By Ebele Orakpo
On Sunday, May 10, 2015, Vanguard Features, VF, visited Malkohi Settlement, about 25km from Yola, Adamawa State capital, to see victims of Boko Haram insurgency freed from the Sambisa forest enclave of the dreaded Boko Haram terror group. They had been freed by the joint military task force currently battling to free all the territories captured by the insurgents in their six-year reign of terror.
Happy to have come out of the proverbial Lion’s den alive, Amina Suleiman and Farida Audu (not real names), two young women from Gumsiri village (about 30km from Chibok)in Damboa Local Government Area of Borno State, relay their horrible experiences to VF. The Sambisa forest with an area of 60,000 square kilometers, stretches from Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Bauchi, Jigawa to some parts of Kano State.
Invasion and abduction
Amina, sitting comfortably on the double-bunk bed in the dormitory was the first to speak: “It was 4.00pm on a Friday during the call for muslim prayers when Boko Haram insurgents invaded our village, shooting sporadically as they entered. They killed some people, mostly men, and led us – women and children – to the front court of the palace of the village head.
Some of the insurgents were busy setting houses on fire while others were shooting and killing people.
There was confusion all over the place. At a point, we were ordered to start walking towards the forest. In the course of the journey to a village close to ours, five men were slaughtered in our presence; their stomachs ripped open while their heads were tucked in the bleeding flesh. A man who was supposed to be among the murdered five escaped into the bush with bullet wounds.”
Journey into the forest
“We continued the journey and got to Bita, (a village bordering Damboa and Gwoza local government areas of Borno State) where we spent the night. We were about 300 in number. Those that had wrappers spread them on the ground and laid down, while those of us who had nothing laid on bare ground covered with shrubs and other plants with sharp edges.
“The following day, we continued to Gwoza. Our children were thirsty, hungry and tired. We spent three months in Gwoza and when they heard that soldiers were coming, they moved us to the outskirts of the town and abandoned us there under some trees in the forest.”
Continued Amina in her small voice: “They gave us very little food consisting of stale maize flour stolen from farmers and brought into the forest. The flour was black and unfit for human consumption. For soup, they gave us dry okra or kuka (dry baobab leaves) with little seasoning; no protein at all. So, many of us, especially the children, fell sick. At a point, I had to dig some swampy areas looking for fish and luckily, I got four boneless fish usually found underground. The water was not good for consumption even though we forced ourselves to take it to remain alive.”
In contrast, she said the insurgents slaughtered cows, rams and chickens on daily basis. Talk about George Orwell’s Animal Farm where although all animals were equal on paper but some were more equal than others in reality! “We lived one day at a time, praying to God for deliverance,” said Farida who was breast-feeding her baby.
On the move again
“One Tuesday evening, they heard that the military was coming and they asked us to move again, vowing that we will not secure our freedom because they were equal to the task and even if they were over-powered, they would not go down alone as we would be used as human shields.
“We started moving further into the forest on empty stomach. As we walked, they followed behind to ensure we didn’t escape. We walked until about 2.00am the following day before we were allowed to stop and rest. But before daybreak, they woke us up to continue the journey further into the forest. We walked until 7:30 pm when it was time for the last Muslim prayer of the day.”
Asked to describe the Sambisa forest, Amina said: “It’s a bush. There are no houses, so when the sun is up, it is unbearably hot and at night, it is very cold and uncomfortable. As a result, many of the children fell ill. The insurgents would put up temporary tents where they stay with their wives. Sometimes we didn’t even get the opportunity to pray and we stayed three, four days without praying.
The insurgents claim they are doing the work of God but that is not true. They prayed with boots on and enter the mosque with shoes. Maybe they were doing that so as to be ready at any point in time to move or fight the soldiers.”
Fowls more valuable than humans
“Slaughtering of human beings was very common and it was done with so much brutality. It was as if chickens had more prestige and importance. “Any time we had the opportunity to pray, we always called on God to have mercy on us and deliver us. Sometimes we fasted. One day, we got news that the military was coming – thanks to a small radio we got at Gwoza. Usually, one of us will hide under a tree to listen to news and tell the rest of us all that had been said.”
Said Farida: “No one was raped in our camp. May be it happened in some other camps because we were kept in different camps. Our captors have rules they adhered to. If one is caught stealing, his limbs are cut off. If he commits adultery or fornication, he is killed and if he lies, he is beaten severely. We were not taken into the interior of the forest. No one in our camp was forcefully given out in marriage but they always insulted and cast aspersions on us, calling us infidels and threatening to slaughter us, especially those of us who were not pregnant.
Sometimes they would tell us they want to marry us out, and we told them we won’t enter any marriage contract that God has not ordained. By this time, we had lost all sense of fear. Although this usually made us feel depressed but we never lost hope in God. We saw ourselves breathing but dead inside. We knew we were alive but didn’t know nor understand how.”
What the insurgents looked like
“They are human beings like us; most of them are dirty, smelly, with unkempt hair and beards, and some go bare-footed. Some of them are like walking corpses as a result of hunger. Many are in the group without knowing or understanding the ideology. Some people voluntarily take themselves to the group and request to be initiated. Some move without ammunition and carry only sticks as weapons. Most of them are young men between the ages of 15 and 30.
Some braid their hair and have longer hair than some women. When they raid towns or villages, they steal everything, including clothes, and after selection, the ones they don’t like are burnt. Some have their heads completely shaved and look very neat and wear good clothes. We never saw anyone above 40 years or even up to that age,” stated Farida.
Mode of operation
“Usually, when they attack villages, they either kill the men or conscript them into the group, especially teenagers, as the men in most cases are killed. When they came to our village, there was a boy of about 12 years who was captured. Before the arrival of the soldiers, they killed him. Sometimes when they go to a village and make a request for a number of boys, if their request is not met, they threaten bloodshed.”
“After the boys are captured, they are given a blood-like liquid mixed with palm dates (dabino) to drink. The insurgents would raise the cup containing the drink above their heads and then pass it to the boys to sip one after the other. After taking the drink, the boys would start behaving like the terrorists in thought and deed. They would try to defend themselves, telling us that people have accused them of drinking blood and eating flesh but that it is all lies,” said Farida who insisted she had witnessed the initiation.
Said Amina: “Sometimes they would gather us together and tell us that anybody who wants a quick visa to paradise should come and they would strap some devices on her body (Improvised Explosive Devices) and she would go to Maiduguri, Abuja and other big towns to kill people, but we refused.”
“One day, we heard the sound of a helicopter hovering over the forest; after sometime, a bomb was released into the forest and there was confusion everywhere. The wives of the terrorists tried to convince us to run with them, claiming that the soldiers were pagans and would kill us too but we refused to be deceived because we had enough information on radio on what was going on. Moreover, we had been praying for the soldiers to come and free us. So some young boys were asked to keep an eye on us.
“Before we knew what was happening, the soldiers were in the forest. When some of the terrorists who couldn’t escape saw this, they came into our midst to use us as human shields because they wanted us dead. What we did was to lie flat while the soldiers engaged them in fierce battle and killed many of them.
Some were smashed by armoured tanks. We were screaming that we were not part of them but abducted victims. That was how we were saved.”
The former captives are slowly but steadily making progress, thanks to the efforts of NEMA, Adamawa State Emergency Management Agency and other non-governmental organisations who are doing so much to make life comfortable for these innocent victims. Already, some have been reunited with their families.