A key player in working for the release of a Jesuit priest held by suspected Taliban militants in Afghanistan for eight months said Thursday the priest never lost hope and was confident in the efforts being made to secure his freedom. Fr. Alexis Prem Kumar, S.J., was the Afghanistan director for Jesuit Refugee Services at the time of his abduction by unidentified men on June 2, 2014. Some reports identified the men as Taliban militants. His release was announced Feb. 22. “Fr. Prem (is) very cheerful, positive, and during the time of his captivity we knew this strength of his character would help him to sustain himself in positivity, not to give up,” Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J., told CNA Feb. 26. Fr. Kumar had been accompanying teachers on a visit to a school for refugees in the village of Sohadat, some 500 miles west of Kabul. His release was secured with the help of the Indian government, which negotiated with his captors. As international director of the Rome-based Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Fr. Balleis played a major role at the community level in gathering information about Fr. Kumar’s whereabouts and well-being throughout his captivity. He was able to speak with Fr. Kumar over the phone shortly after he was released by his captors earlier this month. Fr. Kumar, he said, expressed “great gratitude” for the efforts made to secure his freedom. Fr. Kumar is now in India, his homeland. He is from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where he previously worked with Sri Lankan refugees, indigenous people, and Dalits. Despite spending the majority of his time as a hostage either handcuffed or in chains, Fr. Kumar never gave up and never became bitter toward his captors, Fr. Balleis noted. “So he came out good.” As a hostage taken by someone who can kill you or do whatever they want, “you have no power, you’re powerless,” the priest observed, recalling Fr. Kumar’s own words shortly after his release. “You can also start to feel hatred, or wish them bad things, and that was not the case. (Fr. Kumar) kept positive, hopeful,” he said, noting that they also had to maintain cordial relations with the captors, because “if you want to achieve something you have to be friendly with your enemy, and talk to them.” Although Fr. Kumar’s freedom was negotiated by the Indian government, Fr. Balleis said JRS was busy working to gather information through various contacts on the ground. They remained in constant contact with the Indian consulate and embassy, exchanging information. Fr. Balleis and members of JRS were meeting daily throughout the eight months of Fr. Kumar’s captivity to discuss how to secure his release. At times JRS was able to obtain more information than the government, the priest observed, recalling how it was they who received the first “proof of life” in a video clip sent by Fr. Kumar’s captors four months after his abduction. Not all information received by the Indian government and JRS was exchanged, due to the need to protect their contacts and informants. In addition to communicating with government officials, the Jesuits also needed to be in contact with the captors, Fr. Balleis said, to explain who they were and that as a charitable organization with a mission to serve, JRS couldn’t be “extorted for money.” The eigth month process was full of ups and downs, he said, explaining that at times contacts would come forward and give hope by claiming to have gotten a message through to Fr. Kumar, but in the end they were also trying to extort the organization. However, the most important part of the process, which Fr. Balleis said touches on a deeper spiritual level of trust, “is that we had to keep him alive in our own mind, and heart and faith.” The priest expressed his belief that part of this faith is also transmitted to the hostage, and recalled how after being freed Fr. Kumar told him, “I knew they would make every possible effort they can to get me released.” “So he lived all of the time with that confidence. We lived all the time with that confidence that he’s alive, and that we never got a message (saying) that he’s dead. No informant came back saying ‘No, I was told he’s dead.’ It was always ‘he’s alive, he’s well,’” Fr. Balleis continued. He stressed the importance of somehow trying to get some message across to Fr. Kumar so that he knew that he was cared for, and to show his captors that they were interested in his release. After being freed, Fr. Kumar recounted how in August his captors told him that “soon you will be released, they want you back.” “So obviously our effort to be in touch through some informants reached the captors and him to assure him that we’re making effort, and care for you,” Fr. Balleis said. JRS also “kept him alive” in the Indian government by constantly asking about Fr. Kumar and how the process of securing his release was going. Even if they weren’t always able to get through to Fr. Kumar or obtain insight as to his well-being, the most important part of the process for them was to continue to keep him alive in their own minds by believing that he was alive, and hoping and working for his release, the priest explained. “I believe that everyone’s efforts on the various levels, on the community level, on the higher political level, are important to find a solution,” he said, explaining that for them “It’s a great moment of gratitude, we are all grateful.”
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