Fr. Stephen Ojapah had fallen fast asleep late on May 25 after an exhausting day of parish work when two men with rifles ordered him to get out of bed and follow them.
For years the priest of the northern Nigerian Diocese of Sokoto in Gidan Maikambo in the Kafur County of Katsina State had prayed for the clergy slain by terrorists and for those who were kidnapped and tortured.
Now, he was the one who needed prayers.
Ojapah, 38, was kidnapped along with Fr. Oliver Oparah, his assistant; and Hassan Fareed Hassan, his sister, and mother, who had the bad luck of overnighting at the rectory compound, as it was supposed to be a safe place to stay, while they were on a multi-day journey.
Ojapah, who shared details of his ordeal with CNA, was dressed only in a shirt and pajama shorts; the kidnappers didn’t give him time to put on shoes. He wouldn’t change his clothes again for 33 days.
“During the first three hours, I was in trauma and could hardly stand,” Ojapah said. “They beat me and cursed [at] me, but I kept fainting. In panic, I requested that the abductors give me some of the drugs they were popping, but the drugs made me drowsy.”
His abduction was not a random act, he learned.
“They knew exactly what they were doing, and it became clear they weren’t doing it just for the money,” Ojapah said. “The leader of the abductors told me they had studied our location and planned the attack on our compound just as most of us were asleep.”
Ojapah’s ordeal began with a six-hour march through the forest without shoes.
“Some of us had shoes, and they would share them with me for part of the march, but by the time the party stopped at daybreak, my feet were cut and bleeding,” Ojapah said.
The abductors marched the group for 15 miles in a southwesterly route the first night, then rested for the daylight hours of May 26 in a brush shelter. The group then marched 12 hours on May 27 before riding for three hours on motorbikes into a bandit stronghold near the Kwiambana Game Reserve straddling the border of Niger and Kaduna states. They walked altogether as many as 45 miles and rode bikes for about 30 miles, Ojapah estimated.
The terrain along the way is forest savannah and dotted with small towns and villages of farmers and herders. The region is controlled by dueling groups of bandit gangs and insurgents who identify with Boko Haram or a splinter group called Ansaru.
The term “boko haram” means “Western learning is forbidden.”
Both the insurgents and the bandit gangs use kidnapping for ransom as a continuous revenue stream.
“We prayed the rosary silently during the march,” Ojapah recalled. He also recited words from a psalm he knew from memory:
“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
"I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.”
“The words calmed us down, making us feel like we were covered from danger,” he said.
Priests and clergy of other faiths increasingly have become targets of kidnapping gangs, which has made Nigeria the most dangerous country in the world for Christians, according to Open Doors UK. As many as 16 Christians are killed for their faith every day in Nigeria, the humanitarian nongovernmental organization has reported.
So far this year in Nigeria, at least four priests have been murdered and 22 kidnapped for ransom. In 2021, approximately 6,000 Christians were murdered, chiefly in the 12 states of the Middle Belt.
During their stay in the bandit encampment in Birnin Gwari, the group Ojapah was part of received little to eat except rice, beans, palm oil, and water. The five captives were joined by other victims, including a Protestant pastor and three members of his congregation, Ojapah said.
The group of abductees sat for hours in silence and listened to the sounds of the forest, which is home to monkeys, warthogs, wolves, a profusion of birds, scorpions, and deadly vipers. When clouds opened and poured down rain, the bandits moved to the shade of trees with dense foliage, but the abductees were chained to their hut, which leaked cold rain on them for hours, Ojapah said.
During their trek through the forest, they had to drink from any available creek or puddle. At night they shivered through temperatures in the low 60s. “We all got colds,” he said.
“The bandit leader told me their group was Ansaru, the name of a extremist group that had split away from Boko Haram in 2012,” Ojapah said.
After contacting a priest in Sokoto using Ojapah’s cell phone, the bandits settled down for a long wait until ransom could be obtained. The bandits passed their days smoking marijuana and taking drugs, Ojapah said, whereas the priests recited Scripture and prayed in soft voices.
“Do you smoke weed?” the bandit leader asked, telling him, “I can’t even eat breakfast without taking drugs first.”
The bandit gangs reportedly victimize Muslims and Christians alike, but Ojapah said the gang leader’s own words show otherwise.
“There was a Muslim captive among us named Alhaji Nura from Kano. But he was finally let go without any ransom,” said Ojapah, who speculated that the man could have been a spy.
“The bandits told us that they see the extermination of Christians as their religious mission,” he said. “After a village has been burned and raided three times, the residents just don’t want to return to it, and the extremists see that as God’s blessing upon their crimes.”
“After 30 days, our captors said all but two of us were coming home,” Ojapah said. “I had a sinking feeling when they said that I and Hassan would be held back. ‘They will kill us,’ I thought.”
Hassan said they probably wanted to try for more money. On the 33rd day of captivity, they boarded motorbikes and were driven to the small rural town of Yakawada in Giwa County, approximately 35 miles from their rectory in Katsina.
“Our relatives were waiting for us there,” he said. “Was a ransom paid? It’s against the law in Kaduna to pay ransoms to bandits.”
The diocesan media director in Sokoto was quick to fire off a jubilant press release that day.
“With hearts full of joy, we announce that our brethren Fr. Stephen Ojapa, Fr. Oliver Okpara, Mr. Hassan Hassan and Ms. Ummie Hassan who were abducted by gunmen at midnight of May 25, 2022, in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Gidan Maikambo, Kafur LGA of Katsina State, have all gained freedom,” Fr. Chris Omotosho, communications director for the Diocese of Sokoto reported in a statement on June 27.
Ojapah reflected with hope on his time in captivity.
“I didn’t think I could ever forgive my abductors, but after a few weeks, I did, and doing so deepened my love for Jesus,” Ojapah said, adding: “Religious people say God’s ways are inscrutable. God writes straight on a crooked line.”