Bring Back Our Girls
Warning: scenes of violence.
This story is fiction broadly based on truth: namely, the abduction of 250+ girls in the 2014 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping (most of them are still missing), the more girls abducted elsewhere, and the murder of hundreds at Baga and elsewhere. It is not intended to be a journalistic and factual retelling of any one particular event. It is intended to draw attention to what has happened and to motivate the Nigerian government to Bring Back Our Girls.
When Hauwa stood in front of all the girls with two fingers pointed to her chin in messianic fashion and said, “Who do men say I am?” we collapsed in laughter. Hauwa was the prankster in the dormitory, world-class at mimicry. She had inflected her voice to sound like Mr. Elijah, the Christian Religious Knowledge teacher.
After her performance, Hauwa asked me to stay awake because she had some gossip to share. And also because she wanted to get some of my corn flakes and biscuits.
“Do you know that Timothy in senior secondary class three is interested in me?” she asked, straightening the left arm of her dress.
“Really, how do you know, Hauwa? I hope this is not just one of your many fantasies?”
“No o! He really is interested in me. He sent a boy in senior secondary class one to deliver a gift and note to me last night.”
“A note or a love letter?” I laughed at her.
“You can call it a love letter if you insist.” She laughed back. “In it he told me how he’s been unable to sleep for the past few weeks.”
“I thought he was already seeing that other girl in class three — what’s her name now?”
“Her? No. He said they were just friends.” Hauwa replied in a tone that seemed like she was assuring herself more than she was assuring me.
Hauwa was my best friend. It felt just like yesterday when, fresh from primary six, we registered in junior secondary school one. Marble-eyed, we ran around the massive school compound in search of our classrooms for each subject. We’d never seen a school building so big that it was intimidating. But now, senior students, we knew every nook and cranny of the beige-painted labyrinths. We’d even come to learn that paranoid juniors hid contraband items like mobile phones and City Girls magazines beneath the sand near the school’s farm.
Hauwa and I spoke excitedly about her prospect until she fell asleep, ensconced on her mattress. I pulled her cover over her chest and climbed the ladder to my bunk bed.
The first part of the evening passed without incident, until I heard some bickering coming from the direction of the school’s main gate. I thought it was Bitrus, the security guard, playing another game of draught with the soldiers who occasionally drove by to check on us. I tucked my head further underneath my thin blanket. But then sounds of shrieking emanated, in both pain and glee. I heard the buzz of engines, like chainsaws, reach the entrance of my dormitory. The squawks of angry birds, who perch on the dormitory’s rafters, travelled in the opposite direction.
The harsh voices of men singing hard, throaty ditties raised the dust in our room. Somebody kicked at our door. Once. Twice. The bolt came unhinged and skidded angrily until it hit a girl’s metal bucket. By now everybody was propped up on their beds, some clutching their cover-spreads, others clinging on to the frames of their bunks.
It must have been no more than a few seconds between the time when the bolt fell and when one of the men shot Mariama in her stomach. Mariama was the girl voted most likely to be a TV presenter. I’m not sure why everyone thought so. Perhaps it was due to her prodigious knowledge of current affairs. She could rattle off the names of the last ten Chairmen of the African Union and their ages when they assumed office. And she liked to stand in front of a mirror and pretend to be a television news anchor, swinging her shoulders to emphasize every third word.
About a half-dozen other men followed example and started shooting sporadically, their bullets bursting baggage trunks, packets of Lipton tea, Milo cocoa and Always sanitary pads. The girls ran in every direction, screaming. I hauled myself to the cement floor and crawled under a tall pile of dirty laundry at a far end of the room. I put a finger through the clothes to gain a view, making the smallest of gaps to look through.
