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Emmanuel Akinwotu

For one Nigerian family, freedom after a kidnapping hasn't ended their terror

A shattered father recounts his kidnapping and the struggle to negotiate with the kidnappers for the release of his children. (Terna Iwar for NPR)

BWARI, Nigeria — "They pointed their guns through the window of the children's room while they were sleeping," says the 49-year-old father of four sons, describing the beginning of a three-month ordeal that has overwhelmed his family. "Then they told them to open the door or they will shoot them."

In early January, around midnight, 20 men armed with AK-47s and machetes attacked his home in Bwari, a small town surrounded by outcrops of towering granite rocks and forest, on the hilly outskirts of Nigeria's capital Abuja.

The attackers dragged him and his four sons, ranging in age from 12 to 24 years old, outside. The armed men beat them with the back of their guns and the flat edge of their blades. They tied their wrists with rope and marched them barefoot into the surrounding forest, along with 17 other abducted victims. They walked for almost 10 hours, their feet bloodied by the time they reached a hideout in northwest Nigeria.

They were held within an expanse of forests that stretches over the border into Niger, an expanse that has become a haven for hundreds of heavily armed groups. Most of the groups, referred to locally as bandits, are behind an epidemic of mass kidnap-for-ransom attacks that have proliferated across Africa's most populous country, rising during one of the toughest economic periods in decades.

This is the tale of one family that has been left deeply traumatized by the kidnapping epidemic in Nigeria. NPR has followed their story for months, but is not using the family's names because they continue to live under the constant threat of the kidnappers, whose presence haunts their lives.

A view of Kau District settlement, Bwari, from the surrounding rocky hills. (Terna Iwar for NPR)

Kidnapping epidemic

Close to 1,000 people have been kidnapped in Nigeria in the first three months of 2024 alone, amid an epidemic of attacks that has become the country's most potent security threat.

Many of the kidnaps have been committed by groups called "bandits," of which 3,000 to 5,000 are believed to be active, operating from forests in north and central Nigeria, according to security analysts.

Youth listen in on a meeting being held at the local council, known as the Kau District Palace. (Terna Iwar for NPR)
Workers at the Bwari Garage gather to share their experiences since the unmasking of a bandit informant within their community. (Terna Iwar for NPR)

Many of the groups are made up of ethnic Fulani young men and boys, who've become heavily armed in the wake of a historic conflict over land between Fulani nomadic pastoralists and farmers.

The groups have exploited several systemic security failings in Nigeria, including the scarcity of rural police and alleged corruption preventing security forces from being adequately armed. In recent years, armed groups have operated closer and closer to Abuja. Bwari, a satellite town 37 miles from the capital, has been overwhelmed by kidnap attacks for the last year, a sign of the growing nature of the problem.

The rise in Nigeria of mass abductions of dozens to hundreds of people, especially children, is often traced to the kidnapping by Islamist militants Boko Haram of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok town in April 2014. Boko Haram began as a religious movement but quickly developed into a brutal jihadist organization. Loosely translated from the local language Hausa, Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden."

The attack sparked a global campaign for their release. Many of the girls were freed in exchange for the release of Boko Haram suspects from prison. According to some reports, ransoms were also paid by the government but officials have strongly denied this. Ninety-six of the girls are still missing, presumed still captive.

The father and his children reunited after three months of captivity. (Terna Iwar for NPR)

The international attention the Boko Haram kidnapping attracted led prominent U.S. figures like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, to call for their release. It put pressure on the Nigerian government to secure their freedom. But it also inspired several other mass abductions across northern Nigeria since then to the present day.

A life in exchange for bags of rice and beans

After the family in Bwari was kidnapped in January, the father was released in a matter of days. He was released on condition that he would raise the ransom of 5.3 million naira ($3,500), three times what the family earns in a year.

"They would beat the children and put them on the phone to talk to me and the children would be crying and begging me to bring the money quickly, that they're suffering," the father recalls.

He borrowed money and sold almost all of his possessions, his farm in Bwari, his tractor, and the bags of ginger root he'd harvested. Within a month, he'd raised the ransom for his four boys.

He delivered it in cash, stored in a hard plastic zipper bag. He handed the ransom over to armed men at a drop-off point just off an expressway in the northwestern state of Kaduna. They assured him that his boys would soon be sent back to him.

