After almost 5 years as a captive of an Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in Mali in West Africa, a Colombian nun, Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti, has been freed.
She was flown from Bamako, Mali’s capital, direct to Rome where Vatican Media posted photos of her being greeted by the Pope at mass.in St Peter’s Basilica.
Despite earlier fears for her health, her brother Edgar Narvaez told AFP that photos showed her to look well, though extremely brown from the Malian sun. She herself told AFP “I’m very happy; I stayed healthy for five years, thank God.”
She was kidnapped on 7 February, 2017, in southern Mali, a relatively safe part of the country, which had till then been mainly unaffected by the Islamist attacks which had come in the wake of the Tuareg rebellion and subsequent coup in 2012; a coup which had later been put down by French troops.
During her long captivity, Argoti had also survived the vagaries of another coup in Mali in summer 2020.Now France is reducing its troops by half; and there are tensions between it and the coup’s leaders who are now in government.
The nun’s personal circumstances included the killing of her fellow hostage and devout Christian, Beatrice Stockli, probably in late summer 2020; Stockli, from Switzerland had been kidnapped from Timbuktu in northern Mali 13 months before Argoti.
The nun, now in her early sixties, had also endured the freeing of her camp-mate, French aid worker Sophie Petronin, exactly a year before the nun herself was finally freed on Friday 8 October, 2021.
It was Ms Petronin who confirmed that the Colombian woman was still alive as the captive of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslim (JNIM), Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims.
Sadly, Gloria Argoti’s mother had died just weeks before Petronin was able to tell of how the two women had shared a tent. (Edgar Narvaez later told his sister in a note via the Red Cross that their mother had been “unable to endure the sadness and despair any longer.”)
Petronin had been kidnapped on Christmas Eve 2016, weeks before the nun’s own kidnap, but from the northern Mali city of Gao, where the French woman ran an NGO for children with disabilities. Both women had worked in Mali for years; 12 in the case of the Franciscan nun whose convent in Karangasso is about 300km east of Bamako. Locals reported at the time that the kidnappers had wanted to abduct the youngest nun, but Argoti had insisted that they take her instead.
While in captivity, she’s reported to have studied the Koran, presumably with Petronin, who herself apparently converted to Islam and took the name Mariam.
Edgar Narváez told the charity Aid to the Church in Need that the two women had spent most of their time together in the jihadists’ camp:
“Their separation caused great psychological and mental hardship to my sister, because they had shared four years of friendship. They got on very well together and were very good friends They were together for four years, they lived together, ate together, slept in the same tent. They were guarded, but enjoyed a degree of freedom. Up to a point, they were able to go outside and count the stars, the pebbles and the animals passing by, in order to kill time, because they had nothing else to do. They were given breakfast, lunch and tea; there were medicines and a doctor, and they were treated well because they were women, and on account of my sister’s religious [vocation] they showed her great respect.”
ACN reported that ‘One of the two jihadists guarding the hostages finally told Sophie Pétronin “Take your things, you’re leaving”’ on 5 Oct, 2020.
Sister Gloria, who was possibly next after the French doctor, reportedly asked, “And me?”, to which her captor replied, “You stay for later!”’
At the same time Petronin was freed, an Italian Catholic priest, Pier-Luigi Maccalli was freed in northern Mali. He’d been kidnapped in south-west Niger in September 2018, about 18 months after Gloria Argoti was abducted at gunpoint.
After Petronin’s news about the nun first reached her family a year ago, more evidence of Argoti’s survival came when two more Europeans were freed earlier this year.
The nun was finally able to get an 11-line letter back to her brother, which he received in spring this year. He says he knew it was from her as it was all in capital letters, and he also recognised her signature. She mentioned her parents by name and asked for representations to be made by her own government.
An international mission headed by Colombia, which had travelled to Africa with the aim of securing Argoti’s release, was suspended in June.
Edgar Narvaez told ACN, in reference to the failed military operation, “They went out in March and came back three months later, although the intention had been to remain until August 2021.”
ACN reports that the rescue mission was suspended due to the worsening situation in Mali over this summer. The officer who led 2020’s military coup ousted the then-President and Prime Minister.
Now the current Malian President, the Colonel, Assim Goita, announced that she was released on Oct. 9 after “four years and eight months of combined efforts of several intelligence services.”
He assured Malians and the international community that “efforts are underway” to secure the release of all those still being held in the country.
These are believed to include include American Jeff Woodke, who was kidnapped not in Mali but in northern Niger, about three months before Gloria Argoti. He worked for Jeunesse en Mission Entraide et Developpement (JEMED) doing agricultural development.
Another captive, kidnapped a year before Gloria Argoti, but from Burkina Faso, is now 87 year old Australian doctor Ken Elliott. He appeared with Argoti in a video released in July 2017 by a coalition of jihadist groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda, hours before France’s President Macron’s visit to Mali, when France agreed to help support anti-terrorist efforts in the Sahel.
According to US-based monitoring group SITE, the undated 16’50” footage was posted by the same Group to Support Islam and Muslims.
This jihadist network had formed in March 2017, when leaders of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) announced their commitment to form a common platform and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.