I saw that the men wore military uniforms and heard them speaking at the same time; they all seemed to be issuing orders to each other. One of them limped toward a huddle of girls who had attempted to seek safety beneath a bed. His eyes were bloodshot and contrasted with his complexion, which looked like an aged Baobab tree. Skin had been scalded around his neck and arms with what I imagined was a witchdoctor’s fire. I had heard of such men who went to have talismans against bullets inserted inside their bodies with hot blades.
He grabbed Karima’s hair and raised her face.
“What is your name?” The limping man’s speech was a raw baritone, like he had been speaking at the top of his voice.
“Karima. Karima Abdulkadir.”
“Banza!” He spat at her, before dragging her out of the group. “Today, we shall instil the fear of the Unknown in you.” He pulled out a deeply serrated knife and set it to her throat.
Some girls around Karima shrieked and palmed their faces. Karima struggled to wrench the man’s fingers from her hair, and then was thrown hard to the ground, hitting her head against a corner of a cement block that someone had been using to keep their bunk level. Karima lay still.
The men rounded up the girls who had not been shot and led them out of the dormitory in single file. The blood left behind smelled like thick oil-based paint. My breath was heavy. It felt like I was supporting the grand old piano at my local church with my chest.
I emerged from the pile of clothes to see Karima lying on her side, eyes staring inquisitively at the zinc ceiling. “Karima,” I whispered. She did not respond. I lowered myself and noticed that her neck was unusually bent.
My mind travelled to my last conversation with Karima, at the school tap only a few hours earlier, where we talked about the upcoming annual school quiz, for which she was being hailed as the next champion.
Outside, the buzz of engines came alive again. Meanwhile inside, the front doors rattled.
An arm emerged from behind the door, swung an object into the dormitory and retreated as quickly as it had come. The hungry slurping of flames licked up mattresses and cover-spreads by the entrance. I scanned the bodies but couldn’t identify Hauwa. Maybe she is with the captured girls.
I thought about running to the bathroom to fetch some water but the fumes had begun to choke me and my eyes stung. I could not see properly. I ran out towards the open field. And straight into onlooking headlights.
“Bed bug, kill her! Bed bug!” Three men jumped from their vehicles.
As we drove in the direction of the main road, I could see the body of the school principal lying on the ground by his brown Peugeot, fingers splayed like a spider’s web, while a machete stuck out from the front of the babariga he wore as night clothes. The driver’s door of his Peugeot was ajar. Bitrus’ body, illuminated by a yellowing fluorescent tube attached to the gate house, was tied to the gates.
Engines gargled from the three heavy-duty military trucks that we were being transported in. The drivers steered onto the hard earth that was the highway. There were seven armed men in the bed of my truck, which was uncovered and open to the elements. Even though they sat among us, the men made a showy spectacle of not wanting their bodies to be touched by ours when the vehicle shook. They all had thick black beards that would have fooled a younger student, but I could guess their age. They could be no more than thirty. They began to sing a hymn whose words sounded Arabic, nodding their heads gaily like a class of primary school students reciting multiplication tables.
There was a strong smell of sweat and ash emanating from the men. And their uniforms patently did not belong to them. I saw name tags on their chests, Nigerian names from different tribes of the country. Surely, these men, with their thin faces, caramel skin and curly hair couldn’t bear such southern Nigerian names as Okoro or Adeyemi?
While the truck jarred up and down, I spread my arms to hold on to its wooden panels. Rust fell from my hands as I fingered the nails used to fasten the panels together. We must have been around twenty-five girls crammed in here. There were more girls in the other trucks as well; the men had ransacked the other dormitories, too. Some girls in my truck sobbed, others simply folded their arms on their knees and stared at the flora patterns on either side of the road.
“We are not going to hurt you” said a man near me, in Hausa. He was pudgy and younger and had a slanted smile that revealed bad dentition. At the same time, his comrades were eyeing us like we were nothing more than rain-beaten bags of cement to be sold at discount at the nearest village market. I focused on the swing-door at the back of the vehicle.
