The Nigerian reopening a critical high-speed rail link is creating traumatic memories in some survivors who still have not recovered from the audacious hijacking.
On the night of 28 March gunmen attacked the Abuja capital and Kaduna, forcing 362 passengers on board to abandon their train.
As the train was being surrounded by attackers, shots were fired in all directions. There had been armed police officers onboard and the attackers managed to take 62 passengers. In the confusion and chaos, at least nine people were killed.
Hassan Usman (a Kaduna-based barrister) and his wife were among those taken hostage.
According to him, the abductees, which included 39 men, 18 ladies, and five children, were made to walk for four days in heat to reach the area to where they would be kept captive. They were only given water and no food.
She became the spokesperson de facto for some captives who were kept for up to five months. Since then, she has set up a WhatsApp group where survivors can share their experiences and offer support.
It is difficult to believe that the lawyer, who was smartly dressed today, was actually the grey-haired and shaggy-headed man with gray overcloths who begged for the government’s attention to their demands as other hostages were taken in July.
It was an awful experience, he said.
The women were not allowed to have sanitary pads, so they had to use rags. All of them drank water from a small lake nearby, where they could also bathe.
He said, “During the first months we slept openly on the ground, which was occasionally wet. But when it started to rain, they made makeshift camp and let us in only until the rains stopped.”
Captives were allowed to eat once per day, usually at 11:00 AM. It was usually a soup made of corn flour and baobab leafs.
We realized that food was being smuggled into the country and that it was difficult to get supplies. He said that they sometimes brought rice, which was cooked in just palm oil or with beans.
They were sometimes allowed to have a second meal after 18:00 on some days, but it was very rare.
The women cooked and men took care of most chores, such as fetching water and firewood or washing the dishes.
The identity of the kidnappers remained unknown for weeks. There was speculation they might be members of bandit groups known for kidnapping ransoms from the north-west.
However, Mr Usman raised suspicions about the possibility that these gunmen might have been members of Islamist Boko Haram’s militant Islamist group. This Islamist group usually operates in northern-east Nigeria where it began its insurgency back in 2009.
Long-standing rumors have suggested that this group is moving southwards, claiming it plans to take down the government and create an Islamic state.
They claimed to be Boko Haram, and captured us in order for us to comply with their demands.
He said that sometimes they would give us our phones so we could hear most of their sermons. This included sermons by Boko Haram’s leaders Mohammed Yusuf (now deceased) and Abubakar Shekau.
They tried to convince us to support their cause and join their group.
The militants sought advice whenever any captive became ill or required medication.
The lawyer stated that they would ask professionals about the drug treatment and most often buy [them].
Their charlatan doctors gave injections for the sick, especially to treat malaria or typhoid.
The leader of the kidnappers once suggested that he bring the young captives into his home for better care. But the parents refused, Mr Usman stated.
‘Destitute after ransoms paid’
Although most victims of the attack on the train were freed after paying large ransoms from their loved ones and friends, kidnappers kept others for demands to the government.
Analysts believe that this could have involved the release militants currently in prison, though it has not been proven.
According to Mr Usman, his family worked with militants in order for him to be freed. However, they never disclosed the terms of that agreement.
He knows that the process was difficult and it went wrong on his day of release.
“The soldiers on one axis prevented my men from accessing the meeting point in order to pick me up.
The militants made the torture video, and the terrorists released him the following day.
Ransoms paid by families have rendered them homeless. He said that the ransom for some of these captives reached 100m Naira.
People share their most difficult situations on the WhatsApp group.
He said, “Many can’t afford to eat three meals per day. Some were given notices by their landlords to leave.”
Lawyer blasted the inability to provide support for survivors who often need therapy after trauma.
“We have the Ministry of Humanitarian Services, whose mission is to assist such people. I believe there’s a need for it at this time.”
As I asked one of the abducted women about her time in captivity, she broke down and cried.
She did not wish to be identified. The traumatized woman vows never again to travel by train or road between Abuja, Kaduna, and Kaduna.
Many commute frequently between these two cities because many people live in both.
The couple decided to travel to Kaduna to visit their loved ones, or to move to other states north.
Since its opening in 2016, the train was considered safer than the highway, the nation’s most famous road for kidnapping and ambushes.
Others who survived the accident admitted that they were nervous about getting on the train again. However, Mr Usman welcomed Monday’s reopening the track link of 174 km (108 miles).
He advised the government to implement adequate security measures, and 24 hour surveillance of rail tracks.
Nigeria’s defense chief, Gen Lucky Irabor, has tried to comfort them by stating that CCTV was now in place and that even the president and he would be able “to see everything on the line from their offices”.