Priest Providing Trauma Therapy in Nigeria Recounts Near-death Experiences with Militants

Fr. Joseph Bature Fidelis the Director of the Human Resource and Skills Acquisition for Trauma Healing Center of the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri in an interactive session with some women. Credit: Fr. Joseph Bature Fidelis

Outside St. Hillary Nursery and Primary School of Nigeria’s Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, a middle-aged Priest gathered teachers and older learners and gave them general absolution. Everyone in the school thought they were going to die. 

Fr. Joseph Bature Fidelis, then the parish priest of St. Hillary Catholic Church Polo recalls the events of 2014 just after the learners came from Holy Mass and were reciting poems outside their classrooms when they heard a scuffle that was accompanied by heavy shooting outside the school. 

Boko Haram militants had just raided Giwa military Barracks near the school, freeing dozens of their members from the detention facility. They were shooting everyone on the way as they headed to Sambisa Forest, some 40 kilometers from the school.

Outside the school premises, some of the military men who stood guard had been shot. Amid screams and frantic calls from parents who wanted to know the situation of their children, Fr. Fidelis scampered to the school gate to find out whether there was a way to evacuate the children.

Credit: Fr. Joseph Bature Fidelis


“Those days, Boko Haram had the habit of using children as human shields whenever they felt cornered. They also targeted schools and kidnapped learners. I knew that our children were not safe and so, I went to the military men to find out how to evacuate the learners from the school premises,” Fr. Fidelis said during the Wednesday, May 17 interview with ACI Africa.

“In my confusion, I heard someone shout, ‘watch out!’ And I dropped down on the ground from where I heard multiple gunshots,” he recounted.

Fr. Fidelis remembers quickly closing the gate and finding his way back to the school hall where everyone gathered, ready for the general absolution. He and the teachers then helped younger children to scale the wall and jump outside for safety.

“A few military men who guarded us were killed. Luckily, no learners were harmed that day. The militants seemed determined to disappear behind the cover of the forest as fast as possible,” he said.

Maiduguri city in Nigeria’s Borno State is the origin of Boko Haram and has remained the epicenter of the activities of the militant group that continues to target schools, military posts, Christians, and Muslims who are critical of the group.

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The 2014 attack at St. Hillary Catholic Parish Polo and its school was not the first time that Fr. Fidelis had found himself under intense fire as Boko Haram wreaked havoc in the Nigerian State. 

It was not the last time that the member of the Clergy of Maiduguri Diocese came close to death either, he says, and adds, “Even today, the mere thought of hitting the road, going to do pastoral work in camps of the internally displaced persons and in communities we serve is risky.”

He remembers another incident when he was traveling from Maiduguri to Jos, a city located some seven hours away when he survived an explosion by a whisker.

“I remember passing through a market called Ngamdu when I witnessed an explosion of an IED (improvised explosive devise). It was a horrific scene as I saw human body parts fly in the air. Driving a few meters ahead, I saw the second device explode. The explosion was so loud that I momentarily went deaf and I couldn't hear even after I arrived in Jos,” he recalls.

Other times were when the Nigerian Catholic Priest received threats of attacks from the militants themselves who made good their promise one Sunday but found many civilians protecting the Parish.


It is Fr. Fidelis’ traumatic near-death experiences that led him to develop a deep passion for accompanying those who have had similar experiences.

Fr. Fidelis in the Director of the Human Resource and Skills Acquisition for Trauma Healing Center where he accompanies severe cases of victims of attacks by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP).

The Catholic Priest is one of the two Clinical Psychologists at the facility that was established by the Diocese of Maiduguri to also equip survivors of violent attacks in Maiduguri with skills to start living with dignity.

A section of the Human Resource and Skills Acquisition for Trauma Healing Center in the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri Credit: Aid to the Church in Need International

Fr. Fidelis started by ministering to women in IDP camps who were widowed when militants killed their husbands.

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“When the militants attack a community, they kill all the men and go away with young women who are forced to convert to Islam and are married off to the fighters. Those who refuse to convert to Islam are used as sex slaves. They also perform domestic chores for the wives of the militants,” he says.

In 2020, the center sent an appeal for finances to the Catholic charity and Pontifical foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, which funded the facelift of the center.

Today, the center has qualified staff that offers trauma therapy to victims of militant attacks, including those escaping from Boko Haram captivity.

People with post-traumatic symptoms that include sleeplessness, unexplained illnesses, physical injuries, and nightmares, among others, walk into the facility and embark on a healing journey individually and in group counseling sessions that encourage interaction.

The center also has a skills acquisition section that equips beneficiaries with occupational competencies in food processing, sewing, and shoemaking, among other skills, to help them back on their feet.

Fr. Fidelis who completed his studies in Clinical Psychology from the Gregorian University goes around the Diocese of Maiduguri, training members of the Clergy, teachers, Catechists, and other Laity on child protection and safeguarding.

He has also participated in multiple programs, including the Trauma Healing for members of the Clergy, women and men Religious and the Healing of Healers, which was organized for 20 Priests in Maiduguri in early May.

The Nigerian Catholic Priest told ACI Africa that the suffering of the people inspires him in his work every day.

“I have seen how much my people have suffered. I believe this is my calling. These people need someone to journey with them, to give them hope, and to constantly show them the face of Jesus amid their suffering,” Fr. Fidelis says.

“I feel the urgent need to spend my life giving hope and passing on the skills that God blessed me with to the people who are interested in accompanying those who have been wounded,” he further says, adding that the Eucharist and daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament rejuvenates him in his work.

Highlighting some of the challenges at the Catholic trauma healing centre, Fr. Fidelis says, “Funding is our biggest challenge. The needs are so staggering and we can’t meet all of them.” 

“We are still receiving people who were kidnapped by Boko Haram nine years ago, and have delivered children who have had adverse childhood experiences and must be taken care of,” the Nigerian Catholic Priest added.

The member of the Clergy of Maiduguri Diocese also underlined the need to provide more capacity building at the center, including widescale training of psychosocial care experts.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.