Soon the men began to brag to us about other conquests they had won: how they had shot down a Nigerian Air force plane and beheaded its pilot. I urged my mind elsewhere.
What would the perfect day need, I asked myself? The smell of toasted bread.
In my mind, I heard the happy voices of girls rise in unison with the steam climbing from their pressing irons. A scene from a few years ago. In a corner, Esther was polishing her shoes and making jest of Rahama. “You want a boyfriend? You won’t attract even a toad with your hair looking like that. Have I not told you to let me plait your hair for you?”
“Plait yours first, Madam Busy-Body,” Rahama laughed.
I walked past them to Emmanuella, who coddled a bowl of custard. “I want some, please.”
“This is only for pregnant women, Asabe. For adults,” Emmanuella joked. “Are you sure you want this?”
“But I am pregnant now,” I said.
“Okay, if you are then show me your stomach.”
My blouse went up, but my hands did not lift it. I opened my eyes. We were still captives on the truck. Someone’s hand was on my stomach. It was a girl in junior secondary school three, Sadia. She was quiet and did not usually share the company of other seniors. “Blood has stained your blouse,” she whispered.
The trucks were traveling in a convoy through thick vegetation, dislodging dew that skidded across my face. I wished I had more clothing on to protect me from the early morning cold. My blue cotton pyjamas felt damp and clung to my body.
Like me, most of the girls shivered in unison with the sycamore leaves, whose branches the trucks brushed aside. It felt like we had been in transit for something like four hours. Some girls were still crying. For the time being, the kidnappers sat stony and sphinx-like, listening to the BBC Hausa service on a portable radio, guns cradled in their arms. I wondered about my father, how he would be asleep, comfortable in his bed, thinking I was safe at school.Father, I am not safe!
Sadia asked one of the men if she could go urinate. The man asked her to repeat herself.
He staggered through a mass of legs and slammed Sadia’s chest with the butt of his rifle. “Have you no fear? You may urinate where you are.”
Sadia covered her chest with both hands, managing to muffle her obvious pain. I saw her slender body, soft curly hair and small milk-white teeth and thought how beautiful she was. I massaged her chest. I was not sure if I was being helpful.
Soon the kidnappers all got down from their trucks to stretch. Some converged around the limping man, nodding their heads to the things he was saying. After a few more minutes the motorbikes and the trucks were restarted and the convoy plodded into ever-thicker greenery.
When our truck slowed down again, the men grunted with what seemed like relief. We were unloaded in front of a bungalow with a gleaming zinc roof. The building was still under construction; it had no window panes. A wheel barrow with a mound of sand was parked by the side of it, next to two shovels and some blocks. Near the bungalow, just a few metres away, a handful of huts stood sentry like Fulani bodyguards, their thatches still fresh and exuberant, yet to be severely punished by the glare of the sun.
We were made to sit on the dew-dampened laterite. One man approached with a camcorder and began taping while the rest of the men surrounded us, brandishing Kalashnikovs for the camcorder’s attention. During this time, I could see almost all of the other girls clearly. Some moved to cover their faces, but quickly changed their minds when the cameraman growled his disapproval. I frowned into the lens.
The limping man hobbled towards our midst, clearing his throat and called for Hajia Gambo. Hajia Gambo? A woman! Perhaps she could help us.
“Hajia Gambo, please see to it that these girls are washed. Then let them all wear our burqas.”
Hajia Gambo sallied over to the limping man. She was dressed in a lime-green Chador.
“Yes, Baba. Should we begin the teachings soon after?”
“No. Wait for my call.”
We were herded behind the huts to bathe by a small pond. Small insects skimmed across its greenish surface while girls waded into its tepid water. Algae floated near where I dipped my hand for a drink. Hajia Gambo and several other ladies kept watch. They urged us to hurry so as not to keep Baba waiting.
