My mind was empty as I sat hugging my knees in the bed of the truck. I had lost the creative ability to form a thought in my head. It all happened so fast I wish I could just call for a time out and step out of the nightmare to have a better view – perhaps a better understanding – of what had happened. My gaze was fixed on the truck closely following ours but the sobs and whimpers from the other girls competed to distract me. There was no more strength in me to cry, so I just sat there. My body was rocking from side to side and hopping intermittently at the bumpy ride. I thought of it as bravery. Bravery can be the calmness mastered in adversity and uncertainty right? Those girls who jumped off the trucks are cowards. But I was more than convinced; I was brave for refusing to jump off the cliff to freedom. The militants fired a few rounds of shots into the bushes after each one of them. Maybe, they were hit by the bullets… maybe not.
Mariama tapped my shoulder softly from behind and asked in a whisper:
‘Are you afraid?’
Am I afraid? Is there anyone on earth that wouldn’t be? She looked deep into my eyes like one looking for a trickle of water in a dried up well. Perhaps it was hope she was looking for. Or strength. Whether my honesty would comfort her or worsen her fears, I wasn’t sure, but I had to be honest.
‘I am afraid!’
I whispered back at her. As if new revelation of our predicament had just dawned on her, Mariama let out a loud cry. Two girls who sat close to us threw their arms around her in an attempt to comfort her. It was just a few hours ago that we had a conversation about how Oshevire deserved to die in Isidore Okpewho’s Last Duty.
‘He deserved every single bullet that hit him,’
Mariama had said. I agreed. We had planned to dispute Mr. Martins’ interpretation of that scene in the novel during our next Literature class. It wasn’t logical to say Oshevire was a victim when at the request of the rebels, he could have just stopped, and saved his life. No, he wasn’t a victim of circumstance. But were we?
Our beds were next to each other, so we usually had such conversations before either of us fell asleep. In hush tones, we would talk about Mr. Martins; his passion for literature; our passion for his course (maybe because we liked him so much); and how beautiful it would be to marry a man like him: handsome, attentive to detail and a lover of African novels. Mariama loved him more. I only admired his fluency and special ability to recall page numbers and quotes from the various plays and novels we treated in class. It was just lovely. Plus, I always felt something flutter in my tummy anytime he mentioned my name: ‘Ada Nnaji’.
We hadn’t been asleep for long. I jerked up out of my sleep to screams and the glow of flames through the windows. There was chaos outside and I could sense it. Mariama wasn’t in her bed. As I lifted up the mosquito net to step out, she came running. She headed straight to the corner of the room, unzipped her suitcase and started throwing her clothes over her head without a care of where they landed.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘Ada, they are taking all of us away’.
Just then there was a heavy knock that broke our door down. A soldier walked in pointing his big gun at all of us and saying in a loud voice.
‘Out! All of you! Out!!’
We all ran out of the dormitory to the lawns outside. Then I understood better what was going on. Jubilee House was burning. Large flickering flames gutted the building. The soldier commanded us to kneel down. Before we could comply, he was already pushing a few girls around him to the ground. There were many others kneeling down before we got there. Many of whom were still dressed in their pajamas.
They were everywhere; I counted about 30 soldiers. Chasing after some of the girls and pouring fuel into the burning flames. One of them walked into our midst and spoke some words in a language that sounded like Arabic. A few girls got up to their feet and took slow feeble steps away from us.
‘These are the Boko Haram militants,’ I thought.
I knew it because I had heard stories of how they would separate Muslims from Christians before meting out mean treatments to the Christians. Before long the rest of us were being packed into the Military trucks they brought. I saw one militant emerge from the bushes behind the drying lines; he was this gigantic being. He had caught a girl in the bush. She made several attempts to yank her wrist from the grip of his big hands to no avail. Then, in a single swoop, he carried her and rested her belly on his head. She was shouting and wailing, kicking into the air but he just wouldn’t stop walking. He walked straight to the side of a truck and tossed her into the bed like an empty box. The trucks began to move. The wails got louder. In a single surge, ours set off so quickly and roughly. Soon we were out of the gates and I could see the school’s signboard receding.
‘I will miss Government Secondary School.’ I let the thought linger for a minute in my head. When we were approaching the Catholic Church, some girls in the truck behind ours began screaming ‘Father!!! Father!!!! Father!!!’. A few in the other trucks joined in. I was too weak to even murmur. Their cries and calls faded away with the cold wind of the night.
‘Mariama, what were you looking for in your suitcase before the militant broke into our room?’ I whispered over my shoulders.
‘My tracksuits. The green one. I can’t run in my nightie.’
