KATSINA, Nigeria – On the third day of captivity, the Lawal brothers believed they would be executed.
Exhausted and hungry, their bare feet were torn after long marches through a dense forest with more than 300 kidnapped schoolmates, 16-year-old Anas and 17-year-old Buhari were ordered to kidnappers to answer a question.
“Is your family poor?” said one of the gunmen, with much of his face masked by a turban. “If I am, we will kill you now. They will not be able to afford the ransom, “he said.
The brothers, whose father, Abubakar Lawal, is a consultant in the construction industry, earning $ 100 a month – the middle class by regional standards – said nothing and stared at the ground.
“I thought they would kill us there and then,” Anas said.
“It was the most frightening part. We thought we would never see our family again, “said his older brother, who bears the name of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
Three days later, the lawyers were among the 344 students at the Kankara government science school who were released, a happy ending to a terrifying week in which they endured beatings, threats and deprivation at the hands of their captors. Boko Haram jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the abduction.
Three boys said in interviews that the kidnappers told them a ransom had been paid for their release. A person familiar with the kidnappers ‘discussions with the government said that a considerable amount had been paid for the boys’ freedom.
During captivity, according to interviews with eight of the released students, boys up to 13 years old were forced to eat raw potatoes and bitter kalgo leaves to survive. They were seldom allowed to rest, sleeping on rocky ground, home to snakes and scorpions. They threw themselves on the forest floor to avoid being seen by military planes that said they would bomb them.
After six nights in captivity, students were handed over to security guards on the night of December 17, about 80 miles from their school in neighboring Zamfara.
The release sparked outbursts of joy and relief in Africa’s most populous nation, after fears that the boys would become long-term hostages of Boko Haram.
The mass abduction – the largest such abduction in Nigerian history – came six years after Boko Haram seized 276 schools in Chibok, triggering the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Those hostages were in custody for three years until 103 were released for a ransom in which the people involved included the exchange, mediated by Switzerland, of five imprisoned militants and 3 million euros, equivalent today to 3.66 million dollars. .
However, Kankara’s abduction was resolved within a week, following a secret agreement, the details of which remain a mystery.
Government officials denied payment of the ransom and said the kidnappers released the students because the army surrounded them.
However, three boys said their captors told them they were initially paid 30 million naira, the equivalent of about $ 76,000, but decided not to release the boys because they had demanded 344 million naira. – 1 per head.
“They threatened to release only 30 of us when the initial 30 million ransom was paid,” said 16-year-old Yinusa Idris. “They even took 30 of us with motorcycles ready to launch,” he said.
Imran Yakubu, a 17-year-old man, said the kidnappers told them, “One million naira must be paid for each student … or we will recruit or kill you.”
None of the boys said they saw money changing hands. A person familiar with the negotiations said that a ransom was transferred in three lots.
A federal government spokesman said: “The information we have is that no ransom has been paid and we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the information.”
A Zamfara state government spokesman said he had not paid any ransom, but could not say whether the ransom was paid by other people involved in the negotiations.
A ransom payment would signal the growing integration of crime and terrorism in the region. On Saturday, less than 24 hours after the Kankara boys reunited with their parents, Katsina police said 84 students had been abducted before being released after a fierce gun duel. On Friday, in the neighboring state of Borno, 35 people were abducted on a Boko Haram highway, the state government said.
The Kankara abduction also raises concerns about the evolution of Boko Haram, which has expanded from its base in northeastern Nigeria to ally with gangs in the northwest. The Nigerian government said Boko Haram was not involved in the abduction and only launched false liability claims to seek relevance.
Some analysts say the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, who released two audio clips and a video claiming responsibility for the boys’ abduction, has a new profitable business model: using his infamy to increase the cost of ransom payments in exchange for a percentage cut.
Fulan Nasrullah, a terrorist analyst who worked to mediate the release of the Chibok girls and other kidnappings, says Shekau – Africa’s most wanted terrorist with a $ 7 million reward in his head – has found a new profitable niche. “The kidnappers tried to ransom the boys for peanuts until Shekau got involved,” he said.
Shortly after 10 pm on December 11, the Lawal brothers had just finished cleaning the bedrooms before inspecting a home the next morning when they heard gunshots. A few boys jumped off the rusty iron bed frames and the room became full of panicked talk.
“We were all confused,” Buhari said.
“We should run,” he heard a voice say. “No, they are vigilant,” said another, referring to the civilian militia that often patrolled the area at night.
Then another shot fired, closer and louder, followed by the sound of voices barking instructions.
Anas joined the group of boys coming out of the dormitory and into the concrete walls of the complex. There were more than 100 armed men in the schoolyard. Bright lanterns shone and flowed into the buildings in pastel colors. “Gather here. We are soldiers “, they said. “We are soldiers.”
In melee, Buhari and Anas lost each other.
The gunmen told hundreds of boys gathered in the unlit yard that they had been deployed to protect the school and that students should follow them. Anyone who refused would be shot.
“I knew then that they were not soldiers, but kidnappers,” said Anas.
The kids, some on foot, others on motorcycles, ordered the boys to walk in a long column, hitting anyone walking too slowly with a whip or the butt of a rifle.
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 if their brother was among those abducted. “I couldn’t see Anas anywhere,” Buhari said. “I didn’t know if anything had happened to him.”
The boys walked until 5 o’clock in the morning, making their way deeper into the forest, then were left to rest on the rocks for an hour until they were ordered to move again. Almost everyone was walking barefoot: they hadn’t had time to grab their sandals.
In broad daylight, the hostages looked better on the kidnappers. Many were teenagers, and some said they had been abducted and recruited.
On the third day, the Lawal brothers saw each other again. “We hurried to hug and said we would not be separated,” Buhari said.
“We’ve been sticking together ever since,” Anas said.
At one point, as the guards looked at the sky, two students behind the convoy tried to sneak in. The hostages were told to stop so they could track down their punished classmates.
“The old man’s hands were tied to a tree and he was beaten,” Buhari said. “The water was poured on him early in the morning so that he could feel the freezing cold.”
Some of the boys heard their captors discussing the details of 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 received a final message for their captives: if they returned to school, they would kidnap them again.
Within hours, the boys were handed over to security guards in a forest glade and lifted onto trucks heading home. Buhari and Anas sat side by side, relieved, but saying little.
Now at home in their father’s three-room cream house, the brothers have agreed not to return to Kankara government science high school.
“We do not want to repeat this experience,” Buhari said. “I call on 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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