While I washed, I spoke quietly with Fatima. Fatima had a defiant steel glint in her eyes. She was one of the tougher girls in school, whose personal authority had been established when she was in junior secondary school two. She had led a gang of girls against a senior girl who was bullying a junior student. Fatima had beat up the senior so badly, smashing her wrist bones against the aluminum window frames of the hostel, that word about her fierceness soon spread among both students and staff. She always wore a necklace with an oversized Christian cross, and was often the last to leave Sunday Mass.
“Do you know who these men are?” I asked her as we undressed.
“Asabe, they are terrorists. They are rogues and have no respect. ”
Fatima was about to say more when one of the women hushed her. Fatima glowered. I spat in the woman’s direction, for which she approached us with a cane.
“I’m sorry, a fly got into my mouth. I did not mean to insult you, Mama,” I quickly offered as her busy cane swung close to me, in a low arc.
“Be careful, young lady. Be very careful.”
Near the pond, the limping man emerged from the bungalow with a gun in one hand and a chewing stick in the other. He beckoned us to sit once more in the centre of the clearing while his men stood. The brown burqa that Hajia Gambo had given me was a little unwieldy, so I almost tripped while trying to sit. The limping man shot a hard look at me for that and I flinched.
“You are about to enter into glory, young women,” he said. I did not know what to make of his reference to us as young women. I felt a hint of violation. My father often proudly called me “young woman” when we had our talks about History and Art. He would begin by saying “Young woman, you are smart. You must work hard in your studies to make your family and village proud.”
“We are about to make you civilized,” the limping man said. “You will be the bearers of a new kind of people. “Your former country and its government have forced us to seek solace in the Unknown, to return to a pure way of life. We have just liberated you from the dark. Ahmadu, start recording!” he barked at the man with a camcorder.
Someone produced a large black fabric, the size of a tablecloth, with words and swords painted on it in white ink. I could not make out these words, but the writing looked Arabic.
With two men holding the fabric behind him, the limping man smiled into the camera. “Nigeria, where are you? What do you stand for now? You and your vile, corrupt Western education. Where are your daughters?” He scratched his thigh often as he spoke. “You cannot even protect your beloved and you call yourself a country, a people? Today again, I invite you to join an awakening. Something is happening around the world. Our brothers in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan have answered the call. Our brothers paid America a visit in 2001. Our brothers are stirring in Yemen. Our brothers have demonstrated their power in Tunisia and Egypt and Mali. Now we ask Nigeria for a wife.”
Ahmadu trained his camera on us. “We have crossed a line,” the limping man said. He waved his hand curtly to indicate his address was over.
We were divided into huts. The inside of my hut was bare save for some raffia baskets that were used to store clothes and a clay pot of cold water. The mud floor felt cool. We sat on mats. There was no light other than that emanating from small holes in the roof and from the thatch door that was used to block the entrance the narrow entrance. Fatima was sitting against the wall directly across from me.
There were three women in our hut and at least two other women sat outside by the entrance; we passed those two on the way in.
“My name is Mama Rukayat. If you feel the need to ease yourselves, tell me or Mama Husseina or Mama Asmau. Call us all Mama. We are mothers to you, and like all mothers we will take care of you.” She paused and scrutinized our faces. “We shall feed you once a day, in the afternoons, but if any of you need more food just come to me and I will make arrangements.”
Mama Rukayat, a corpulent matronly woman, moved towards Fatima and tore the cross from Fatima’s chest. “You have been given false education by your colonial masters,” she said. “We will show you who to worship and how. We will show you also how to take care of a man and his children. These are the most important pieces of education you will need in this life.”
“And what about teaching us to take care of ourselves?” Fatima retorted.
Mama Rukayat glared at Fatima but apparently resolved not to be further distracted by her. “Your lives will be dedicated to building a new civilization. You are no longer Nigerians but people of the Unknown. What you do not know is greater than what you know.”
By this time my eyes had better adjusted to the darkness. Mama Husseina, a svelte, almost anaemic figure, nodded in agreement to Mama Rukayat, her aquiline nose sawing the now musky, damp air.
