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Kidnapping for ransom is a leading security challenge in Nigeria

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Over the weekend, more than 130 children were released after two weeks in captivity. They'd been kidnapped while at school in northwest Nigeria. Kidnapping for ransom is a leading security challenge in the country, and NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu has been following the story of one family in Nigeria whose lives have been turned upside down by kidnapping for ransom. And a warning, the story contains graphic descriptions of violence.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Traders haul wheelbarrows of fresh sugarcane and weave through pedestrians and motorbikes at a busy market in Bwari. This is a gently bustling commercial town surrounded by rocky hills and acres of countryside just 40 miles north of the capital, Abuja. But the town is no longer at ease. Military tanks have been stationed here for months while police convoys patrol the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hausa).

AKINWOTU: The grief of one family in Bwari explains why. When not using their real names as they're afraid of being identified by the kidnappers who've abducted their four sons, the eldest, 24, and the youngest just 12 years old.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hausa).

AKINWOTU: We met the family in January, at the start of their ordeal, and have followed their story for the last few months. The father speaks in Hausa and explains how just after the new year, about 20 men armed with AK-47s and machetes attacked their home around midnight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) They forced the gate open, went to the children's room and broke the window, and from the window they pointed their gun to them and told them to open the door, or they will shoot them.

AKINWOTU: They dragged him and his four sons outside, tied their hands and beat them with the back of their guns and with the flat side of their machetes. Then they led them away, along with other victims, marching them bare feet for almost 10 hours. They were taken to a forest that spans central and northwest Nigeria that's become a haven for hundreds of armed groups called bandits at large in the region. They demanded $3,500 in ransom, the equivalent of about three years of the family's income. Then they released the father to go and raise the money.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) The kids kept crying because they could see I was about to leave them behind.

AKINWOTU: Before the father was allowed to leave the forest, he wanted to hug his sons as they wept, but the kidnappers wouldn't let him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I told them goodbye. I warned them not to try and escape and to trust that I will go and do whatever it takes to find the money and bring them home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

AKINWOTU: This is the voice of the kidnap leader recorded by the family.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

AKINWOTU: First, a greeting of peace in Arabic, and then, in their native Hausa, the torment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hausa).

AKINWOTU: The kidnappers would call the father almost every day for months. Sometimes his children were beaten, then put on the phone so he could hear them scream. By the end of January, the father had sold virtually everything valuable that he owned, his farm and the bags of ginger he'd grown to sell at the market. But when he delivered the ransom, the kidnappers only released two of his sons, then increased their demands. He would also need to buy motorbikes worth around $1,500, or they'd kill the remaining two boys. In February, he delivered the bikes, but the kidnappers only released the third son and kept hold of the fourth, the youngest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hausa).

AKINWOTU: In this call, made at the end of February, the kidnapped leader made fresh demands for bags of rice and beans, even a box of soda, and for mobile phones, walkie-talkies and drugs. Almost 1,000 people have been kidnapped in Nigeria this year alone. The attacks have spiraled during one of the worst periods of economic decline in Nigeria for decades.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

AKINWOTU: The call to prayer echoes through the blazing afternoon heat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Arabic).

AKINWOTU: It's March, at the beginning of Ramadan, in Bwari Town. But for so many families, this sacred period is heavy with anguish and desperation. At the family home, we meet the eldest son, who has just been released. He sits in a beige-colored kaftan with bright patterns and describes his last moments in captivity. We've used someone else to voice what he told us in order to protect his identity.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: They ask us to go and fetch water. So we stood next to the river.

AKINWOTU: His abductors walked him, his younger brother and three other kidnapped young men and boys to a river. They pulled one of the boys aside and shot him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The boy was telling him, sorry, they will bring your money. They will bring your motorcycle with the phones and boots. The boy was telling him, sorry, sorry.

AKINWOTU: But they shot the boy again. Then the kidnappers ordered the other boys to dig a grave for him in the sandy soil by the water. Then, with a final shot, the kidnappers killed him. Before the eldest son was released, the kidnappers told him to tell his parents what he'd seen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I should tell my parents if they don't bring the items that they asked my dad to bring, they will take him to the river and kill him there. And I came back home crying, crying, crying.

AKINWOTU: The youngest brother, the 12-year-old, finally came home earlier this month. He managed to escape before the family could raise the third ransom demand. This was what the family had prayed for, all their children were finally back home. But their freedom has come at a cost.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hausa).

AKINWOTU: His children are not the same boys they were when they were taken. They're suspicious of everyone around them because they believe someone close to the family worked with the kidnappers who knew intimate things about their lives.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) It has reached a stage that you don't even know who to trust, because you don't know who is your enemy and who is not.

AKINWOTU: And the threat from the kidnappers still feels imminent. The last son escaped, denying the kidnappers their final ransom, so they still call the family and threaten to strike again.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I'm not really free. This morning I saw a call from a new number. As I picked the call, I discover that it was him, the kidnapper. Right now we are very scared.

AKINWOTU: Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Abuja.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.

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