The hills surrounding Bwari Town and suspected travel routes of the kidnappers. (Terna Iwar for NPR)
A military patrol vehicle stops by the Bwari garage to effect some repairs. (Terna Iwar for NPR)

But the next day, only two of his sons were freed, leaving the eldest and youngest in captivity.

Then the kidnappers made new demands: two motorbikes, five walkie-talkies, bags of rice and beans, top-up cards for mobile data and airtime, and industrial glues, often inhaled and used as intoxicants. The items would cost a further $2,000.

"I said, how do you expect me to find the money when I've already sold everything?" the father recalls. "They said if I don't bring those items soon, they will kill the boys."

A town living under constant threat

Much of Bwari town is on edge. In the day, business continues as normal, but after sunset, the streets swiftly empty. A military tank is stationed near the main market, and police patrols wade through the town's streets.

"If you ask 10 people if they've been affected, maybe five will say yes," says 38-year-old Sanusi Musa, a truck driver in Bwari. His relatives were kidnapped late last year, then released a few months afterward when a ransom was paid by the father.

Many, like Musa, are fed up with the attacks and lament that insecurity is directly driven by a lack of development in poor, rural parts of the country. Musa's family was abducted alongside other victims from Kau, one of several villages within Bwari. A battered mud road runs six miles through remote countryside and forest, connecting the village to the nearest police and military post in the center of town. By car, the journey is a crawl that can take more than an hour, leaving the villages along it exposed.

A boy runs accross an empty housing intersection in Kau District, Bwari. (Terna Iwar for NPR)

"When the kidnappers came, we called the army," says Alhaji Yusuf, a community leader in Kau whose relatives were also abducted in December. "But they said it would take them too long to arrive because the road is bad. We're also begging the government to establish a police station in the village. We will even provide the land."

"Teach them a lesson"

A month after the father from Bwari received the kidnappers' new demands, the family managed to raise most of the additional $2,000 they needed. They pleaded with the kidnappers to accept what they'd managed to put together, including the two motorbikes and some of the food items, and the kidnappers agreed.

But they only released the eldest son. Then they made fresh demands, for $500 in cash and other items.

Weeks after the eldest son was freed and forced to leave his youngest brother behind, he sits at home wearing a beige caftan. Before he was released, he says, the kidnappers wanted to send his family a message.

He recalls the moment during his ordeal when he, his youngest brother and three other boys abducted alongside them were taken to a nearby river in the forest.

But when they arrived, they were lined up along the riverbank. One of the boys was pulled to the side.

"The leader said the boy's parents weren't taking them seriously," the eldest son recalls, "so he would teach them a lesson."

Then one of the kidnappers shot the boy.

The boy pleaded for his life. "The boy was telling him 'sorry, sorry, they will bring your money, they will bring your motorcycle and phones.'"

But they shot him again.

The kidnappers ordered the other boys to dig a grave in the sandy soil by the riverbank. The victim, drenched in blood, was still alive, barely moving.

They laid him in the shallow grave and covered him with sand. Then one of the kidnappers stood over him and delivered the final, fatal shot.

"They told me to tell my parents that if they didn't bring the items they told them, they would kill my brother too," the eldest son says.

Released but not free

In mid-March, 2 1/2 months after the family's abduction, the 12-year-old, the youngest son, finally came home. He and other hostages escaped after a Nigerian military patrol arrived near the kidnappers' hideout, sending the militants fleeing. During the confusion, the hostages made their escape.

They trekked for days until they reached a village.

"The people saw how he looked and took pity on him. They fed him, bathed him and paid for the transport that brought him back to us," the father says, describing the conflicting moments of joy and anguish when the last of his children returned.

The 12-year-old came home bruised across his body and far thinner than in January. Now he barely speaks or looks at anyone in the eye.

Freedom has come at immense cost for the entire family.

"I've sold everything I have," the father says. "I don't have any work, I can't pay my children's school fees. All I can do is pray and rely on Allah."

The attack has also made them retreat from their community in Bwari, unsure of whom to trust. During the abduction, one of the armed men covered his face, leading the family to believe he was someone they knew, as the kidnappers knew intimate details about their lives.

"It has reached a stage where you don't even know who to trust anymore, because you don't know who is your enemy and who is not," the father says.

And despite their freedom from captivity, the torment goes on. The youngest son's escape made the kidnappers angry, his eldest brother says. The kidnappers still call the family and demand the ransom they were denied, or else they will strike again.

"So I have been released," says the eldest son, "but I'm not really free."

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