Bengaluru: Fr Tom Uzhunnalil who was released after 18 months of captivity in embattled Yemen was moved to tears when he met members of his old parish here in Bengaluru, saying his faith kept him strong through the trying days and months where he did not know who his captors were, didn’t understand a word they said, and had absolutely no clue where he was being held.
“Through 18 months of captivity, there wasn’t one day when I shed a tear or was scared. It was only when I came back to my 'mathrubhoomi', and it hit me that I was safe, that I was alive, that I cried,” said Fr Tom, speaking at Don Bosco Provincial House in the IT capital at a special welcome function arranged by his colleagues on Saturday.
Recalling his abduction by suspected Islamic State (IS) activists in a country that is beset by the kidnapping of foreigners, the frail 59-year old Catholic priest, recalled how he was abducted on March 4, 2016 from Aden, the famed southern Yemeni port, while he was praying in a chapel. “Four nuns had been shot dead outside an old age home where I was, two of them right before my eyes. I was tied up and thrown into the boot of a car and driven away. My captors kept shifting me, from one place to another on four occasions. I was blindfolded every time, so I had no idea where I was,” remembers Fr Tom.
The priest belonging to the congregation of Salesians of Don Bosco said that he was amazed that he was not harmed at any point of the captivity, and that his captors did not keep him tied hand and foot as they had for sometime in the initial days of his captivity.
“My captors even provided me with medicines when I fell sick on two occasions. They gave me food all throughout, even during their fasting season. Once they realised I was losing weight tremendously, they even arranged for my regular diabetes medication as well. It was diabetes that brought down my weight from 82 kilograms to 55, but never any harm,” he said.
Stressing on the power of prayer that kept him active and fearless, the priest who hails from Ramapuram, in Kottayam district of Kerala, said: “The power and hope that came from the feeling that there must be a lot of people praying for me across the world and the regular prayers I proffered in my room kept my mind away from thoughts of death. The whole episode deepened my faith and brought me closer to God. Now, I feel God wants me to pray for my captors, and for peace in the world.”
Talking about the difficulties of communicating with his Arabic speaking captors, he said that his Yemeni guards would print the script in English whenever they wanted to make videos of him and used to make noises in the background to make viewers feel he was tortured and harmed!
“My captors spoke only in Arabic which I could not understand. I only spoke English which they could not understand much. The only word I knew and spoke in Arab was hamam (toilet),” said Fr Tom.
On September 10, he recounted how an Arab man came up to him and asked him to don a purdah and enter a car in which two other people including the driver were seated. Halfway through, he was taken back to where he was, which is when Fr Tom realized that efforts were being made to free him, but that this bid for freedom had been aborted mid-way as they told him that “more arrangements had to be made.” The next night, he was asked to board another car. After travelling some distance, he was transferred to yet another car which was stopped at a checkpoint. “A person at the checkpoint asked me to identify myself from a photo of mine, and then we drove into Oman and safety,” says Fr Tom.
Expressing gratitude to all those behind his rescue operation, the priest said, “I am no longer confined only to the Don Bosco community but to all the people in India and around the world, irrespective of faith, all of the people who prayed and work for my safe return, unharmed.”
On his future plans, Fr Tom says that he is ready to serve in any designation, wherever his congregation wanted him to be, adding that he would preach for world peace. “Following holy verses from religious texts will help the world stay away from war and unnecessary battles, gifting peace to everyone,” he summed up with a gentle smile on his face,thanking God and everyone around him, over and over.
Fr Tom had worked at Kolar, Hassan, Bhadravathi and Benglauru in Karnataka and Kochi in Kerala, imparting non-formal technical training to underprivileged rural youth before he was invited by the Missionaries of Charity to work at Yemen to serve the destitute and abandoned people there....