I had no premonition that day when I boarded a cab, a golf car from Kaduna to Abuja.
A few kilometres after Kaduna, shortly after the NYSC camp, around Dutse, on the express, we were assailed by a volley of gunfire targeted at tyres of vehicles on the express.
Of course all vehicles trapped within the radius of fire had to stop and passengers ran across the express to the other side of the road. As we ran, we saw men in army camouflage wielding Ak47s run after us and dragged us back to the side we just fled from.
No one escaped, they had seen us run and pursued us until we were all caught and rounded up. We were then marched in a single file into the bush.
As we headed into the bush, they had us arranged in formation, one victim, one kidnapper and so on while the rest of the kidnappers formed two lines beside our single file. There was no escape as they repeatedly warned us that we would be shot if we tried to escape.
We marched on for the full 6 hours into the bush; there were no huts, no buildings, no farmland, just endless vast arid land. I was able to gauge time because I was still wearing my wrist watch though my phone and bag had been taken by the kidnappers. Same with the rest of the others, victims like me, who had the misfortune of being on the road at that hour.
As soon as our phones were taken, the sims were removed; this of course meant they didn’t want us traced. Our phones were auctioned off to a certain ‘Yellow,’ that was the name of the person on the other end of the line who bargained for our phones.
I was in tatters in the course of our 6 hours’ trek; my gown had ripped open in my attempt to escape, my wig had fallen off and my tear stained face was caked with dirt and dust.
I was the only woman among the victims; there were 35 of us and twice the number of kidnappers. I feared the worst would happen to me. I began to pray because these people were just smoking weed, they were not normal people.
When we stopped, I quickly sought the face of one whom I perceived to be the leader. I went on my knees and crawled to his feet, groveling, weeping agonisingly and pleading.
I said to him: ‘I know you are a good Muslim, one versed in the tenets of Islam and who knows the sanctity of marriage. Please protect my honour for I am a married woman. Please protect me.’
This leader, who must have been like 26 years at the most, wouldn’t look at my face and I quickly sensed that he couldnt bear to look at a crying woman and so I intensified my cries and pleas and grovelling. I rolled in the dust with snot running from one nostril to the other.
Still, with his gaze averted he told me to stop crying and go join the rest of the victims where they were huddled on the ground. When I wouldn’t stop, he said sternly that if I didn’t stop then he wouldn’t help me. I stopped. He looked at me and told me I wouldn’t be touched by anyone of his boys.
Then they started getting in touch with our people to demand for ransom. How did they contact our relatives?
First off, they asked us all to call out the numbers of relatives we wanted them to contact for our ransom; once we gave the numbers, they would call them then allow us speak for just a few seconds before they took over the phone and made their demands.
They used an old untraceable Nokia phone to make each of these calls and because they spoke Hausa to us but Fulani amongst themselves, I wasn’t able to catch much of what was said among them.
Being the only woman, I was the first to be asked to introduce myself; name, state of origin, job, how much I had in my bank account and as they searched every nook and cranny of my bag and wallet; they wondered why I didn’t have an ATM card.
Thankfully, that day was the day I didn’t travel with my ATM card. I told my kidnappers that I had no bank account; that I am a married woman with children who also happens to be a student. I pleaded, telling them my husband is poor and earns N8,500 monthly and that my family is very poor as well. I told them I was given to my husband at a young age to settle a debt my father had incurred.
But they called me a harlot for leaving my children and going to school. I explained that it was my husband’s idea. He wanted me to go work to augment his salary and working required a certificate and so I had to go to school to earn one. Thankfully, my story was believed. I was soon to realize that these uneducated kidnappers didn’t know much.
They decided I was worth N5million! Immediately I heard that, I raised my hands in surrender, ‘Just shoot me, there’s no way my husband or family will ever raise that amount of money, nobody in my village, Gorin goni, the poorest village in Kaduna, will give as much as N2,000. So please, just shoot me.’
The leader then drew me aside and asked me exactly how much my family could get, I said N10,000. He walked away in anger swearing that I would die. I was still haggling with them over my ransom, when God came through for me…
There was another victim, a Customs officer from Kogi state who drew their ire; they discovered his identity from the ID Card found in his wallet.
It was clear the kidnappers apparently hate the current government because victims who worked for government were singled out and thoroughly beaten with the sticks they used to herd cows. They said the government had impoverished its people and that those in government were thieves.
