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The new curfew hours within the metropolis of Maiduguri covered the entire period of darkness. It stretched from 7 p.m. in the evenings to 6 a.m. in the mornings.
The total blackout lay like a heavy blanket over the entire city which was dead quiet and completely deserted at 4 o’clock that early morning as the Mitsubishi bus made its way through the dark streets towards the main highway that ran through the city, heading due south, the single lane Maiduguri-Bama road.
There were too many checkpoints mounted on the major roads. The Army, the police, even military police and the civilian joint task forces, the JTF, they all had separate roadblocks set up. Some of the roadblocks were less than a hundred yards apart but all operated independent of each other, and then there were the mobile military patrols to contend with.
The Mitsubishi bus was flagged down sixteen times within the city limits alone. With the JTF and the police, the genuine Army uniforms of the occupants of the bus and their ranks were enough to let the bus pass through their checkpoints with little challenge but with the military units at the major checkpoints, the case was different. There were usually officers with the military units and some equaled even Rufai’s rank of Captain so they had to go through due process; they had to show their papers and submit to some degree of questioning.
At the last major checkpoint on the outskirts of the city, the bus was flagged down yet again, and this time, detained for nearly five minutes by mean looking military policemen while their commanding officer went into his command post, a large metal structure by the roadside that looked like a 20-foot shipping container with windows and doors cut in, and placed a call to his superior officer who then placed a call to his own superiors. Somewhere along the chain of command, hell broke loose and someone called the post directly to yell into the Captain’s ear that a newly promoted Captain had no business sticking his smelly nose into a ‘classified mission’ with the signature of a top General unless he wanted the smelly nose cut off for him.
The Captain returned from his command post, sour-faced and gave the order to let the bus through the checkpoint.
Outside the city, the checkpoints became more spaced out and it was one or two every few miles. The bus put out effortless speed along the empty Maiduguri-Bama road as its occupants tried to make up for lost time. The single lane highway was good and the halogen headlamps threw out powerful beams of light that reached far out into the darkness of the night ahead like two stabbing fingers as the bus ate up the mileage greedily. Efosa had things pretty easy behind the wheels and hardly let the speedometer needle fall below the one hundred kilometers per hour mark.
Stretching out on either side of the road and reaching right to the horizon was the endless flat grasslands of the Sahel Savannah, bathed in the Silverlight of a dying moon. The entire countryside was a very beautiful and peaceful sight to behold except for the clusters of refugees here and there. Most of the small towns and villages that could be seen well enough along the road and out in the countryside had been overrun by the refugees in their countless numbers. Some of those refugees were already getting on the march even that early in the morning, all were headed in the same direction, northward, away from Bama and the advancing Boko Haram Army, fleeing towards the safety of the state capital where the promise of food, security, shelter and medical care awaited them in IDP camps, the government operated camps for the internally displaced people.
The road distance from Maiduguri to Bama was exactly forty-two miles and it took the speeding bus far less than an hour to cover it despite the brief delays at checkpoints. Ten minutes to five o’clock saw the bus crossing the heavily guarded bridge over the Yedzaeam river which was swollen by the early July rains, and then it was on the outskirts of Bama.
The military presence in the entire area was very heavy and it all seemed to be in a state of chaos. Military vehicles and personnel were crawling all over the place and themselves. A lot of military vehicles were coming out of the town and several others were headed in, all at the same time. More military vehicles parked wrongly all along both sides of the road, obstructed the free flow of traffic. Ambulances and trucks loaded with wounded soldiers from the town had their sirens and horns screaming bloody murder even that early in the morning. It looked like the Army had taken a heavy beating in the town overnight and was now systemically pulling out. The sounds of heavy gunfire and shelling could still be heard in the far distance and clearly visible in the dark sky over the sprawling town was a red fiery glow that suggested the battle was still raging deep within the town itself.
The bus was soon forced to pull over to the side of the road to make way for a light battle tank and a lorry full of soldiers in a hurry to go into the town but two approaching ambulance vehicles backed up by another truck stayed put on the road and refused to budge. A heated argument between all parties followed at once, and then some military policemen showed up to straighten things out.
“Low morals,” said Rufai disdainfully from the rear seat.
Alex glanced back at him with dislike but said nothing. He could barely make Rufai’s face in the darkness of the interior of the bus. There were two rows of executive seats in the back of the bus, three seats a row. Rufai sat comfortably relaxed next to Samuel in the first row directly behind the front seats while Sergeant Garko had the last row all to himself.
