‘’Can I have that girl before tomorrow’s martyrdom?’’ Yunus pointed towards the direction of the kidnapped girls, who sat around a tree and whose faces exhibited melancholy as he joined Abu Birna in his early morning routine walk around Kelwa. The village streets were damp, ponds of water forming about the village potholes. ‘’Which one?’’ Abu Birna inquired, his right hand redressing his black turban and his left hand leading Yunus into the midst of the captives, forcing a pathway through them. ‘’This one.’’ Yunus touched the shoulder of the lady he had seen carrying an orange bucket earlier.
Abu Birna ordered the young lady to stand up and he passed a thorough glance at her, checking her as though a commodity on sale. ‘’Well, she is beautiful and I would like her for myself.’’ Yunus’ countenance grew dark and he averted his gaze from Abu Birna. The lady all the while shivering, her teeth clanking. The rest of the abducted girls buried their heads not wanting to be called out too. ‘’But because of what you’re to do tomorrow, we can’t say no to you.’’ He smiled at Yunus. ‘’You can have her.’’ Yunus did not waste time. He took the young lady back to his room.
‘’Sit on the bed,’’ Yunus said casually, unbuttoning his shirt. He hung his shirt on the door and when he turned back he saw that the young lady was still standing, her head tilted towards the floor. ‘’Sit down.’’ The lady raised her head, ‘’Please do not harm me.’’ Yunus moved close to her and put his hand on her shoulder. ‘’I’m not going to hurt you, so please sit down.’’ She sat on the bed and raised her head to look at Yunus. Their eyes did four, and Yunus noticed the thinness of her lips and the wideness of her eyeballs. Beauty at its best, Yunus marveled. ‘’What is your name?’’ he asked. After a moment hesitation, ‘’Stephanie,’’ she replied. ‘’You’re a Christian?’’ ‘’Yes.’’ ‘’How old are you?’’ ‘’eighteen.’’
The information surprised Yunus. At twenty two, he had had relationship with two ladies while at the university before his father was killed in an extra judicial killing campaign carried out by the Nigerian security forces years ago which led him to join the militants. But both women were Muslims, and with the ideology he was exposed to he had never thought a Muslim, let alone he, could ever have affection towards a Christian or vice-versa. He again looked at Stephanie whose face was now wet from tears and he wanted nothing but to be with the poor girl for the rest of his life. ‘’Stephanie,’’ he called, ‘’I am Yunus.’’ He removed a white handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Stephanie. ‘’Wipe your face, we will run away.’’
Thanks to the shifting of the attack to the next day, Yunus had the entire day to plan their escape. He asked for permission to go and visit his mother on the pretense of seeing her for the last time and Abu Birna accepted. His mother lived in the city, thirty kilometers from Kelwa village. When he got to the city, the first thing he did was go to the university where he looked for an old friend. His friend, Yahqub, had cautioned him vehemently before he joined the militant group. He met with his friend in the central mosque of the university and asked for his help in getting him and Stephanie out of Kelwa. Yahqub’s face beamed as they both planned how to get Stephanie and Yunus into safety the next day.
Dusk had begun to wrap up Kelwa when Yunus returned that evening. He opened the door to the room and found Stephanie sitting down on the floor her legs crossed, and her face buried in her hands. The room was partially dark that he only could make out the silhouette of Stephanie. He took the matches pack from the stool neighboring the bed and stroke out fire and put the almost depleted candle into light. ‘’How are you?’’ He asked, as he walked towards Stephanie, his hand reached into the black plastic bag he had earlier placed on the bed and brought out puff-puff and Viju milk. ‘’I know you must be hungry,’’ he told her, stretching out the snack towards her. ‘’Thank you.’’ Stephanie accepted and placed the snacks on the floor. ‘’Won’t you eat?’’ asked he, already devouring his own bread. ‘’How was where you went?’’
Yunus explained to her the plans for the next day but he was grief-stricken to see her face remained stoic. ‘’Aren’t you happy?’’ Yunus demanded in a mellow voice. ‘’I like that we’re escaping, but how could I be happy when my siblings and friends will be left behind.’’ Yunus kept silent for long, his demeanor exhibiting deep deliberation. ‘’Stephanie, it’s not easy like that. More people lower the possibility of us succeeding.’’ He averted his gaze from her.
‘’Yunus,’’ Stephanie called— and he looked up to meet her eyes and affections for her grew in him as he realized that was the first time she would call his name—‘’I beg you in the name of God, let’s take my siblings with us.’’ A drop of tears streamed down her cheek. Yunus couldn’t say no, in just matter of hours, he had grown to love her too much to reject her request. ‘’Okay, this is what we will do: I’m going for the Maghrib prayer now. You should go and tell your siblings and friends to be at the stream at the first crow tomorrow morning for we must set forth at dawn…’’
Yunus could not shut his eyes the entire night and as soon as a cockerel crowed beside his room’s window, he put on a black shirt and a blue jeans and headed for the stream. When he got there he was surprised to find no one there. His heart raced. Maybe they’d been caught on their way coming, he panicked. But it couldn’t be; their coming to the stream couldn’t arise any suspicion for it was normal for the kidnapped girls to fetch water every morning. He paced up and down, fearing the worst. Then the pronouncement of the Adhan emanated from the village mosque.
