BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — French humanitarian worker Sophie Petronin said early Friday she had been treated relatively well during her nearly four years in captivity at the hands of Islamic militants, as she and three other newly released hostages celebrated reunions with loved ones.
Her account to French broadcasters overnight came as fellow ex-hostage Soumaila Cisse recounted months of arduous conditions before a precarious trip to their extraction point, arriving in Mali's capital 48 hours after first being released.
“I hung on — I prayed a lot because I had a lot of time,” the 75-year-old Petronin told reporters at the French Embassy in Bamako before boarding a flight to France with her son.
“But I transformed detention ... into a spiritual retreat, if one can say that," she said.
Petronin was released alongside Italian hostages the Rev. Pierluigi Maccalli and Nicola Chiacchio, and Cisse, a prominent Malian politician. There was no immediate information about the five other foreign hostages that the Islamic militants from JNIM are believed to still hold.
Freedom for the four came just days after the Malian government released nearly 200 militants and sent them by plane to northern Mali, fueling speculation of an imminent prisoner exchange that some fear could further destabilize the country.
It was not immediately known whether a ransom was paid, though extremist groups have long funded their operations with such payments from European governments.
Describing their emotional airport reunion, Petronin's middle-aged son Sebastien Chadaud told French reporters that “it was a little boy who found his mom again, and a mom who was comforting her little boy.”
He added: “She’s like a block of granite, my mom.”
Cisse, who had been kidnapped earlier this year while campaigning for re-election as a legislator, told Mali's state broadcaster ORTM that after months of captivity things began to move quickly at end of September.
He said late Thursday that he had made a proof of life video on Sept. 26, and earlier this week he was freed by his captors. Still, 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 confess that I was not subjected to any violence, neither physical nor verbal,” Cisse told ORTM.
The Italian hostages included Maccalli, a Roman Catholic missionary priest from the African Missionary Society who was kidnapped from neighboring Niger in 2018.
In a tweet, the Italian bishops conference expressed “ gratitude to those who worked for liberation as we continue to pray for those who are missing.”
Among those is Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narváez Argoti, last seen in a 2018 video alongside Petronin.
In Maccalli's birthplace of Crema, a city east of Milan in northern Italy, bells tolled in the cathedral to welcome the news of his liberation.
“I hope that the release of Fr. Gigi is a promising sign of hope for all the others who are prisoners for their faith and their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation; and may it be a seed of peace and trust for the Niger he loves so much," Crema Bishop Daniele Gianotti said.
Looking energetic and determined despite her ordeal, Petronin told French broadcasters that she wants to go back to the northern Malian town of Gao to see the children she was helping before she was kidnapped.
“I made a commitment to the children. For four years I haven’t seen how the programs are working,” referring to her work with orphaned and malnourished children.
“I will go to France, to Switzerland, and then I will come back to see what’s happening 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 from her son.
“All of us, on while we are on this earth, we have or we will have ordeals to go through. If you accept what is happening, it will not go too badly. If you resist, you will hurt yourself.”
Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in Rome; Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.