The Sierra Leone of 1999 was quite a different place from when Xaverian Missionary Father Victor Mosele first arrived there in 1971.
An ongoing civil war that began in 1991 had caused the priest to flee the West African nation, but his departure came only after being kidnapped twice by Revolutionary United Front rebels and risking his life in a literal run for freedom. The priest’s incredible tale of life under captivity and his eventual escape are told in his book, “Running for My Life: Captive of the RUF Rebels of Sierra Leone” (Paulist Press, $18).
Life in captivity
Father Mosele, who is now a campus minister at Illinois State University, was first captured in the town of Kambia, where he had ministered for close to 30 years. Among other things, he served as a seminary rector, taught school and functioned as a nurse and even a doctor at times in the northern part of the country. While his superiors had advised him to leave because of the war, Father Mosele couldn’t see abandoning his people.
“I firmly believed that my presence was a moral support to my people, not only to the Catholic ones, but to the whole population who was looking to the Catholic mission as their defense and encouragement,” he said.
Because of his identity as a priest, Mosele said that he was not physically mistreated by the rebels like many other prisoners. The worst he says was the sleep deprivation from the endless gunfire and loud music that came with being under house arrest. He clung to the Rosary, his breviary and spiritual reading day in and day out.
In his book, he writes: “Visits of my people (former parishioners) were always heartening experiences that lifted up my often low spirits. These true Christians braved the danger of being harassed and even molested, as well as the hardship of having to walk some two miles in the tropical heat to bring me all sorts of things.”
After 56 days of captivity, he was released by the rebels. He would travel to his native Italy as well as spend time in the United States making mission appeals.
In the fall of 1999 Father Mosele, along with a fellow missionary, Father Franco Manganello, returned to their ministry in Sierra Leone. Their work at rebuilding the destroyed mission and helping their people did not last long. Less than a year after their return, their village was under attack and the two priests were taken captive at the Guinea-Sierra Leone border.
Interestingly, their captors allowed the two priests to “make themselves at home” in the seized mission compound as long as they did not leave. With that freedom, they established a parish community. There was daily Mass, choir practice and a nightly Rosary with villagers. However, both sensed that their release was nowhere in sight. They had to make an escape.
Road to freedom
Their plan called for traversing through forests, swamps, rivers and hills. On the night of Dec. 3, 2000, the two slipped out into the darkness of the night. By 6 a.m. the next morning, Father Mosele was overcome with leg spasms and sharp pain in his knees. He describes it as a physical Calvary.
“I am lagging behind,” writes Father Mosele. “I wonder what it might be. I have never experienced such a problem in the past. It becomes plain that I cannot continue the march.”
However, he dragged himself to the next village where the chief suggested that the priest be put in a makeshift hammock and carried the rest of the way. Freedom arrived two days later, when the two missionaries came under the protection of U.N. peacekeeping forces.
Lessons in faith
Although Sierra Leone’s civil war ended in 2002, the priest’s superiors have denied his request to return to his mission.
In reflecting on his experiences, Father Mosele said the moral fortitude and heroic virtue of the people of Sierra Leone through the darkness of war is a gift to the Church at large.
“They did not abandon their religion. After the devastation of the rebels, they would gather in their semi-demolished churches and pray being led by catechists. Even though no priest was around and no services could be held, they prayed the Rosary, read the Scriptures and strengthened each other.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Wisconsin.