He made Wudu’ from the stream, as he was passing water over his right foot, Stephanie emerged from the forest with ten people, all having buckets at hands in subterfuge. Four of them seemed around the same age group with Stephanie, while another four looked to be around the ages of ten to thirteen, and the last two were apparently in their thirties or forties. When they got closer, they started to usher Yunus with thanks but he cautioned them to keep quiet. He surveyed their faces and saw semblance of Stephanie among two of the little girls. He prayed Fajr under a tree while the women kept watch. As soon as he finished the prayer, they set forth.
They threaded the forest with Yunus in front of the caravan, morning dews falling on them from wet leaves. It was still dawn so it meant darkness still hovered over the village, and with gigantic trees spreading their leaves and stems as though wide canopies in the forest, seeing the paths clearly proved a bit arduous. Yunus had to rely on the compass of the phone given to him by Yahqub and, when signal went off, his instincts. He held a lantern to see through the darkness.
‘’Has anyone seen Abu Jaiz this morning?’’ Abu Birna asked his followers. They all replied in the negative. He exhaled, rubbed his large beard and shook his head. ‘’He must be enjoying that girl too much.’’ He laughed and the rest followed his behavior.
‘’…There is problem o.’’ One of the militants dashed into the mosque, his hands flying, and sweat dripping from his face. ‘’What’s the problem?’’ Abu Birna asked. ‘’I…. I,’’ catching his breath he explained, ‘’I went to the captives and wanted to take one to my room but I couldn’t find her there. I had been eying her since yesterday but this morning she was not there.’’ Abu Birna hissed and turned his face in disappointment. ‘’This is why you have come and disturb us? You will be lashed forty times for offending Allah and His messenger.’’
‘’Let me finish,’’ the man resumed, ‘’when I threatened to kill the rest of them if they don’t tell me where she is, they confessed that she and other nine captives did not return from the stream.’’ ‘’Go and check for Yunus!’’ Abu Birna ordered, and the search began.
By now, the sun had started to mount upon the world. The militants trooped toward the stream where they saw footprints which led them to Yunus’ trail. They scattered into the bush and began running, following the trail. Abu Birna himself and six senior ranking members took the car and pursued through the vehicle friendly path of the forest.
‘’Hello, how far are you?’’ Yahqub couldn’t hold himself from calling. ‘’Not so much anymore,’’ Yunus replied, as he mounted the youngest girl whose feet was now swollen on his shoulder. The girl groaned, and the rest urged her to keep quiet. ‘’They’re near,’’ Abu Birna announced to the rest. ‘’See this red dot, a call was just made from there.’’ He showed a map on an electronic device to Al Zambi. ‘’Radio those on foot,’’ Al Zambi ordered another militant, ‘’and tell them to head for the area with many Baobab trees.’’
Ten minutes later, the fleeing caravan heard the steps and voices of their pursuers behind them and fright became palpable from their faces and body reactions. Their eyes widened, bodies trembled more, and their feet gained more speed. Yunus gave Stephanie the phone, instructed her to be in front, and had someone else carry the girl. He began to run behind them, his rifle on his hand to ward-off any hindrance. A shot was fired aimlessly by the pursuers and Yunus did not waste time to let them know that he was also ready as a gun.
Now the sound of cars and buses on the express way made its way into the forest, announcing the nearness to success. Even Yahqub could feel their closeness, he jumped into the vehicle and ignited the car, his hand fixed on the gear stick. One of the little girls fell and Stephanie ran back and pulled her up. ‘’Run!’’ Yunus shouted, and Stephanie staggered back, pushing the girl to run. Another shot was fired towards them, and once again Yunus replied in kind.
The getaway car was now on sight. The group ran toward the car and happiness started to creep into Yunus heart. They got to the car and began to pack themselves in. Stephanie. He looked around but she wasn’t on sight. Then he looked into the forest and there she was, hands holding tightly to her left side of the stomach and struggling to walk. Yunus dashed back into the forest, and just before Stephanie would collapse, he grabbed and carried her. Blood instantly covered his hands and shirt. Tears escaped from Stephanie’s face as she struggled to keep her eyes open to see Yunus’ face for the last moments. ‘’Th….tha….’’ she mustered all the strength to voice out, blood trickling down her mouth, ‘’Thank you, Yunus.’’ ‘’Don’t worry, you will make it,’’ Yunus continued to encourage, tears streaming down his face, even as Stephanie’s body grew heavier and heavier.
From the car, Yahqub shook his head and forced back the tears forming around his eyelids, he looked at those in the car with him and he pushed the gear out of neutral. Yunus felt something drill into his rear. He fell on his knees and the sight of the moving car became blurry.
This short story is dedicated to the safe return of our girls. May God help us bring them back.