After dishing out the unsolicited pieces of advice, the kidnappers mandated the so-called good-for-nothing-man with his driver to escort the Papa out of the forest. Hopefully, they would lead him till he reunites with his family and then both of them can walk to their freedom as well. We, the three remaining hostages, bade them farewell while our own fate still hanged in the balance.
Time to share the booty
Thanks to the huge ransom collected on the papa’s head, the kidnappers were visibly delighted and they became more favourably disposed towards us. They began talking to us in warmer tones than before, telling us that if our families would cooperate with them just like the Papa’s family did, we too would regain our freedom.
They didn’t have any wild celebrations after collecting the ransom. Perhaps, they felt it wasn’t time to celebrate yet or they wanted to remain focused on their mission of collecting ransom from all the remaining hostages. Either way, they were fully in control of the situation.
Meanwhile, they led us to another part of the forest where they commanded us to lie facedown again, facing away from their direction. They themselves settled temporarily under a big tree near us for about an hour.
I couldn’t see everything they did under the tree. As usual, we were forbidden from looking directly at them. And except for the faint moonlight and the intermittent flashes of light from the kidnappers, everywhere remained dark.
But from all indications, I could surmise that they were sharing the ransom collected from the Papa’s family. The sharing exercise was done without fights amongst them.
The atmosphere remained peaceful throughout the time they spent sharing the booty. And each of them had loaded their share of the ransom into their individual backpacks before they set us on the move again.
Forced Trekking continued
From that point onwards, trekking continued for every one of us. For what seemed like an eternity, our captors were marching us from one location in the forest to another.
I noticed that from the time the papa was released, they had become uneasy keeping us for a prolonged time in one place. My suspicion was that they were afraid the Police might be on their trail.
They kept us on the move for a greater part of the night. And apart from the sounds emanating from our movements, the night was as quiet as ever.
At some point, they led us from the upper part of the forest towards the lower part -a valley, where we came to a riverbank. I stood there gazing into the night and into the dept of the river without saying a word.
Standing by the crystal clear river
The water of the river was so clear I could see through from the surface to about four feet to the river bed, under the moonlight.
Some of the kidnappers, with their two feet already dipped in the river edges, stooped to fetch drinking water into their individual water bottles. From all indications, they must have been used to visiting that river.
One of them said to me, “This water is fit for drinking. Even the villagers come here to fetch their drinking water.”
He had filled his bottle before he began walking away from the deeper part of the river towards my direction.
I heard everything he said but I wasn’t moved to enter the water like they did. I stood at the riverbank unwilling to step in to refill the 5-liter gallon I had been carrying wherever we went as we circulated in the forest.
Swimming has never been my forte. In fact, in my life, I have never fetched water from a river before.
Was history going to be made that night? I wasn’t sure about that.
One of the kidnappers noticed my reluctance to enter the river. So he spoke to me under the moonlight, “You are afraid of water, right?”
Before I could give him a response, he came closer to me and said, “Give me the gallon, let me fetch the water for you.”
“Thank you,” I said with a tired tone.
I handed him the gallon which was hanging loosely in my weary right hand at that moment. He perched on an elevated rock in the river, lowered the gallon into the water, filled it up, and brought it back to me.
I thanked him again, and the journey continued.
What’s that flash?
After we left the river, we trudged on in the forest like refugees fleeing from some war-infested territory. The gallon with its full water content became part of the physical burden I had to carry along as they moved us about in the forest that night, while another hostage carried the remaining food items in a bag provided for that purpose.
At one point, someone flashed a torchlight at us from the direction we were heading towards. “Who could that be?” I asked myself under my breath.
Whoever that was obviously has had a clear view of all of us, with the warning torchlight shined at us. What I didn’t know was whether the person was alone or not.
“That’s a hunter’s light,” I think I heard someone say. Till now I wasn’t sure who said it – either one of the kidnappers or a fellow hostage.
In any case, our captors understood the unspoken message from whomever it was that flashed us. So they led us towards another direction, away from the menacing torchlight that seemed to have pierced our souls on that treacherous night. But as it turned out, that would not be the only strange encounter of the long night.
A strange boy from nowhere
The kidnappers led us through a narrow bush path that passed under high tension power lines. This was not the first time we had come across these power infrastructures.
It’s been a reoccurring decimal in the forced trekking we did in the forest. By then, I had cleared all my doubts about these Fulani kidnappers using the power lines as a bearing of some sort in navigating the dense forest.
