The sun had dropped behind the trees in the dreaded Sambisa Forest. The dimming sunlight met Ibra and his squad trudging in dusts and despair. His tatty jeans, which had known no wash for weeks, attracted a trail of inquisitive flies. They had trekked through soft, light hot sands and a range of mountains and, now, blearily, picking their way through the dense, thorny forest they called home. He spat out a gob of phlegm on a dry leaf, twisting his bristly moustache thereafter. The squad of twenty was dispatched to nearby town of Gworza to loot food and return to Sambisa Forest, housing the ruthless Mujahadin.
Slinging his AK45 across his shoulder and glancing at the fast darkening air, he permitted himself a grim smile. Security at Gworza, was tight, with over a hundred soldiers patrolling sections of the town. They were outnumbered, and didn’t want to expose their position by firing at them. They had to retreat. He knew their boss wouldn’t be happy with that –coming back empty handed was a sign of failure; it meant you weren’t Jihadi enough. However, it was one of such moments when discretion became the better part of valour. They had spotted about five army tanks –one alone could decimate them in minutes. The instruction today was to loot, not to engage the soldiers, and they were armed with light weapons, too. Christmas was three days away –ordinarily, it wouldn’t have bothered the insurgents, but the end-of-year holidays were observed every Nigerian, including the predominant northeastern Nigeria, where they were located. So, food had to be stockpiled.
Two miles to their camp, dry leaves suddenly crinkled behind Ibra. He wheeled around mechanically only to see two mischievous brown rats dart past him into the bush as his colleague, Sadiq, kicked the air. ‘I will catch you one day, you infidels,’ he cursed under his breath.
Malik Zaki, a snotty, turbaned fellow with speckled face, wasn’t impressed with the report that his boys returned without the much needed food. They shouldn’t have come back, he screamed at the listless fighters. The platoon was running out of food since the army began its latest offensive against the insurgents, bombing the Sambisa Forest at random. ‘I don’t want to hear this hard luck story anymore. We need food by all means!’
Walking groggily back to his tent, Ibrahim jumped up with a start as two rats escaped between his legs. He could recognise them. They were the same set of mischievous brown rats that darted at his back not too long ago. ‘Every day is for the thief; one day is for the owner of the house,’ he muttered. He was more despondent when he entered the tent: the rats had almost eaten up the half loaf of bread he left behind in the morning. He let out a growl and a deep sigh, cursing, ‘Infidels!’ The rats had been a thorn in his flesh. He didn’t know between the soldiers and the rats who were his worst enemies. It was becoming clearer to him now that he had more than one battle to fight: the battle within and the battle outside.
Ibra was one of the most trusted rangers fighting for the Sambisa Mujahadin. He wasn’t from Nigeria –he was a Taureg from neighbouring Niger Republic. At 22, he had already been involved in three big wars: he was part of Gadaffi’s mercenaries that fled to Mali after the fall of the Libyan dictator; he was part of the Asawad uprising in Mali that plundered Timbuktu, intent on overthrowing the government in Bamako –he only made his way to Niger when the uprising failed, and joined the Borno-based Sambisa Mujahadin when they came for recruitment at Agadez. But this wasn’t his first time in Nigeria. As a six-year old, his parents took him and seven other children of theirs from the Sahara desert to Lagos to eke a living from begging. They lived in Mile 2 under Bridge in Lagos for four years before the Lagos State Government deported them to Niger, where misery returned in the withered desert with vehemence.
The last time he communicated with his parents was over a year ago. But it wasn’t a direct communication. Using a phone he had stolen from one of the Chibok girls during a successful raid in Chibok Town, where the Mujahadin took over a hundred schoolgirls away, he was able to speak to his uncle in Niamey, who got across to his parents in the desert and returned their blessings, though they were disappointed he hadn’t sent a dime since he joined the insurgents, contrary to the promise of fifty thousand dollars after the first two months in camp. In the camp, they were not allowed to communicate with mobile phones with the outside world, for fear of being tracked by the Nigerian security operatives or giving away the secrets of the Jihadists. About twelve insurgents who smuggled phones to the camps were arbitrarily executed. Only the leaders of different platoons in the camps were the only ones allowed to use walkie talkie.
‘These rats are evil,’ he said, taking a bite of the leftover of the bread he could salvage from the rodents’ attack. It was gone down his throat in an instant. He reached for one pack of sachet water –he was only entitled to two a day –and gulped it in seconds. He wasn’t contented. He gave a congealed smirk in the muffled tent. Hunger was gnawing his stomach. The water only assuaged his taste, not the stupefying hunger. He lay on his mat and looked askance in the air, thinking about life and its many cruelties. On their return to Niger from Nigeria many years ago, his parents had saved enough money to buy ten goats, of both sexes, at Niameh on their way to Agadez. Within three years, they had raised a trip of forty-something goats. But a wicked drought had hit the desert, and the trip died off in two months. It was unbearable for Ibrahim, who used to trek kilometres daily with half of the trip in search of scarce pastures and water. Life in Sambisa Forest was no better. He had trodden most parts of the forest, from the open woodland to the dense vegetation of short trees difficult to penetrate. Yes, the search for games had taken them to the most remote part of the forest, and had been rewarded occasionally with kills. They were restricted from using guns while hunting in order not to alert the Nigerian Army. Catapults, cutlasses, traps and spears were fancied. These days, games were harder to come by, because of the persistence hunting expeditions by different hungry platoons.
