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Our lives in Sambisa Forest — Ex-Boko Haram captives

Sisters recall the harrows of surviving Boko Haram captivity in Sambisa

Renata Yohanna and two of her relatives left for their farmlands near Tugunshe Village in Konduga Local Government Area of Borno State with high hopes and expectations for the farming season.

The trio of Yohanna, Luka Jato and Lami Jato could finally afford to rent a tractor to plough their farmlands but their dreamed bumper harvest suddenly turned into survival strategy as members of the Boko Haram group caught up with them on the farm.

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Renata and her sister Lami sat under a tree watching as the tractor got to work; they were satisfied with the level of work as they continue their chats.  But suddenly, they were surrounded by armed men on motorcycles. They said the motorcyclists needed no introduction because Renata’s grandparents were abducted by the insurgents in 2014.

Her grandparents, both 88-years-old, spent three years in captivity before they regained their freedom in 2017. She said a recall of the experiences of her grandparents in captivity sent cold shiver down her spine as it dawned on her that the armed men were Boko Haram members. The men brandished AK47 riffles and wore military camouflage.

“We didn’t understand what was happening. We were confused. Everyone on the farm started running, including the tractor driver who tried to escape in the tractor.  The motorcyclists pursued them. They were all caught including my brother and four others, and they brought them in the tractor.

“They collected our money and phones, and then told us they would leave four men, including Luka Jato, but would go with the tractor driver and two women. Luka was weeping but he could not utter a word,” Renata said.

She continued, “One of them asked if I was a Christian or a Muslim and I said I’m a Christian. He asked why I was not a Muslim because I am beautiful and looked like a Muslim woman. I told him that was how God made me; just as he was a Muslim so was I a Christian,” she said.

She said the insurgents took them to a Markas village not too far from where they were abducted.

“When we stopped, they gave us macaroni but we couldn’t eat or sleep because we were greatly afraid. The following morning, they took us to another Markas place – the first Amir’s house. The women cooked for us at about 1:30pm. They asked us to get up and pray (sallah) but we told them we didn’t know how to pray as we were Christians. I complained to them that I was not feeling fine. The Amir gave me some drugs. He told them to give me another blanket to cover myself because I might be suffering from malaria,” she said.

She said they were kept for two days before they started moving again. “They told us that they were taking us to their oga, but unknown to us, they were taking us to Sambisa forest. We spent another two days on the road,” she said.

According to her, there were many sections and commanders in the forest. She described their formations as that of the military, adding that some were dressed like the Nigerian military, civilian Joint Task Force (JTF), immigration, police officers and others.

The roads were in deplorable state but they were able to manoeuvre because they were riding on motorcycles. “It was not a good experience. We suffered a lot. So, when we arrived at a village close to the road to Mafa, they said we had tired. We slept there and continued the journey the next day,” she said.

On getting to Sambisa, they were surprised by the lifestyle of the insurgents.

Renata said, “At Sambisa forest, they had many check points manned by their soldiers and the mode of communication at various checkpoints differs. We finally got to the house of the Senior Amir who told me the first day that I am too beautiful. He asked me if I was Buratai or IGs wife, but I told him I wasn’t the wife of any of them. I was only a farmer abducted on her farm by his soldiers. I told him I was married with children and he told me not to worry that they would not kill us because he observed I was panicking.

Lami Jato and Renata Yohanna reunite with their grandfather, Elder Musa Purtha
Lami Jato and Renata Yohanna reunite with their grandfather, Elder Musa Purtha

“The next day, there were deafening sounds all over the area and we kept crying because of the confusion. One of the women – the wife of the Amir, told us to stop crying because they were used to it.

“It was a terrible experience. The Amir and one commander came to our place and asked us to run to a cave while the airstrikes were going on.  When the raid was over, we went back to where they kept us initially,” Renata narrated.

Lami said, “Marriage is common there, just the way we do here. They live a normal life like people in the villages. They also have many villages, with many women and several children because they give birth regularly.

“Most of the commanders have four wives, some three, and some two but you hardly see any with one wife even if they are teenagers.”

She said they stayed with one Commander Aliyu, a teenager who has three wives and was also given another wife during their stay.

“One of the Amir’s wives told us to forget about our families. She said they captured her and she embraced their religion and has two children for the Amir. She tried to persuade us many times before we were finally released,” Lami said.

“They established contact with our relative (probably through our phones that were seized at the farm). We were told they demanded N20m for the two of us. One day, we were told to dress up.

“They said our families have been contacted via phone but they were not close yet. My mother slept in the bush, waiting for us. It was a terrible experience but I see it as a miracle. I don’t how much was paid. We are all glad to be back home.

“Sambisa Forest is a very big place. There are always social gatherings, especially marriages, because they have different settlements and many tribes like Shuwa Arab, Marghi, Fulani, Hausa, Bura but Kanuri is the most popular language there,” Lami concluded.

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