The schoolgirls – 279 in total – were rounded up by the men who came to school on motorbikes.
“They fired guns. Some of them came to the school while others stayed at the gate,” says Habiba, recalling the ordeal on February 26, which sparked worldwide outrage and prayers from Pope Francis for the release of the prisoners.
They were taken from their dormitory at Government Girls’ Secondary School in Jangebe City, Zamfara State and had to walk through the night into the forest where the kidnappers were camped, she tells CNN.
Some of the girls did not have time to put on shoes and had to go barefoot with cuts and injuries, says Habiba.
In the kidnapper’s cave
When they got to the kidnapper’s hiding place, Habiba saw two people she recognized immediately – her father Iliyasu Magaji (65) and her sister Raliya Gusaram (33).
Her older sister was in the forest with her two children Isah (4) and Rabiatu (2), says Habiba.
“It was the first time I saw my older sister. After seeing her, I saw my father. He was sitting. One of them (the kidnappers) hit him and asked him to come forward and sit in a specific spot.” “, she says.
Habiba had to pretend she didn’t recognize her family members.
“I pretended not to know them because if I showed that I knew them, I would be held back with them. I was really hurt. All I kept saying was the prayer, ‘Allah is enough a Helper and a guard, ‘I prayed that we can be released together. “
She later says she started crying when she was overwhelmed by the situation.
“My sister told me not to cry that you would get hit if you cry.”
It was heartbreaking for Magaji to see his youngest daughter Habiba in the clutches of the kidnappers.
He remembers crying when he saw her.
“I was very sad, I started to cry. Later I remembered that Allah was in control of everything and I stopped crying,” he told CNN.
Magaji says he was desperate about what could happen to Habiba if he recognized her.
“I pretended I didn’t know her, I didn’t speak to her and I wouldn’t look at her because I was afraid they would know she was my daughter and cause harm to her or me as a result.”
His time in the woods was marked by almost daily beating and at one point he was attacked with a machete, he says, showing CNN the scar on his right shoulder where he was hit.
“He wanted to cut off his hand,” says Magaji and gestures. “You can see it still hurts. I can’t put that hand up.”
Magaji says he was kidnapped in the middle of the night by gunmen outside his home in Gwaram village, Zamfara state, one of the worst hit parts of the country.
“I got up to urinate and as I approached the site I ran into some people,” he says. “When I got closer to see who they were, they spoke to me with guns … and threatened to shoot me.”
Magaji says he was taken into the forest with a group of others and the kidnappers demanded a ransom of 10 million naira (about $ 26,000).
It was an impossible sum for Magaji – a farmer – to raise.
He says the bandits are putting pressure on loved ones to raise money by making him stand on burning coal when he called his family so they could hear his cries of pain.
His wife, Rukkaya Iliyasu, 58, was left alone and disturbed at home. She was desperate to make money from her meager income selling peanuts and bean cakes.
“My tears have run dry,” she told CNN. “I couldn’t cry anymore. We sold our land, camels, corn, grain. Everything,” she says with a deep sigh.
In the end, they managed to raise just over two million naira ($ 5,000) after selling virtually all of their belongings and crowdfunding for contributions.
It was only after Habiba was freed and told the governor of his plight that he and others were finally released, says Magaji.
Magaji spent a total of three months and two weeks in the forest with his eldest daughter and two grandchildren.
No longer ideological
Kidnapping has become one of the greatest security challenges in Nigeria.
Numbers are hard to come by due to inadequate reporting, but a study by the Nigeria Security Tracker (NST) mapping political violence in the country says there have been more than 200 kidnapping incidents so far this year, with at least 2,043 victims. According to NST figures, there were an estimated 437 kidnapping incidents with 2,879 victims in all of 2020.
Although Asch Harwood, who oversees the tracker, told CNN, these numbers are likely to be underestimated as kidnapping cases have not been adequately reported.
Kidnappings have been rampant in oil-rich southern Nigeria for decades as militants battle for control of resources. They kidnapped foreign oil workers and expatriates to draw international attention to their cause. Similarly, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram carried out thousands of kidnappings during the twelve-year uprising in the north-east of the country.
However, the landscape has now changed and the new wave of kidnappers is not agitating for political or religious ideology. Their motive is simply to make money, say analysts.
“The abduction evolved from an ideological evolution, like in the Delta region, where it pushed for demand and control over resources. What we have now is purely criminal and that is what is driving the trend now,” says Don Okereke, a Nigerian security analyst.
It is a phenomenon described as “violent entrepreneurship” by Matthew Page, an associate of the Africa program at the Chatham House Think Tank.
Marauding groups known locally as bandits operate in forest enclaves in northwestern Nigeria organizing attacks and kidnappings on rural areas and Nigeria’s main road networks.
Between June 2011 and late March 2020, an estimated $ 18.34 million ransom was paid last year in a report entitled “The Economy of the Kidnapping Industry in Nigeria,” according to Lagos-based SBM Intelligence. Former Nigerian Senator Shehu Sani, who helped negotiate the rescue of some of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, estimates the real number is far higher.
“In just the past five years, even by a rough estimate, over $ 100 million has been paid by individuals or organizations to terrorist groups or ransom bandits … Thousands of people have been killed as well, and millions of people have been displaced “he tells CNN.
Sani says the bandits are often ruthless, executing people who don’t meet their ransom demands – and making families pay to collect their bodies.
“I know family members who had to pay a ransom after the deadline but had to pay to collect the body. Ransom promotes kidnapping, but refusal to pay a ransom leads to the slaughter of innocent people,” he says.
In 2017, the Nigerian Senate approved the death sentence for kidnappings in cases where they result in death. However, many Nigerians do not risk reporting to security authorities because they fear that their family members will be injured. Most find ways to raise money, usually through selling belongings and quietly paying ransom money to free loved ones.
“The Chibok Effect”
In addition to the raid on villages, there has been a recent surge in kidnappers targeting schools – nearly 800 children have been admitted in the last four months alone. Four people have been abducted from academic institutions in northern Nigeria since the beginning of the year. The most recent incident killed three of the 20 students kidnapped from Greenfield University in Kaduna last week.
Unlike her family, Habiba and her schoolmates were freed after just three days. Zamfara’s Governor Bello Matawalle refused to pay a ransom, but said “repentant bandits” had negotiated their release.
Many believe the infamous Boko Haram Chibok kidnappings in 2014 helped make schools a lucrative destination.
“You saw what happened to Boko Haram and the Chibok girls and bandits followed the same strategy,” says Sani, explaining that the authorities paid more attention to the kidnappings of students than any other area of society. “It’s difficult for them to stop the kidnapping … they discovered that it was a gold mine.”
The Iliyasu family is almost destitute due to their experience, but Habiba is back in school and determined to continue her education.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she says.
CNN’s Isaac Abrak, Florence Davey-Attlee, and Fridah Okutoyi contributed to this report