Boko Haram attacked traditional ruler Seini Boukar Lamine’s town, kidnapped him and his family and held them hostage for two and a half months. In his first interview with international media, Boukar tells James Schneider what life was like as a captive of Boko Haram.
It was around 5am on 27 July 2014, when the residents of Kolofata, a small town in the Far North Region of Cameroon around 12 kilometres from the Nigerian border, realised they were under attack from Islamist terror insurgents Boko Haram. The town had been up before sunrise to eat breakfast, as it was the last day of Ramadan.
As the militants, who arrived in five vehicles packed with fighters, set about the town burning and killing, its mayor and Lamido (Fulani traditional ruler), Seini Boukar Lamine, was hiding in his home with his wife and eight children. Boukar, then 52 years old, suspected the militants would single him out. Boko Haram targets “those who are responsible for implementation of laws in different areas…like traditional rulers,” he explains. He says Boko Haram considers traditional rulers, “the guarantor of civilisation or democracy, whereas Boko Haram preach Sharia Law.”
Boukar’s home was readily identifiable to the Boko Haram militants, as young men from Kolofata have joined the Islamist group. So, when the fighters broke down his doors with their guns and hammers, Boukar “understood that everything was finished for us”. The Cameroonian military were around 12 kilometres away and wouldn’t reach them in time. Boukar’s 10-year-old son evaded Boko Haram capture by climbing a cupboard and hiding, later earning him the nickname “Spiderman”. But the other nine members of the family – the youngest just three years old – were rounded up along with Cameroon’s Deputy Prime Minister Amadou Ali’s niece and wife, Françoise-Agnès Moukouri. By Boukar’s count, 17 people were killed in the Kolofata raid. 17 was also the number of hostages taken: eight men, three women and six children.
Boko Haram drove them out of Kolofata west towards the Nigerian border. Boukar counted that the militants now had 11 vehicles, having captured six: two from the Deputy Prime Minister, one from the Lamido, one from the Cameroonian military’s Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), which had been ambushed, and two others from the town.
The convoy drove for around three and a half hours, from Kolofata to a militant camp in the Sambisa Forest, Borno State, Nigeria. Once in the forest, the kidnapped men were separated from the women and children. Boukar explains, “From that moment, we didn’t know where our wives and children were.”
Tedium characterised the Kolofata hostages’ stay in the Sambisa Forest. “Our days consisted of nothing – just our daily prayer. There was no telephone, no television and no electricity. We were completely isolated from the outside world,” says Boukar.
The hostages slept in a small, door-less, two-by-three metre hut made of sticks and foliage with a plastic floor to mitigate the effects of the rainy season. The plastic may have reduced moisture on the floor but it couldn’t stop snakes entering the hut as they slept. One snake was so large that when a guard shot it, they found four rats in its stomach.
These are the conditions most Boko Haram fighters live in at the camps. They build their huts under trees to avoid detection from the air and the threat of bombing.
The militant foot soldiers and hostages ate the same limited, repetitive diet of rice with palm oil and beans. The militants cooked for the men. The female prisoners, held separately from the men, cooked for themselves and their captors. In two months, Boukar lost 15kg.
Two or three militants at a time guarded the hostages’ hut. They would frequently change as the young fighters went off to the front. The fighters in the vicinity of Boukar – all young men, many only 14 or 15 years old, some as young as 11 – would read the Quran during the day. Boukar says those who guarded them spoke to them with respect and in Kanuri. The guards not only prevented the prisoners from escaping but also protected them from fellow militants.
Fear was the only thing that broke the tedium. Boukar says he and his fellow hostages were simultaneously confident of their eventual release because of “what [Cameroon’s] leaders have done to have [hostages] released” in the past, and scared of death. He knew that Boko Haram could “kill for nothing”. Boko Haram organised public executions of Nigerian hostages in a clearing. Boukar never saw the executions, as the hostages were not allowed more than 10 or 20 metres from their hut, but he heard shots fired. Those guarding him would come back from these executions with photos and videos of the killings on their phones. A guard showed Boukar one particularly gruesome video of a man’s hand being cut off. “We didn’t know when it would be our time,” he says.
Fear also came from the skies. Every day, they heard planes passing overhead. Despite the precautions the militants took to make themselves invisible to overhead flight, Sambisa is not a particularly dense forest.
The hostages were also scared of the Ebola virus. Boukar says that from time to time they heard the radio in Hausa. They kept hearing “Ebola, Ebola, Ebola,” and so they “didn’t know if Ebola [had] already come to” the Sambisa forest, explains Boukar. Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian-American who brought the virus to Lagos, had died just two days before the Kolofata raid.
The two groups of Cameroonian hostages did not know each others’ fate. The guards told Boukar, “Don’t worry, they are somewhere [nearby]”. His wife, however, thought she saw him being executed from a distance. She didn’t tell her children that she thought their father had been killed.
After 27 days, the groups were briefly reunited to make a hostage video as part of negotiations with the Cameroonian authorities. The relief at seeing loved ones alive was enormous. “It was a very, very nice day,” says Boukar. Even Boukar himself does not know the full details of the negotiations for the hostages’ release. But they do not appear to have been smooth and it was a further month and a half before Boko Haram released the Cameroonians. Boukar understood that his group’s fate was somehow linked to that of ten Chinese hostages, who were taken two months before them and held elsewhere in the forest. The Chinese briefly escaped their captors for five days, hiding in the bush before the militants found them.
Then, Boukar gleaned from the camp “pharmacist” who distributed medicine – “a very nice man, a person you can talk with,” according to the Lamido – that there were further complications. Boko Haram intended to release the Cameroonians in exchange for their militants held in Cameroon. According to the pharmacist, most of Boko Haram’s captured fighters in Cameroon had been killed. But the hostages were eventually released along with the Chinese hostages. Before they were, the militants told them that after release they “should go and spread Sharia Law and not democracy,” says Boukar. The militants warned them that although the hostages were going back to Cameroon, Boko Haram could “get [them] at any time, be it in Yaoundé, Kolofata, Garoua, or Maroua.”
After a week of being moved from location to location outside of the Sambisa forest – including a brief stay in a secondary school in the captured town of Gwoza – and difficulties contacting Cameroon due to faulty phone signal, 100 heavily armed Boko Haram militants took the hostages to the border for exchange and release.
Although it is not officially confirmed, it appears likely that Boko Haram fighters were exchanged for the captives. One of Boukar’s fellow hostages told him that he saw five or six militants going the other way when they were exchanged on the Cameroonian border.
After two and a half months spent fearing for his and his family’s lives, in unsanitary conditions, and barely moving outside of a 20-metre area, freedom felt remarkable. Being free, he says from his house in Garoua, was “like a dream.”
Photo by Ben Kilb
This article is part of a five part series on Cameroon’s battle against Boko Haram, written by New African senior correspondent James Schneider. For the other articles in the series, click the links below.