By Martin D’Souza | Opening Doorz Editorial | December 09, 2017
There is a spring in his stride. As I meet him in the refectory of the Provincial House at Don Bosco, Matunga, Mumbai, before I can officially interview him, Fr. Tom Uzhunnalil, who has been ‘set free’ since September 12, 2017, after over a year of captivity by the ISIS, shows no signs of the trauma he has been through. He is looking healthy, unlike the pictures of him when he was released, offers a firm handshake, and has absolutely no trace of hate. He speaks softly, and though he has witnessed terror from within inches, the calmness in his voice is a reassuring presence of God working in him. Not once did his voice quiver or did he speak ill about the men who slaughtered four Nuns and 12 staff members at a home run by sisters of Mother Teresa.
Ask him why he was spared the bullet in the back of the head (that is how they were all killed) and Fr. Tom replies softly: “I have no answer other than the Lord. First of all, I don’t think they knew who I was. Secondly, I don’t think they were looking for me either. I was the first one to be held even before they got to the sisters. I was made to sit on a chair in front of the security room when they were doing all that they were doing. They killed the sisters and two servants in front of my eyes. While they were killing the sisters I prayed, ‘Lord, have mercy on them’. I was also praying for those who were killing saying, ‘Lord, have mercy on them’.”
Openingdoorz.com met with Fr. Tom who was in the city to celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception at the Shrine of Don Bosco’s Madonna.
There is a spring in your stride; how long did it take to come back?
Well, I am as usual. I just had physical weakness which was gone within two weeks of my release when I was in Rome. I put on 7-8 kilos once I was started on insulin. My body weight increased to 70 kilos and that’s more than enough. Mentally I was not depressed. I had no nightmares, nor had I any fear or crying bouts.
What was it that kept you so strong? Did this not unnerve your captors?
[Laughs] Well, only they can answer this question. They were kind to me. They did not ill-treat me. They provided me with food and water. Neither was I sick at any time. I only had an issue with my diabetes and it was not possible for them to procure insulin. They provided me with some tablets at one period of time when they noticed that I was losing weight.
The Nun who survived the attack mentioned that in one of your conversations you had said, “We should be ready to die any moment.” Is that true?
Actually, two weeks before this incident, we were having a discussion after supper and the Superior who survived the attack said, “How nice it would be if we all die together.” The younger sister who was killed said, “I don’t want to die here.” To that I added, “If the Lord wants us to die here, we will not be able to change it.” So the topic ended there. So yes, we did touch on that topic.
Being one who has looked terror in the eye, how would you define fear?
When you are threatened with life you may not be able to stand on your feet, I think. I never had any such experience so I am not able to describe fear!
You have seen the face of terror from close range. Can you describe their humane side? Or rather, do they have a humane side?
Well, they have very cruelly killed the sisters and the servants. It was not for money that they took me or hacked that institution. It was enough for them to have taken me captive and not kill the others.
Any Scripture verse you clung to?
I had these thoughts come to my mind where Jesus tells His disciples not to worry about food and clothing. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (Matthew 6:25). Another thought that came to my mind was that not a hair from my head would fall without the Father’s knowledge (Luke 21:18).
Whatever happened was permitted by the heavenly Father. Perhaps, my mission was to be with the sisters to their very end. And when they took me to the car I thought maybe the Lord wants me to pray for these people. Two weeks before I could be released, this thought came to me: “What next Lord?”
So why do you think you were spared?
After being freed, I see that the Lord wants me to be a witness of His existence. That He is a living God; that He hears our prayers and answers our prayers in His own time. My meeting different people now must be strengthening their faith in God; their faith in prayer to overcome their own difficult situations, whatever that may be.
One fine day, Grigio appeared out of nowhere when Don Bosco was afraid whilst walking on the road at night? Did you see God’s Angels sheltering you?