We heard some strange sound emanate from the direction we were heading to. “Hold it,” one of the kidnappers in front whispered to us and waved at us to bend low.
We complied immediately, making for hiding under the bushes beside the footpath we were walking on. The next sound I heard was the cocking sound of the guns our captors wielded.
They got ready to shoot even before the enemy would emerge. Surprisingly, it was a boy, a strange teenager, who walked into the ambush.
But they did not fire the gun at him once they recognised that he looked like one of their own. The boy threw his two hands up in the air above his head, in a frightened mode, but in absolute surrender as two of the kidnappers accosted him at gunpoint, and then questioned him in their tribal language.
I could only grasp two words from the short but serious conservation between the boy and the kidnappers: Kano and Allah...
I may be wrong but I assumed ‘Kano’ was in response to the question of where he came from. And Allah was invoked by the boy in prayer for the kidnappers after they spared his life and asked him to disappear into the night in another direction different from where we were being led to.
Can I rest please?
With the coast cleared, the two of the kidnappers continued to lead us in a single file while the rest followed closely from behind with their guns in hand. This has been the format they have employed while moving us from place to place in the forest.
At some point, we ascended the hilly part of the forest again. I became so physically exhausted I could not walk fast anymore.
The other two hostages looked fatigued as well. But we kept following the untiring kidnappers wherever they led us to until it became inevitable that someone should speak up.
“Excuse me, Sergeant,” I called out to the kidnapper who stood a few meters ahead of me, “I’m feeling tired and I need to rest.” (Recall that the kidnappers mandated us to address them as sergeants).
He responded to me favourably and said all of us should sit down at a convenient spot to take some rest. It was really a great relief for us because if we had continued trekking on without rest, I would have reached my breaking point.
We remained there for the next one hour before they led us to another spot in the forest where we had to pass the night. It would be around 2am by that time.
I was physically exhausted and my eyes had become needy of sleep. And in a matter of a few minutes, I have fallen into a very deep sleep.
The night of sleeping well
At the new location, we were happy to hear that we could “lie down and sleep there for the night.” Our bodies were already aching and our feet hurting from forced long-distance trekking in the treacherous forest.
Before we slept off, the kidnappers reminded us of their rules as usual. They must think we have short memories and must have forgotten their draconian rules.
“Don’t discuss amongst yourselves,” echoed one of them. “And you must take permission from us before you stand up in the night. If you stand suddenly, we will send bullets through your skull.”
This would be the third night I would sleep in the forest as their hostage. So far, I have become familiar with the rules and I wasn’t planning on flouting them. After all, I don’t want any bullet piercing my skull.
Before I finally dosed off, I took a few moments to pray, “Thank You Lord because you are with us even in this ugly situation we have found ourselves. Thank You because You have restrained these people from carrying out their threats of death against anyone one of us.
“Lord, I’m tired of this jungle. Please, touch their hearts to reduce the amount they have demanded as my ransom so I can regain my freedom.”
For the first time in three nights, I slept soundly on the forest floors. I guess it was because of the physical exhaustion we had suffered during the day and in the earlier part of the night.
The night was short but the sleep was deep. And before long, we were already seeing the dawning of a new day. And it turned out to be a good morning.
Joy comes in the morning
As I opened my eyes, I could see tiny Sun rays emanating from the distant horizon to the forest skies. With that, the kidnappers could see our faces and our entire body frame but we could not see theirs because they remained tightly kitted from head to toe with their faces still hidden behind bandits’ masks.
The first thing that morning, the leader of the kidnappers walked to where I sat on the floor and said, “Now, tell your family to make up the money they have raised to three million.
“If they can do that today, you will regain your freedom. If they don’t meet up, the ransom amount will return to the five million Naira we earlier demanded.” Deep inside me, I felt grateful that God had heard my prayer of last night, but I didn’t show it.
He handed me my cellphone to call my wife to communicate the new development to her. And she promised to do her best to meet up with the reduced target sum, explaining that even the money meant for the burial had been diverted to the ransom fund.
As usual, the phone was set on speaker mode so everyone on the ground was in on the conversation. It was that conversation that reminded me of something that made me have a moment to shed some tears that morning.
But then I would soon realise that crying while being held hostage can earn you multiple slaps on the head.*
*Continued in Part 8