‘Ibrahim,’ he heard his name from outside the tent. It was Sadiq, his closest friend. Sadiq was an extraordinary sniper –only next to Ibra, born and brought up by a police father in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. He had taken down over ten soldiers while hanging on treetops or mountain tops. He was two years younger than Ibrahim. ‘How are you?’ he trusted out his stubby fingers for a handshake after Ibra had unzipped the tenth.
‘I am fine,’ responded Ibrahim. But he knew it was mere courtesy. There was nothing fine about the day.
He wanted them to play ludo –darkness would soon cast its ominous blanket round the forest. Ibra would have preferred loneliness and listen to the sweet homey tickle of the December air; but, with Sadiq around, he couldn’t help saying yes. Nightfall meant more fear –fear of the soldiers and Alfa jets staging occasional surprise attacks and aerial bombardments.
Wukari and Jelida, the two mischievous brown rats, lived in a hole under the red bushwillow tree in the midst of thick shrubs beside the camp. They hated Ibra for two things: he had made two failed attempts in the past to smoke them out from their hole and use them for food, and he was responsible for the death of three of their siblings. Wukari and Jelida’s hatred for Ibrahim and other fighters increased following the death of their mother, who mistakenly stepped on one of the landmines planted by Ibra and his squad on the northern precincts of Sambisa Forest. Ever since, they swore to make life miserable for him
‘Wukari,’ said Jelida to his partner in ratty language, ‘we don’t have to spare this corn,’ burying his teeth and paws on the tail of the corn. They had made their way to the platoon’s store attached to the three-room underground bunker.
‘Guy, we can’t help thanking our luck,’ replied Wukari, the second rat, clawing the corn with his purrs. ‘Since Sambisa became busy, we have never had it so good.’
‘I pray the war continues so that we continue enjoying ourselves. The life of a rat like ours doesn’t have a definite lifespan. There are enemies here and there: snakes, foxes, eagles, and a host of predators interested in our tiny flesh.’
‘Each time the fighters here go to war, we run things in the forest.’
‘Between these stingy guys and the soldiers, who do you prefer?’
‘The soldiers, of course.’
‘Why?’ Jelida asked.
‘You are asking me why. You can see for yourself that we scavenge for food on this side of the divide, for there is not much foodstuff left for them to eat, needless to say, us.’
‘You’re right,’ Jelida said to his brother. ‘Both are our enemies, but one is a worse enemy than the other.’
On this part of Sambisa Forest, Ibra and his colleagues were famished and cruel, looking for every opportunity to kill Wukari and Jedida and eat up as they did their siblings. On the side, the soldiers were not interested in them per se; they were only interested in hunting down the ‘terrorists’ –the Mujahadin hated that word.
‘My only worry is that we have to cover a large swathe of land to get to the other side of Sambisa, but it is worth the effort each time we visit, because there is always sufficient food for us to eat and make merry,’ Wukari.
‘There is no question about that.’
‘But, aren’t we cruel to say we like this endless war?’ questioned Wukari after another bite on the corn.
‘I am not sure we are,’ replied Jelida. ‘We met the war right from the day we were born. We didn’t ask for it, and we can’t stop it either.’
‘On point, brother. But I don’t like humans killing one another.’
‘It makes the entire forest stink with rotten flesh.’
‘Humans can smell.’
‘They are of no use when they are dead, because they foul everywhere for weeks.’
‘But, why are they killing themselves?’
‘I don’t know for sure.’
‘They disturb our peace with all sorts of unpleasant noises.’
‘Some sound gbiiim.’
‘Some sound gbooom.’
‘And there is kakakaka kpokpokpokpo.’
‘And there is gidiiiim.’
‘The huge flying birds in the sky are a great terror.’
‘Once they appear in the air, everybody runs helter-skelter.’
‘They huge flying birds are more dangerous than that thing that killed our mother.’
‘Yes, they vomit fire from the sky, and dead bodies of men and animals litter everywhere in minutes.’
‘Not only dead bodies. Tents, houses, vehicles burst into flame vooom and burn into ashes.’
‘Wukari, these are terrible times to be a rat in Sambisa Forest,’ sighed Jelida.
‘You are right, my brother. Mother spoke of good times in the forest before these stingy guys moved into disturb the peace.’
‘In those days, their only worries were animal predators. Now, we have human tormentors worse than predators.’
‘I would rather they live us alone.’
‘We ought to be happy living in the forest, but they have left their homes to join us. I can’t really understand. Mum told us they have big houses.’
‘Anyway, let’s enjoy ourselves at the moment. We may not have another moment.’
‘What else can we …?’
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