“You are a misguided ignorant,” Fatima said. “You say you are a mother, a protector, and yet you join forces with these killers who do not know God?”
Mama Rukayat eyed Mama Husseina, who then promptly stepped through the door. The two women from outside dragged Fatima (who was kicking her feet at them) from the hut while Mama Husseina returned to her place, hands clasped on her chest.
“My children,” Mama Rukayat said, smiling as if she had just been given a bouquet of flowers, “That girl was right, but only in one way. It is true that we do not know God. We are what we know. I will teach you. We are what we know.”
Mama Rukayat continued, “We cannot, however, be what we do not know. We do not know what is out there. We may be good in ourselves but we do not know whether the Unknown is good or evil. We know today, indeed, we know only this moment, but the Unknown knows tomorrow and also the days before our fathers were born. Repeat after me — ” The smile on Mama Rukayat’s face dissolved faster than a clump of frozen kunu in warm water.
In this way Mama Rukayat taught many doctrines, and we repeated these words until it was lunch. Large trays of rice were carried in with some vegetable stew. The two women from outside brought Fatima in and left her by me. She was quiet. I glimpsed welts on her calves and on her neck.
“We eat no meat,” Mama Rukayat said. “We know that meat is good, but we do not know what makes the meat good, therefore the Unknown forbids us from meat. We eat no meat. Repeat what I have taught you.”
Again we repeated what she had said, and then, finally, fell into the food. The last few hours had shocked me into a good appetite. Fatima did not eat. She folded her knees up to her chest. Mama Husseina, went round scooping more rice onto the trays. “You should try some,” she cooed, patting Fatima on the back.
I was not sure what the time was, but guessed it was mid-afternoon. After the meal, Mama Rukayat announced that we could take a siesta for an hour. But there was to be no chit-chat, she warned. She left Mama Asmau and Mama Husseina in the hut with us.
I tried to get Fatima’s attention. I cleared my throat and then hummed the school anthem in small breaths, but Fatima did not respond.
My thoughts went to my mother. By now the news would surely have reached her. My mother was proud of my educational achievements. “Asabe is going to make us proud” she once told my grandparents. “She has excelled at Mathematics and History. Her teachers write me letters to praise her.”
My mother had been saving for my university education by trading with the Cameroonians in father’s livestock. She said the Cameroonians paid better than Nigerians, although she had been robbed twice while trading with them, and they had falsely accused her of theft on another occasion. Father had warned my mother against further trading, but she insisted, saying that the family needed it so I could attend university.
Education seemed a distant ambition to me now. I wondered what my older sister, Ruth, would be doing. Perhaps she would soon visit and help mother make dinner, or read aloud to our little brother, Yohanna. I imagined my father spending time on our small veranda, nodding through a newspaper and greeting friends who dropped by.
After the meal, most of the girls lay down to rest and the hut became silent. Finally, my eyelids drooped into submission.
Drops of cold water woke me. Mama Rukayat stood, splashing water on my face and on the rest of the girls. “You must awaken.” Fatima was staring into the darker part of the hut where it seemed embattled insects dodged the advances of raucous lizards. I had never really noticed the flies but now they seemed to be part of the coagulation of heat and sweat. The flies settled on Fatima’s face but she did not flinch.
Mama Rukayat made us recite every one of the doctrines that she had taught us earlier. Then she began a new line of teaching. “Some people may call us Nihilists but such is the nature of their ignorance. Ignorance points fingers. Ignorance attacks the innocent. We know that we do not know all things, therefore the Unknown does not betray us. The Unknown is our father and our mother. The Unknown is our brother and our sister. Western boasts of knowledge are a sacrilege.” Soon we began chanting some of those words along with her. Mama Rukayat looked familiar to me. She sounded far more scholarly than the other women attached to our hut. I could have wagered that I had seen her at one of the inter-school games that were held annually.