Every chance they had they would beat the Customs officer. Despite my situation, I began to think of how to save him; so I called out that he must be a fake customs man as his service number is 10 digits instead of 6. They stopped and, thankfully the Customs guy cued in, he begged them saying indeed he was a fake customs man; he said he smuggled cars into the country and he had to do a fake ID to deceive the Customs officials who were collecting money from him. That’s how they stopped beating him!
They demanded 10million off the Customs officers family!
Then, there was also amongst us a Yoruba man who by all appearances was quite rich. Since the Yoruba man didn’t speak Hausa, I was his interpreter to the kidnappers.
This Yoruba man jumped into the drainage tunnel when we were first attacked and fled to the bush but the kidnappers had gone after him and dragged him by the leg out of the tunnel into the open. So, he was caked in blood and dirt. This man told me I should tell the kidnappers he was willing to pay any amount they wanted!
I had to shush him. I warned him, they will finish you o. But the man was jittery, you know how you Yoruba people are at the sign of trouble.
At the end of the negotiation, they demanded N100 million from his family!
You see, all of us victims had been thoroughly stripped of whatever we possessed. I was quick to have deleted my messages and email from my phone when the commotion started, that was my saving grace.
So, when I said I didn’t even have enough money not to talk of a bank account, there were no alerts or bank details in my phone. The others were not so lucky.
Each victim was asked to give the correct PIN number and amount left in their accounts. Any attempt to give a fake PIN was instant death upon discovery because they wouldn’t ask you again.
How did God come through for me?
I was the go-between who always had the phone so I could interpret when calls came in.
One afternoon, they suddenly began to argue amongst themselves and so moved away from us victims. I suddenly found myself alone with the phone! I quickly dialed my brother and told him to keep negotiating, never to give accept the amount they asked for.
You see, once a victim speaks to their family, the victim never gets to talk again until ransom is paid and families don’t realise they can haggle and negotiate the ransom!
After demand for ransom was made from all victims/families, we began another stretch of travelling. We trekked for another 6 hours, making it a total of 12 hours trek from the express into the deepest parts of the bush.
As we went along, we saw their armed vigilantes. Yes, the kidnappers had vigilantes to catch and kill runaway victims. They told us their vigilantes were well armed and since it was an open field, any runaway victim would be shot dead.
When we got to what was our destination, it was a huge village, community of different ‘platoons’ of kidnappers who also had their own victims. So it was like a village business, hundreds of kidnappers, living side by side several hundreds more with each owning victims they raided off the roads.
When we were eventually settled in an open place, the other ‘platoon’ of kidnappers came to ‘inspect us’, like we were spoils of war, loot they had come to admire.
Suddenly, I was being ogled by boys no than 16 to 18. They told my kidnappers that I was a ‘good catch.’ They meant this in terms of rape. But I heard one of my kidnapper say, their leader forbade them from touching me but that they would see about it. I began to pray again that the leader doesn’t change his mind about protecting me.
To cut a long story short, I was released on the third day after a ransom of N500,000 was paid on my behalf. No, my family didn’t raise all the money, my old school mates from the federal government girls’ secondary school I attended, helped raise the money as well. I have God and them and of course my traumatised family to thank for my release.
The customs officer who was asked to bring N10 million, paid N5million.
They asked our families to meet us at a certain place from where their okada rider look outs took them on a two hours’ ride inside the bush. There they counted the money, asked them to walk back and wait at a certain point for us.
I and the customs officer were released together as our ransom was paid the same day. We walked for more than 8 hours to reunite with our families.
I am home today but still so traumatized. I was happy when Governor El Rufia’s convoy went after some of them weeks ago. But a more concerted effort is needed.
While I was there, an Airforce fighter jet came and hovered over the community of kidnappers. Yes, it means government is aware of their location. As soon as the fighter jet was sighted, the kidnappers assembled all of us victims on the edge of a water fall and pointed their weapons at us. They were prepared to shoot us if the fighter jet opened fire on them.
At this point, we the victims began to wave off the fighter jet, we began to beg them to leave, whereas our kidnappers taunted and dared the fighter jet to drop lower so they could complete the massacre.
I found out that victims whose families couldn’t raise money were taken to the edge and shot, their bodies would fall below and be swept away by the water. That way it won’t stink out the community.
To date, no body has come to take my statements or ask me what happened. I mean the authorities haven’t contacted me. So they know exactly what is going on.
(Series written and edited by Peju Akande and based on true stories)