Southerners kidnapped us in Delta, handed over to Fulani for ransom negotiation – Bayelsa-based journalist

In this interview originally published by the Punch Newspapers,Bayelsa-based freelance journalist, Julius Osahon, who recently regained freedom from kidnappers’ den, tells ADEYINKA ADEDIPE about the scary experience

What are the events that led to your kidnap?

I must say that I had no premonition that such could happen to me. But when the kidnap happened, it all looked like something I had dreamt about before, especially the shooting and killing of the driver. It felt like it was happening in a movie. Actually on that day, I was supposed to leave Bayelsa for Delta State by 3pm but I shifted it to 4pm. On my way to the park, I saw a bus belonging to Sunny Ero Motors, which took me to the park where I boarded the bus going to Warri. So, I got my ticket but it took a while for the bus to fill up. For the first time, I didn’t write my name in the manifest because I got my ticket from the first park where I boarded the bus. But some things happened, like people coming into the bus and alighting because of one reason or another. I kept faith in God, believing that I would get to my destination without any hiccup. We left Yenagoa around 5pm and I expected I should be at my destination by 7pm. I was also sure of arriving at my destination safely; there had been no kidnapping on that route for a while. I am surprised to have been kidnapped.

Do you think leaving late contributed to your kidnap?

I don’t think so. We were kidnapped around 6pm when the day was still bright. I was thinking we should arrive in Ughelli soon but we were attacked and kidnapped five minutes’ drive to Ughelli. When we were leaving the park, there was another bus loading after the one I boarded and going towards the same direction we were going. It was a random thing and we were unfortunate to be there at that time.

There were almost 15 police checkpoints that we passed before we were kidnapped. The last one we passed was just one or two minutes before we were abducted. I have learnt my lessons, the moment it is after 4pm, I will never leave for a trip again, no matter how short.

Can you explain how the kidnap took place?

I was making a call to my sister to wish her a happy birthday but her phone was not reachable as we passed a village called Uwelli. So I called my sister’s friend so she could let her know I was going to stay with her till the following day before travelling further. It was at this point that I started hearing gunshots. It was like I was in a trance. All I noticed was that we all lay down in the bus trying to avoid being hit by bullets. It was a war situation. Two other passengers were lying on me. The first thing I saw was a man shooting in the air. He then pointed the gun at the driver and shot him dead. The driver’s blood started flowing to where I was and even stained my phone. But my phone was still on and I was sure that my sister’s friend heard all the commotion that took place. The kidnappers just came out from the bush and hell was let loose.

How many of you were taken into the bush?

They took about seven or eight of us from the bus. Two boys, who sat at the back, escaped, I suppose, through the window. They also kidnapped people from two Sienna buses that were behind us, one from Port Harcourt and another had a man and his wife. Initially they separated us. Immediately, they took our wallets, phones (which they switched off) and other personal effects. They couldn’t switch off my phone and they put it in airplane mode. They took us through a bush path and I was the one who carried all the things they took from us, which was added burden. After about 10 minutes walk into the bush, I heard police siren and gunshots and we diverted into a thick forest that was waterlogged and they told us to lie face down. They instructed that nobody should talk. After about an hour of lying face down in the water and they were sure the police had gone, they told us to stand up, by which time, it was dark and it was difficult to see who was beside you.

We started walking, not knowing where we were going. I had lost my leather slippers during the initial commotion and I was walking barefoot. It was horrible because we didn’t know what we were stepping on. They used the torchlight from a small phone to find their way and ours was to follow them. They didn’t care about any discomfort any of us was going through. If you were not keeping with the pace, they hit you with the butt of the gun or beat you with a stick. When you also tried to break a small tree branch impeding you, they will think you intended to use it as a weapon and they would beat you. So, I had no choice but to move on no matter what was impeding me. I sustained several cuts on my arms. After several hours, we got to a spot where we were again told to lie face down.

They called us one after the other, asking us where we worked and other personal questions. It was like profiling us to see what they could get as ransom. They then separated us because they felt that there were some people they would not get money from even if they threatened to kill them. Those ones were thoroughly beaten and there were some female students who were released the next day.

What did the kidnappers look like?

The people who kidnapped us were southerners but they handed us us to Fulani or Hausa-Fulani (men) in the bush, who made sure we did not escape while the negotiation was on. It was obvious that the Fulani knew the forest so well.

How did the news of your kidnap get to town?

A lady who sat beside me in the bus was one of the persons released the next day and she was the one who broke the news at the Nigeria Union of Journalists’ secretariat in Yenagoa. She lives in my area and she is an up-and-coming artist. I had even done stories about her. It was when I got out that I was told they were released 3am the following day and they got to a farm settlement after running for hours. The farmers called their parents to come pick them in the morning. After the news was broken, stories were done about the incident, with special focus on me. It was when I got released that I knew all that my colleagues did.

The kidnappers first demanded N3m to free you but later raised it to N30m because they thought you were popular. How did that make you feel?

Actually, I didn’t know anything about this until I was released. I didn’t even know that our kidnap was in the news. My only prayer was to leave that place in one piece. When they asked for my job, I told them I was a freelance/human rights journalist, who didn’t get paid. They could not understand why I didn’t get paid, so I explained further that freelance journalism is only profitable abroad. I told them I write stories about the underprivileged. One of the kidnappers slapped me twice, asking me what I meant by working as a freelance journalist and not getting paid. He told me that if their master confirmed I was lying, they were going to beat the hell out of me. As I was answering their questions, they were beating me, though it was mild. On the second night, they took us to another part of the forest. On that first night, we walked for about four hours before we got the spot we spent the first night. The following morning we were blindfolded and our hands were tied. You could not kill the ants when they were biting you. We had to endure. The suffering was too much and there was no food or water. One of them took pity on us and removed the blindfold and untied our hands. That second night was the worst because we had to walk several hours. Whenever they perceived danger, they moved us to another part of the forest. But in the morning, we stayed in a place; I guess they were afraid of being spotted. Once in a while, they brought a loaf of bread for eight of us but I couldn’t eat bread without water. So, I drank water whenever it was available and that was the only thing I survived on.

