A 75-year-old French aid worker held hostage for four years by Islamic extremists in Mali arrived in France, saying she wanted to resume humanitarian work with malnourished children despite the ordeal.
Relatives greeted Sophie Petronin as she stepped off a plane at Villacoublay military airport southwest of Paris, where she was greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron expressed his joy and relief at his release, thanked the Malian authorities and pledged that the French army would continue its fight against terrorism in the West African region.
Petronin was released along with three other hostages from Mali and Italy this week.
Petronin said she was treated relatively well during her captivity. His story contrasted with that of his fellow hostage Soumaïla Cissé, a prominent Malian politician who recounted months of harsh conditions before a precarious trip to their point of extraction.
“I held on – I prayed a lot because I had a lot of time,” Petronin told reporters at the French Embassy in Bamako. “I turned detention… into a spiritual retreat, if you could put it that way.
Petronin was freed alongside Cisse and Italian hostages Reverend Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio. There was no immediate information about the other five foreign hostages that Islamic militants in JNIM are believed to still be holding.
Freedom for the Four came days after the Malian government freed nearly 200 activists and flew them to the north of the country, fueling speculation about an impending prisoner swap which some say could further destabilize the country. country.
It was not immediately clear whether a ransom had been paid, although extremist groups have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.
Cisse, who was kidnapped earlier this year while campaigning for re-election as lawmaker, told Mali’s national television station ORTM that after months in captivity things started to turn move quickly at the end of September.
He said Thursday evening that he made a proof of life video on September 26 and that earlier this week he was released. However, security conditions prevented them from reaching the northern town of Tessalit for two more days.
“I spent six months in … very difficult living conditions, in almost permanent isolation, but I must admit that I was not subjected to any violence, neither physical nor verbal,” Cissé told ORTM .
Maccalli, a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society, was abducted in neighboring Niger in 2018.
In a tweet, the Italian Bishops’ Conference expressed “its gratitude to those who worked for the release as we continue to pray for those who are missing.”
Among the missing is Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, last seen in a 2018 video alongside Petronin.
In Maccalli’s hometown of Crema, a town east of Milan in northern Italy, bells were ringing in the cathedral to welcome the news of his release.
“I hope that Father Gigi’s release is a sign of promising hope for all other prisoners for their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation; and may it be a seed of peace and confidence for the Niger that it loves so much ”, declared the Bishop of Crema, Daniele Gianotti.
Appearing energetic and determined despite her ordeal, Petronin told French broadcasters that she wanted to return to the town of Gao in northern Mali to see the children she was helping before being kidnapped.
“I made a commitment to the children. For four years I haven’t seen how the programs work, ”she said, referring to her work with orphaned and malnourished children. “I’ll go to France, Switzerland, and then I’ll come back to see what’s going on here.”
During her captivity, Petronin said she was allowed to listen to the radio and her guards shared messages and videos with her, including one of her son.
Petronin’s son, Sébastien Chadaud, told French journalists “it is a little boy who found his mother, and a mother who comforted her little boy”. He added, “She’s like a block of granite, my mother. “
Chadaud cried as he described how he fought for his release, telling his mother: “I did my best. She comforted him by saying, “You did what you could.”
As her son kissed her head, she said she wanted to spend time with him, “to look at him and say to him, forgive me, I caused you so much pain, so much hardship, so much work. to help me out.