pain of their families, their parents, and I hope that everything will be done to release them. We are innocent victims; life has no price”.                         

                                        By Dominic Wabwireh, SMA