How did you negotiate your release?

On the first day in captivity, they didn’t ask for anything; they just kept us there. However, on the second day, one of them came and said what he needed was money. They gave us our phones to contact anyone that could pay for our release. So, I told them my wife was the only one I could contact. When I called her, they threatened that they would kill me if they didn’t get money. I didn’t know the number of some other people who could help raise some money. So, I checked my Facebook, got a number of a close friend in Lagos, who I called and they threatened him too, asking for the kind of relationship between us. He told them we were friends. I tried to link my friend up with my wife but it failed; so, it was left for my wife to negotiate my release. Whoever didn’t know the phone number of their wife or husband was beaten. Some other persons also used my phone to call their relatives. Unfortunately, my phone went off on the third day. And because of this, one of the kidnappers was beating me but another told him that I could not be blamed for the phone that went off because most of the people were using my phone to call their people. I even told them I could transfer some money to my wife so she could add to whatever she could raise for the ransom payment. So, one of them gave me his small phone, which I put my SIM card into to call my wife again. They even instructed my wife to send recharge card to the phone. The ransom kept changing. They could ask for N5m this minute and something higher the next minute. So, we were all negotiating and begging. They told me to pay N30m the day negotiation started. The second day, another person came and demanded N50m. It was then I suspected that the news had got out. Luckily for me, one of those kidnappers called me aside, told me to calm down and also urged my wife to be calm. He also saved me from beating. They slapped one guy beside me and I was crying thinking mine was going to be more than that but he only hit the back of my ear. I made sure that my wife was the only one involved in the negotiation and I told her to sell everything in the house to raise some money. She complied while telling them what she had been able to gather. They would cock their gun to let her know they were serious and she would start crying, making me emotional too and I would also cry.

I know what we have been through. I have worked for several years without getting paid. Sometimes, we live from hand to mouth. I am only able to pay my children’s school fees by God’s grace. I am suffering and I am just trying to make ends meet. I don’t have any pension and my wife will suffer if anything bad happens to me. These were some of the thoughts that gave me great concern while in captivity. So, I was begging them to accept N1m and when my wife said she was able to raise N1.5m, I was surprised and never believed it. I must thank my friends.

What effort did the Nigeria Union of Journalists in Bayelsa make to help raise money?

Through the effort of the NUJ in Bayelsa, a commissioner sent money to my wife as part of the ransom but she still had to feed our children. I don’t think my kids know what it means to be kidnapped even if they know, would you tell them they cannot feed? So after agreeing on what to pay, they said the Friday I regained my freedom was the final day to pay ransom and that anyone that did not pay would be killed.

How was the ransom delivered to the kidnappers?

My wife confirmed to the kidnappers she had N1.5m. By then, one of my brothers, who lives in Auchi, had come over to my house in Benin but I kept him out of the negotiation because it could spell doom. In fact, they rejected the N1.5m, saying it was too small and told my wife that if she didn’t make effort to get more money she would have to spend that N1.5m for my burial. She just kept pleading with them. After accepting her plea, they told her to go and collect the money in the bank that night, which was impossible. On Friday morning, she went to an ATM; she was debited but the machine did not dispense the money, which created more problem. She filled the complaint form in the bank but couldn’t get a reversal. So, she left for Warri with what she had and a good neighbour of my sister lent her the N500, 000 balance. My wife almost died on the Friday because of the stress she went through. My brother brought the ransom to the place they instructed.

What time were you released on that Friday?

After confirming the receipt of the money, they called four of us from where we were lying face down and said we were free to go at about 8pm. They gave us a bottle of water each. Two of them volunteered to take us to a bush path which they told us would take us straight to a village.

How did the villagers receive you?

We were all tired and thirsty, so we approached one of the villagers for water and somewhere to rest. After giving us water, we explained what we went through but he did believe us and he invited vigilantes who accused the four of us of being armed robbers. We asked them to check our profile online but there was no smart phone. So, one man volunteered to use his tricycle to help us reach some people but instead he brought in more vigilantes with guns. Fortunately, for us, a retired Deputy Superintendent of Police came and interrogated us. He took us to his house, gave us bread and soft drinks. He called the DPO of the nearest police station and my brother and other who were waiting for us in Ughelli. So our people came down to Eyede and we went to the police station where we wrote our statements and were allowed to leave few minutes before 12 midnight.

In a news report, the police claimed the glory for your release. What’s your take?

It is quite unfortunate for the Delta State Commissioner of Police to say that they rescued us. That claim by the police is a sad commentary on the pathetic situation of the country. The police should begin to talk about the problems they encounter in the discharge of their duty. There is no way they can go into that forest. I even prayed that they should not come because the kidnappers said they would kill us if the police came for rescue operation. I am not even sure that they can go into that bush. I wrote a statement in the police station and there was no where I mentioned that I was rescued. The police couldn’t even send us for checkup in a nearby hospital.

Do you have any plan to leave the country after this experience?

Every day I wake up, what comes to my mind is: what is the future of my children in this country? The country is in turmoil and the situation is getting worse daily. Even in the political sphere, old people are still being recycled. With what has happened, I may seek asylum. I cannot continue to endanger my life as I toil for my daily bread.