Hours before being kidnapped and held hostage for nearly two months, a Quebec nun wrote to her congregation warning about the growing dangers of militants in northern Cameroon, where she had been involved in promoting girls’ education.
“It’s becoming more dangerous here. There are two groups afoot,” Sister Gilberte Bussière said in an e-mail to the Congrégation de Notre-Dame in early April.
Her worries were well-founded. Six hours after the missive, Ms. Bussière and two Italian priests were seized by suspected Boko Haram gunmen and held captive before being liberated in still-murky circumstances. The release was announced over the weekend.
The kidnapping has now led Ms. Bussière’s Montreal-based congregation to reconsider its long-standing work in Cameroon, where four Canadian nuns from the order remain.
“We need to seriously reflect on it,” Sister Josephine Badali, leader of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame, said at a news conference on Monday. “We are concerned that [the nuns] be safe and secure.”
Boko Haram is the group behind the high-profile kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. The girls were snatched from a village near the Cameroon border a week after Ms. Bussière disappeared.
Ms. Bussière, 74, had devoted her life to improving the education of children in northern Cameroon, especially girls. After teaching in Quebec for 20 years, she left for Cameroon in 1979 and had remained there ever since.
Even when she came back to Canada for health reasons in recent years, she expressed her wish to return to Africa. Ms. Bussière had been the long-time principal of an elementary school in northern Cameroon near the Nigerian border, and she encouraged local families to enroll their daughters.
In a phone conversation with Ms. Badali early Monday morning, Ms. Bussière said she was in good health, and she made no mention of being abused during her captivity. She had not been fed protein the entire time, except once, when her captors gave the captives spaghetti with beans.
“She had a strong voice. She was happy,” Ms. Badali said of their conversation, adding that Ms. Bussière had already seen a doctor.
The nun also prayed with the two clergymen during the trio’s captivity.
“She’s a woman of faith and that came through in her voice,” Ms. Badali said of the conversation.
“It didn’t sound like she was afraid … now she must have been. But from what she said, she was not afraid.”
No details were available about how the Quebecker and the Italian priests – Giampaolo Marta and Gianantonio Allegri from the Vicenza diocese in northeast Italy – had obtained their release from the radical Islamist group, and whether it involved a ransom or negotiations.
Ms. Bussière’s family in Quebec expressed relief about her liberation. The nun has a 97-year-old mother who had remained hopeful that her daughter was safe.
“We really imagined the worst during those two months. We never heard anything,” Michel Bélanger, a cousin from Ms. Bussière’s hometown of Asbestos, Que., said on Monday.
He said his cousin was strong-willed and charismatic, and fiercely devoted to her work in Africa. “She knew it was becoming more dangerous, but it was her life, it was as simple as that.”
He added: “We love her, and if you met her once you would always want to see her again.”
Ms. Badali says security had worsened in the region in recent months.
“It’s only in the last number of months that we’ve been aware of a risk,” she said at the order’s mother house.
“It has been, up until this point, a country that’s been fairly safe.”