Mariama loves to dress for every occasion. I had never seen her inappropriately dressed to any school gathering. Not that she feared the punishment for doing otherwise; it is just who she is. But there was no time to dress for the occasion. None of us had the opportunity to change clothes before we were whisked away that night. It was a cold bumpy ride and our bodies weren’t fully clad by the attire we had on. My legs were warm enough because we had been crammed together in the bed of the truck. Nevertheless, I spent most of the time rubbing my shoulders and my arms.
It was almost sunrise. I could see the pale blue sky through the canopy of leaves above us. We were driving through a thicket. In our midst were two militants who paid no attention to us at all. Suddenly they appeared more at ease: laughing and bickering. I could sense it. We were getting close to our destination. As I pulled my head out to get a view of where we were approaching, I was greeted by my reflection in the side mirror. My hair looked like a piece of foam that had been pecked at by a cock. I didn’t care. All I wanted to know was where we were going. I could see the wire mesh gates; the fence was of wire mesh too. I saw two men dressed in military attire running towards the gate to open it. As our truck screeched to a halt like the others before it, all the militants except the drivers got down and continued on foot through the gates into what looked like a military camp base from my view.
‘It is a community here,’ I thought. There were small wooden structures scattered everywhere – as many as the army green tents that dotted the vast land. Our arrival seemed anticipated. As we drove through the camp, countless militants began emerging from their tents and wooden abodes to catch a glimpse of us. It felt like we were captives of a war arriving in the enemy’s camp. Soon a crowd formed and followed the trucks amidst shouting and clapping. Some were shaking hands and others pumped their fists in the air – as if to celebrate their victory. Victory over whom? It was never a war! We would have lost anyway… but it was never a war!
As the trucks stopped at what looked like the parade grounds of the camp, we were asked to get down, go on our knees and keep our hands behind our heads. By this time the throng had circled us. Then out came their leader. It was obviously him because of the fear-inspiring weight his presence exerted on everybody. The leader approached the center of the circle in the company of two escorts. He took slow steps while walking around us. He said nothing. He only inspected our body parts. I lifted my head to see his face. He had a turban wrapped around his head and the darkest shade of beard spread over the area around his ears to his chin. He was angry. He looked angry. Fear and tension were heavy in the atmosphere. The look on the faces of the militants spelled out fear too. One of them ran to him with a little transistor radio. The leader increased the volume and pointed at the radio set. A smirk cut through his lips then he said ‘Bee Bee Cee.’ The crowd of militants cheered loudly. Their cheers came to a halt when he raised his left hand.
‘… we are not quite sure yet, but it seems the Boko Haram terrorists abducted over 200 girls last night at…’. That was the penetrating voice of the BBC’s Nigerian correspondent from the radio set. The leader raised his right fist in the air and shouted:
‘We are worldwide!!!’
This received a thunderous roar from the militants. Some fired a few rounds of shots into the air while others rattled some words in Arabic. It was a really chaotic scene. We couldn’t be any more petrified, however, I was more scared then than ever before.
Once again, he motioned and the noise ceased. He turned to face us now.
‘I am General Abubakar. You are welcome to Sambeeza.’
‘Sambeeza… Sambeeza…’ The word rang in my head a few more times before I figured out he actually meant ‘Sambisa’.
‘This is hell,’ he continued, ‘it is hell for you. From this day, you are going to become Muslims. We will teach you the ways of the Holy Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) and the mothers of the believers. Jesus Christ can’t save you here. Mary is not full of grace here. Goodluck is a foolish boy for trying to fight us. Now you have to suffer.’
He nodded his head at the two militants he came with. They rushed out of sight and appeared dragging a prisoner to the center of the gathering. They pushed him to the ground. The prisoner landed on his bare chest because his hands were tied behind him. The two militants picked him up to his knees and handed a pistol to General Abubakar.
‘Do as you are told,’ he went on. ‘Don’t attempt to run away.’ While saying this he cocked his gun and pointed it at the prisoner’s head.
‘This is what happens to those who try to escape.’
Then he shot … it was a deafening sound. Birds on the trees fluttered away at the sound. The body of the prisoner dropped sideways. The blood gushing out of his head slowly crept underneath the carpet of leaves on the ground towards where we knelt.
‘Take them away,’ said General Abubakar.
‘Hail Mary is not full of grace here…. Sambeeza.’ These words echoed in my head throughout the rest of the day. We had been taken to different tents after the welcome parade. I didn’t even get to see where Mariama was taken to. It was like a scuffle the way they separated us and pushed us into our tents. Ours was a pyramid-shape tent. We were inside but the earth outside was still directly beneath us… no floor, just a couple of flat mattresses and mats scattered on the ground. The scent of freshly cut grass filled the tent. One girl, a few mats away was still sobbing. The reality dawned on me at that moment: I was going to spend eternity here at the Sambisa forest.
‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…’
I probably didn’t finish reciting Psalm 23 before sleep snatched me away.