The kidnappers didn’t want us to talk to one another. So we too kept our cool and calm. But our peace would soon be disrupted as they began inviting each of us in turns to a corner for profiling with a view to extracting additional vital information from us. What followed next would turn out to be a gruesome experience.
The gruelling profiling
I knew it would be a matter of only a few minutes before it got to my turn to be profiled through a series of questions intentionally constructed to elicit the answers that would help their criminal cause.
“Hey, oya, you from the ash colour Toyota car,” their leader shouted, as he pin-pointed me by stamping his feet on my back while I lay on the forest ground, “Come here.”
Interestingly, he didn’t forget the colours of the two cars they ambushed on the highway. Both were Toyotas but he was able to differentiate them by their colours and model.
He didn’t know my name by then but he made sure he didn’t confuse me with the hostage taken from the other Toyota car. I would later realise that the kind of car one drove was part of the initial visible external means of profiling a target.
I made effort to stand up to face him. But before getting up on my feet, one of the other gunmen dashed to where I was and dragged me aside into a small human circular triangle formed by three of the other gunmen.
“Kneel down and face here,” their main guy commanded me, with two other men pointing their long guns at me – each at my left and right, towards my back.
It was already dark but the shining moon helped me to see their full-body frames. Their faces remained hidden behind the hand-woven bandits face masks they adorned.
“Where were you coming from and where were you going to?” they asked me.
“We were coming from Lagos going to Delta for my brother’s burial ceremony,” I replied.
“You are lying with the burial story,” retorted one of them. “There is no burial…”
He kicked me from behind with his right leg and I fell forward, very close to the feet of their kingpin. But I was able to respond to him saying,
“I’m not lying about the burial… If you still think I’m lying, you have my phone with you; you can check through it for evidence to prove that I have a burial ceremony coming up.”
As a matter of fact, my brother’s obituary poster, the electronic copy of the invitation card, a picture of the casket to be used for the burial, some video records of the Christian service of songs held two days earlier, etc could have been seen in my phone storage if they had checked.
But they didn’t probe further on that. Instead, they proceeded to another question: “Where do you work and what do you do there?”
I mentioned the name of my employer and then mumbled a few more words explaining what I do there.
There was no way I could have lied about where I worked because they could easily have found out the truth as they went through my cellphone. Besides, my work ID which was neatly tucked away somewhere in my phone pouch could have given me out.
More questions, before naming the ransom amount
They asked me a few other personal questions and then announced the ransom sum they would rake in on my head.
“Do you have a father?”
“What of Mother?”
“Do you have the money to save yourself?”
“So, who are you going to call to pay your ransom?”
“Shut up there; you are mad!” bellowed one of the gunmen into the night. “Do you think we are playing here? This is business…”
He continued ranting along that line as I made effort to expasiate on the response that I have ‘nobody’ to pay ransom on me.
“The only person I could have called is the one that just died,” I explained rather flippantly.
They became enraged and began beating the hell out of me.
In the midst of that, I heard one of them say, “We will collect five million Naira ransom before we release you. It’s not our business how you get the money… except you want to die here.”
“Five million Naira!” I exclaimed, damning any consequences and while still kneeling down at gun-point. “We don’t have such money anywhere to give you. As I said before, my family is mourning and we even need money for the burial ceremony coming up in three days.”
“Burial or no burial” rushed in one of the gunmen, “we will collect the ransom on you or else consider yourself dead.”
He could hardly finish the last word before he started hitting me on the head with his bare hands, and then with a wooden cane cut from the forest trees.
Simultaneously, another one commanded me to lie flat facedown on the forest floor. That helpless position gave them all advantage over me.
They started flogging me mercilessly on my buttocks and on my back until I felt like my flesh was peeling from my body. With only a singlet and a light t-shirt covering my back, I seriously felt the pain of the many lashes meted out on me.
As I was being flogged from left, right and centre, I didn’t even know when I started releasing gas uncontrollably from my lower orifice. I couldn’t suppress the sound and I cared less.
I thought this would infuriate them further but their reaction was very surprising to me.
“Look at this man,” exclaimed their leader, “You can fart but you don’t want to pay ransom?”
They started laughing hysterically, while communicating amongst themselves in their native tongue. One of them who was overzealous seized the opportunity to administer more lashes of cane on my body.
Thereafter, he dragged me aside as they continued profiling the other hostages.
“Just kneel down and wait there,” he commanded me in anger.
I was in that vulnerable position for a few minutes until they had time for me again. Their kingpin came to the corner and said, “You work in a bank. Just call your manager to give you the money; he will be deducting it small small from your salary.”