I don’t know if there were any Grigios. One way when you look at it is that I should have been killed before the others. But they did not even threaten me, nor did they point a gun to me or torture me. And if they killed the others, why did they keep me alive? These are questions I am not able to answer other than point to the Lord and say He might have had different plans for me. Of course, I was held captive in a room, but I was not chained. This is a kind of torture, but it has not affected me mentally. The prayers of everyone gave me the strength and tranquility of mind.
As the days progressed into months, did you at any time give up hope of being set free?
That kind of a thought did not come to me. I was not depressed. I only prayed like this: “If it is your holy will, set me free as soon as possible.” God gave me the strength and the grace to fulfill the mission He had for me in Yemen.
Did you have any nightmares of the killings you witnessed?
All I asked from the Lord was to give me the grace to live one day at a time. At night I thanked the Lord and had a good sleep. I never woke up with dreadful nightmares though I had witnessed all those things. Those thoughts would come, but not when I was asleep, only when I sat to pray, when I was fully awake.
Did your captors see Christ through your demeanor? Did they recognize Christ in you?
Well, I am not able to say whether they recognized Christ in me. At one point of time, on the day of my liberation on September 10, when they drove till noon and waited and we had to come back because the arrangements were not proper, when we were driving back he told me: “I think you must have been praying to the third person. Now you better pray to the second person for the rest of the day and night so that arrangements are OK for the next morning for you to be set free.”
What exactly did he mean by telling you to pray to the second person?
[Smiles] They know we believe in the Holy Trinity. I don’t know what exactly he meant but these words came to him. So I thanked the Lord. We know that all prayers are to be offered to the heavenly Father through Jesus.
When you were ordained a Priest, what was your mission, your priority?
My motto was ‘come to serve, not to be served’.
Now, after going through this Joseph-like trauma, has your priority changed?
I don’t think there is any change as such. My life may now have become a strengthening point for others, for their faith to grow.
You volunteered to stay and serve at the home after thousands of Indians were evacuated in the outbreak of violence in Yemen. You knew you were putting your life on the line. What was your thought process then?
Actually, I was already back in Bangalore when the evacuation took place. But I was having a valid visa so I had to go back and surrender the visa for another priest who was to take my place. I was to come back after that. There was a prompting from the Lord, so I offered myself to the Provincial and he allowed me to continue. With my going, I was able to settle the salaries of many others working there and they were allowed to go back to safety to their country. If I had not gone I don’t know what would have happened to them. The Lord wanted me to reach there.
How did your family cope with your captivity?
After coming back I learnt after that they went through great suffering. I learnt that all my family members would gather together in one family or the other every Sunday to pray for me. Some of my brothers and sisters have gone through different levels of sacrifice. One brother has taken a pilgrimage of walking thousands of kilometers. Not only my own blood brothers and sisters, even ordinary people have made so many sacrifices.
What is your definition of terror or understanding of terror?
Terror is created because of the selfishness of people; their craving for power and money. If that is avoided all these kinds of problems will not happen.
What is your message to all those who indulge in terror?
We cannot advise them, we can only pray to God that they may be put on the right track by His Grace. By our telling them, it is not going to change. All we can do is forgive the hurts and pray for them. Forgiving and praying can turn all our enemies into good friends.
Stuck in a ‘No Man’s Land’ with no hope in sight; now a free man. What is your message to people stuck in a crisis?
Trust in God and shun selfishness, He will give you the strength to go through even the hardest time. Crosses are there, troubles will be there: sometimes sickness, sometimes natural calamities, sometimes created by our own fellow beings, but if you believe that nothing can happen to you without God permitting it, He can turn all the bad for our good.
Finally, how would you define freedom?
I was free, in the sense that I could think and pray. Physically, I was kept in a location. I also had the freedom to have my own opinion. Very often we think that whatever we want to be able to do is freedom. However, true freedom is that we should be doing the right things when it is possible. Total freedom is spiritual, mental, physical and psychological… all of it together. All of us are in one kind of captivity or the other. All we have to do is surrender ourselves to God’s will. Then we will truly be free, knowing that He will take care of us. We also have to remember that ultimately, we all have to die one day!
Also Read: A dog named Grigio