KATSINA, Nigeria – It was on the third day of captivity that the Lawal brothers thought they would be executed.
Exhausted and hungry, they bare their bare feet after long marches under gunfire through a dense forest with more than 300 abducted schoolmates, 16-year-old Anas and 17-year-old Buhari were ordered by their kidnappers to answer a question.
“Is your family poor?” said one of the armed men, much of his face masked by a turban. “If they are, we will kill you now. They can’t afford ransom, ”he said.
The brothers, whose father, Abubakar Lawal, is a construction consultant with an income of $ 100 a month – middle class by regional standards – said nothing and stared at the ground.
“We thought they would kill us there and then,” Anas said.
“It was the scariest part. We thought we would never see our family again, ”said his older brother, named after Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
Three days later, the legal ones among the 344 students from Kankara Government Science School, all of whom were boys released, were a happy ending to a terrifying week in which they endured beatings, threats and deprivation from their kidnappers. The jihadist group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the abduction.
Three boys said in interviews that the kidnappers told them that a ransom had been paid for their release. A person familiar with the kidnappers ‘talks with the government said a large sum had been paid for the boys’ freedom.
During their captivity, boys as young as 13, according to interviews with eight of the liberated students, were forced to eat raw potatoes and bitter kalgo leaves in order to survive. They rarely got rest and slept on rocks where there were snakes and scorpions. They threw themselves on the forest floor to avoid being seen by military planes, which their captors said they would bomb them.
After six nights in captivity, the students were handed over to security agents on the night of December 17, approx. 80 miles from their school in neighboring Zamfara.
The release led to the outpouring of joy and relief over Africa’s most populous nation for fear that the boys would become Boko Haram’s hostages for a long time.
The mass abduction – the largest such kidnapping in Nigerian history – came six years after Boko Haram seized 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok and ignited the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign. These hostages were in custody for three years until 103 were released for a ransom, which those involved said included the exchange, mediated by Switzerland, of five imprisoned militants and 3 million euros, equivalent to today $ 3.66 million.
Still, the Kankara abduction was solved within a week after a secret deal, the details of which remain a mystery.
Government officials refused to pay the ransom, saying the kidnappers released the schoolboys because the military had surrounded them.
However, three boys said their kidnappers told them they were initially paid 30 million naira, equivalent to about $ 76,000, but decided not to release the boys because they had demanded 344 million naira – 1 per year. Inhabitant.
“They threatened to release only 30 of us when the first million ransom was paid,” said 16-year-old Yinusa Idris. “They even took 30 with us away on motorcycles that were ready to be released,” he said.
Imran Yakubu, a 17-year-old, said the kidnappers told them: “One million naira must be paid per student … otherwise you will recruit or kill yourself.”
None of the boys said they saw money change hands. A person familiar with the negotiations said a ransom was transferred in three batches.
A spokesman for the federal government said: “The information we have is that no penny was paid as a ransom and we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the information.”
A spokesman for Zamfara’s government said it did not pay the ransom, but could not say whether the ransom was paid by other people involved in the negotiations.
A ransom payment will signal the increasing integration of crime and terrorism in the region. On Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Kankara boys were reunited with their parents, Katsina police said 84 students had been kidnapped before being released after a fierce gunfight. On Friday in the neighboring state of Borno, 35 people were abducted on a highway by Boko Haram, the state government said.
The kidnapping from Kankara also raises fears of the development of Boko Haram, which has expanded from its base in northeastern Nigeria to ally with bandit groups in the northwest. The Nigerian government says Boko Haram was not involved in the kidnapping and only released the fake video claims of responsibility to seek relevance.
Some analysts say the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, who released two audio clips and a video claiming responsibility for the boy’s abduction, has a lucrative new business model: using his notoriety to raise the cost of ransom subsidies in exchange for a percentage cut.
Fulan Nasrullah, a terror analyst who worked on the mediation to free Chibok girls and other kidnappers, says Shekau – Africa’s most wanted terrorist, with a US $ 7 million bounty on his head – has found a lucrative new niche. “The kidnappers tried to redeem the boys for peanuts until Shekau got involved,” he said.
Shortly after kl. 22 on December 11, the Lawal brothers had just finished cleaning their bedroom prior to a college inspection the following morning when they heard gunshots. Several boys jumped out of their rusty iron frames and the room became full of panic demands.
“We were all confused,” Buhari said.
“We were going to run,” he heard a voice say. “No, they are vigilantes,” said another, referring to the civilian militia that often patrolled the area at night.
Then another volley of gunfire erupted, closer and louder, followed by the sound of voices barking instructions.
Anas joined the group of boys who streamed out of the dormitory and against the cement walls of the compound. There were more than 100 armed men in the schoolyard. They shone bright flashlights and streamed into the pastel-colored buildings. Gather here. We are soldiers, ”they said. “We are soldiers.”
In the melee, Buhari and Anas lost each other.
The gunmen told the hundreds of boys gathered in the lighted yard that they had been deployed for school protection and that the students needed to follow them. Anyone who refused was shot.
“We knew they were not soldiers, but kidnappers,” Anas said.
Armed men, some on foot, others on motorcycles, ordered the boys to walk in a long pillar and hit anyone who walked too slowly with a whip or rifle butt.
By midnight, the hostages had entered “Rugu”, the vast forest that stretches across four of Nigeria’s 36 states. The brothers still had no idea their siblings were among the kidnapped. “I could not see Anas anywhere,” Buhari said. “I did not know if anything had happened to him.”
The boys went until 6 p.m. 5, hacked deeper into the forest and were then allowed to rest on rocks for an hour until they were ordered to move again. Almost everyone walked barefoot: They had not had time to grab their sandals.
In daylight, the hostages got a better look at their prisoners. Many were also teenagers and some said they had also been kidnapped and conscripted.
On the third day, the Lawal brothers saw each other again. “We hurried to hug and said we would not be separated again,” Buhari said.
“From then on we sat together,” said Anas.
At one point, as the guards looked up at the sky, two students near the back of the convoy tried to slip away. The hostages were all asked to stop so they could see their classmates being punished.
“The elder’s hands were tied to a tree and he was beaten,” Buhari said. “Water was poured on his body early in the morning so he could feel the freezing cold.”
Some of the boys heard their prisoners discuss the details of the negotiations with representatives of the Zamfara state government.
On Thursday morning, a commander told them, “Tonight you can sleep at your parents’ house.”
The kidnappers had one last message for their prisoners: If they went back to school, they would kidnap them again.
Within hours, the boys were handed over to security agents in a deforestation and hoisted onto trucks on their way home. Buhari and Anas sat next to each other, relieved but said little.
Now at home in their father’s cream-colored three-bedroom house, the brothers agree they will not return to Kankara Government Science Secondary School.
“We do not want a repeat of that experience,” Buhari said. “I urge my namesake, the President of Nigeria, to help us find another school where we can study in peace.”
Write to Joe Parkinson at [email protected]
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