I chuckled and replied, “with the kind of money you are asking for, it will take me many years to finish paying the debt.”
This made him angry and he lashed back at me. “So you don’t want us to collect ransom on you?”
He gave me a leg kick on the lower ribs below my right armpit. I fell to the ground to my left, gasping for breath in the next few minutes that followed.
As I lay there wriggling in physical pains, I could hear another of the hostage being subjected to the same processes of questioning and flogging as I was subjected to.
“I don’t have work sir,” I overheard the hostage say. I presumed they must have have asked him where he worked just like they did me.
“What did you say?” the kidnappers asked the man in utter disbelief.
“I said, I don’t have work sir.”
“You don’t have work! And you call yourself a man? We will kill you here today.”
They continued to flog the guy and he was wailing aloud into the night, But these ruthless kidnappers didn’t mind.
Another hostage stated that he was a lawyer. To which the kidnappers probed further: “Are you an SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria)?
“No, I’m just an ordinary lawyer, not an SAN,” the man replied. I noticed that the man was not manhandled the way they did to us.
First, he cooperated with the kidnappers during the gruelling profiling, giving them the hope that the fifteen million Naira ransom they placed on his head would be paid. And too, it would appear that the kidnappers felt slight pity for him for the gunshot wound he sustained.
I may be wrong about those positions, because quite honestly, I was already too tired at that point to pay much attention to the full outcome of the profiling of the other hostages.
And gratefully, the profiling was completed and it was time to catch some sleep. But our beds would be on the forest grasses.
Sleeping in the forest for the first time
After the profiling, all of us hostages were forced to one corner of the makeshift camp. (Not a camp in the real sense of it; just a spot they fancied in the forest). We had the option of either sitting or lying down. No room for standing up.
I thought we would pass the night there. But suddenly, they commanded us to get up and follow them as we changed camp. Thankfully, that was our last compulsory trekking for the day.
It would be around 11pm or 12 midnight by the time they settled us in another spot in the forest. There we were told we would be spending the night.
We slept on the forest grasses in one cluster facing away from the kidnappers who settled down under a tree nearby.
Even though they commanded us not to look in their direction, I observed that they had sleeping mats for their own comfort while they made us lie down on bare grasses, surrounded by thick bushes in the middle of a treacherous forest.
As I lay on the grass to sleep, I remembered the words of the Psalmist and I repeated it under my breath, “…He makes me to lie down in green pastures…” (I saw the forest as the green pasture).
Before we finally dosed off, they gave us some rules for of the night. “Don’t discuss amongst yourself. Don’t stand up suddenly, or you will get shot. If you have any reason to stand up in the night, just say, “sergeant” (that’s what they told us to call if we wanted to say anything). And unless you get a response from any of us, don’t stand up.”
I was already exhausted by that time but I could not deeply close my eyes for a sound sleep. I mean, I tried to sleep, but I found myself opening my eyes several times throughout the night. In all, my sleep was short and slight.
I was busy replaying the events of the previous day in my mind and feeling the throes of being held in the forest against my will.
The moon shone brightly across the forest in its full glory and everywhere was dead quiet except for the snoring sound of a fellow hostage. I felt happy for him that despite our poor sleeping conditions, he was able to enjoy such a deep sleep.
Each time I opened my eyes, I said a word of prayer.
“God, please restrain these kidnappers from harming us. Remember that when the children of Israel passed through enemy territories, You did not allow anyone to hurt them. In a miraculous way, deliver us from this hostage situation.”
I’m a firm believer in miracles. After all, with God nothing shall be impossible. The God that miraculously set Apostle Peter free from the prison walls is the same God to whom I pray.
So I had closed my eyes for the night hoping that God would somehow supernaturally pluck me away from the den of the kidnappers to a safe environment where I would be free to go home to my family. But that did not happen; I opened my eyes to see that I was still horizontal with the forest floor, with cigarette smoking gunmen keeping guard over me and the rest of the hostages.
But God knows better. As the omniscient One He has the full picture. Who am I to dictate to Him?
At some point in the night. I had reasoned that if God were to suddenly snatch me away from these kidnappers, what would happen to the other hostages? I could not accommodate the thought that they may be eliminated in anger or as a form of revenge.
Even when I thought of attempting an escape, I had to perish the idea too. But somehow, I was convinced that I would survive the ordeal and live to tell the story.
Before I knew it, the night had turned into morning. And gratefully, we survived the first night in the forest without any fatal incident.
Despite the dawning of a new day, I continued to lie facedown remaining fully aware of the goings-on in the environment and waiting to dance to whatever music the kidnappers would play for us next.*