As evening approached, we were led out to the clearing to the limping man, who we were all now told to call “Baba,” and his band of brothers. The other girls had been led out from their huts as well.
The limping man switched on a large radio. I recognised the voice of the President. “I insist that the Boko Haram terrorists, in the interest of peace, must return the students of Federal Government Girls College back to safety.” The president said this in his well-known south-eastern Nigerian accent. He promised that no harm would come to the terrorists if they complied.
The limping man lowered his head, shut off the radio, sat quietly, and then smiled.
“My dear women, which one of you wants to go back home?”
No one twitched a nerve. I looked around and saw Sadia to my right, a few girls away. She looked pale and was coughing and spitting blood. Fatima was sitting in front of me. Maybe a minute went by. All the while, Fatima shuffled her feet in the sand, staring the limping man straight in the face. Eventually, she stood.
“Me. I want to go home.”
Ladidi stood as well. So also did Habiba, Precious, Vero, Fadilah, Rebecca and Ama. Sadia tried to rise to her feet but couldn’t, perhaps because the pain in her chest had weakened her.
In quick momentum, about a quarter of the girls stood. Some of them I had known since I was thirteen years old. Several men shifted uneasily. Fatima watched me, daring me to stand. My legs failed.
There was something too unnatural in the limping man’s offer, something I did not trust. I wasn’t sure if it was the sudden cynical way it was made or the insincere smile on his lips. I wish I had said something to my friends.
“Very well. Say goodbye to your friends and please follow me,” the limping man said. Fatima led the girls behind him as he hobbled towards a parked truck. By that time, about ten more girls had joined the group.
“Enter the back,” the limping man said. There was no longer that smile on his lips. The girls must have sensed danger in his voice. They all began to scream and run back towards us. The limping man raised his machine gun.
I knew bullets travelled fast but my brain refused to cooperate with my eyes; I never saw the bullet that tore Fatima’s head open. There was a tangled mass of hair and flesh and blood above her shoulder.
A shrill, strength-sapping cry went up from those of us who had stayed behind. We laid flat on our stomachs to dodge the hail of bullets. I sobbed into my palms and prayed loudly to Jesus.
We were forced to watch the men shove the bodies onto the truck. The door to the driver’s cabin shut, and the truck left.
“Now they are going home,” the limping man said.
“Dust to dust into the great Unknown,” he continued, while scratching his right thigh. “We have heard that the Nigerian government is seeking to storm our base to rescue you. They will never find where we are but we will take no chances. We are going to divide you into different camps under my commanders. Any commander is free to marry whomever he wishes to marry. From today you must remember that your role is to join with us to procreate strugglers for our future nation.”
“Abu Hamza! Take your pick of the women,” the limping man barked.
Abu Hamza walked forward and briskly drew an arc in the air over our heads. “Follow me.” I was part of that arc and rose to join Abu Hamza.
“Not that one,” the limping man said, pointing at me. “She’s one of mine.”
I stopped with my gaze fixed towards him, though I was careful not to look directly into his eyes.
“Sit where you are,” he said to me. “Abu Saleh! Take your pick of the women.”
Abu Saleh took his own share of the girls. So did Ali Keita, and Ibrahim Gidado, and the pudgy man who I remembered from the morning’s ride. The commanders boarded trucks with their girls and departed. Sadia had gone with Abu Saleh. She was led away in her chequered blue and white burqa that was stained with red.
Dusk slowly enveloped the day. The limping man had taken five wives. He had sent each of them back into a hut, but asked me to follow him into his bungalow. Inside, I passed three rooms. In the largest, I saw rows of rifles and bayonets leaning against a wall.
The limping man took me into a room where mats and books lay haphazardly across the floor and asked me to lie down. I chose a mat closest to the window. He followed me there lowering his frame noisily beside me, his shoulder coming close enough to touch my breast.
“So tell me, what do you know about our doctrines?” he said.