(Vatican Radio) The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has announced the release of Fr Alexis Prem Kumar who was abducted in Afghanistan over eight months ago.
In a statement published Monday, JRS states it is "immensely grateful to the Indian government for its role in achieving his release".
Fr Prem Kumar was visiting a JRS-supported school near Herat, western Afghanistan, while serving as the service's Afghanistan director when he was kidnapped by several armed men in June.
He was released on Sunday and has since returned to his home in India.
Jesuit Father Peter Balleis, Director of JRS International, spoke to Fr Prem by telephone immediately after his release. He told Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni that he is as well as can be hoped for after such a long time in captivity…
Listen to the interview:
Father Balleis says that expressing his gratitude towards all who have worked hard for his release, Fr Prem revealed that he prayed every day and was confident of a positive outcome to his situation.
Balleis says he himself is not aware whether any conditions were met by the Indian Government to secure the release of the Jesuit priest and says that details may be revealed in the future.
Although the Indian Government is to thank for finalizing Fr Prem’s release, Balleis points out that “we all worked on various levels”.
He says that both JRS International and its ground team in Afghanistan with its community contacts never stopped working. He says that although he and his staff were aware that things were moving, “the actual release came as a surprise”.
Balleis says that after the kidnapping, JRS personnel received news of Fr. Prem only in “late October- early November”.
He says that a video was released proving the priest was still alive and allowing them to have some kind of timeframe: “one thing that we had throughout was the sense and the confidence that he was alive” Balleis says, also because no information was ever received from whatever source that Fr Prem had been killed, “so we worked all the time with the hope that he was alive and kept the momentum going”.
Balleis says JRS held regular meetings with the Indian Embassy, with the Red Cross and with others as well as daily in-house briefings and that “Prem was always in our minds and kept alive by working every day on the latest information and preparing for his release”.
Of course Balleis says the event had an immediate impact on JRS’s work in Afghanistan. He says at first they decided to close the school in Herat that Fr Prem had just visited on the day of his abduction.
However after two months or so, he says it became clear they had to reopen the school as JRS is in the area first and foremost for the children.
“We cannot punish the children for the wrongdoings of some groups who want to interrupt education and have taken our man” he says.
Balleis also says JRS decided to reopen its schools as, for its mission, it also needs to keep the support of the local community because the elders play a big role in the Afghan community, so “we kept all our work going in Afghanistan – in Bamiyan, in Kabul, in Herat, in Sohadat.
He expresses his belief that it is fundamental to keep a positive approach. He says that JRS’s work must continue in difficult situations in a way that is well-structured and it must be conducted also according to professional advice and very importantly: “with a lot of prayer”.
The overall support of people and keeping positive is very important says Balleis “goodness is the only way to overcome negativity”.
“One has to talk in order to find a solution, building trust and moving forward” he says.
He agrees there are many other places in the world today where insecurity poses great problems for humanitarian organizations, but it is something one learns to deal with.
Looking back – Balleis says – more notice should have been taken of a worsening security situation in Herat prior to the kidnapping of Fr Prem: “there are always lessons to be learnt on how to mitigate and reduce risks” he says.
“With some senior advice regarding security we will certainly take steps to reduce risks” for our people on the ground, he says.
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