“The Army doesn’t look like it’s going to stay in Bama much longer,” observed Samuel worriedly as he looked around. “We need to get off this road quickly and be on our way so we can make it back in time to get across the bridge before the terrorist lay claims to it.”
“Yeah, the turnoff is just up ahead,” said Alex.
The wounded were given priority as the hold-up got sorted out and they were on the move again. Alex gave Efosa directions and they made a left turn off the single lane highway onto a more peaceful side road. Two more turns and it was all dead quiet and darkness again. They stopped briefly to allow Alex tie up a white cloth to the windshield wiper and then continued on their way.
The sprawling town of Bama could have passed for a small city if it had been slightly more developed, it certainly had the land size and population…or rather it had the population. Bama used to have a population of over a quarter of a million peaceful people, but now it was like a ghost town, completely desolate, dark and dead quiet as a graveyard. All the houses were in darkness and there wasn’t a light or a civilian soul to be seen anywhere as the bus sped through the back streets on the northern part of the town.
The bus soon encountered the roadblocks of the last elements of the Nigerian Army’s flank guard on the outskirts of the town and had to stop yet again.
There were barriers blocking the road, long metal poles resting on tables and drums, and twenty yards beyond them, two vehicles, a big pickup truck with a mounted machine-gun and a large 8-wheel armored vehicle with a light cannon, parked right across the road, blockading it. The armored vehicle hit the approaching bus with a powerful beam of light and four heavily armed soldiers in full battle-gear stepped forward out of the shadows to meet it.
As the bus came to a halt before the barricade, a Sergeant-Major wearing a steel helmet over a mean looking face stepped up to the driver’s window and beamed a bright flashlight directly into Sergeant Efosa’s face while the other soldiers moved around the bus, looking it and everyone over. Only one other soldier besides the Sergeant-Major had a torchlight and he seemed more interested in the boot of the bus.
“Where you dey carry Danfo fly go this kind early morning?”
asked the Sergeant-Major in the local pidgin English that did nothing to undermine the hardness of his voice. His bloodshot eyes clearly indicated he was critically short of sleep, several days’ worth.
“He is going exactly where I want him to go, Sergeant-Major,” said Rufai taking charge at once.
The Sergeant-Major jerked his torchlight into the back seat at once and Samuel turned on the overhead lights in the bus for him to see well, the beam of light from the armored vehicle didn’t quite get into the interior of the bus well.
The Sergeant-Major snapped sharply to attention and saluted as he saw the superior ranks of the two officers seated there in the back seat.
On the other side of the bus, the corporal standing off from the front passenger door with his rifle at the ready, saw the sudden way his Sergeant-Major snapped smartly to attention and curiosity stepped closer to take another look at the occupants of the bus. He looked again at the soldier sitting in the front passenger seat, saw that it was a full Lieutenant and snapped sharply to attention too. He saluted smartly.
Alex nodded casually in return and the corporal relaxed, lowering his rifle.
The other armed soldiers circling the bus stood down at once too. They didn’t need to be signaled after seeing their top kick jump to attention the way he did.
“Good morning, sir,” greeted the Sergeant-Major and inwardly cursed his luck at meeting a bloody Captain to spoil the already sour morning for him.
“Morning,” said Rufai easily. “I need to get through your roadblock at once.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you must have to show me your papers before I can allow you through,” replied the Sergeant-Major apologetically but firmly.
“I’m on a classified mission, Sergeant-Major. One that is well above your level and I’m already running behind schedule as it is. I suggest you move your people and vehicles aside immediately and let me be on my way.”
“So sorry, sir, I can’t do that,” insisted the Sergeant-Major firmly. “We have very clear orders and it comes directly from Division headquarters. No military personnel may get through this roadblock without the necessary papers. If you do not have any papers from Division headquarters, we will have to detain you until we get clearance.”
“They’re trying to check the activities of spies and deserters,” said Alex. “We’ll have to talk directly to his commanding officer, he should be a Lieutenant.”
“Get your ranking officer here at once,” said Rufai.
“Yes, sir.” the Sergeant-Major stepped back with a quick salute and yelled towards the armored vehicle. “Bazar! On the double, get the Lieutenant here quick! There’s a Captain fixing to see him.”
In a minute, another soldier emerged from the shadows and stepped into the beam of light from the armored vehicle as he approached the bus.
“Officers, sir, they don’t have papers.” said the Sergeant-Major as he moved aside and gestured his superior at the window of the bus.
The Lieutenant came up and took a good look at the occupants of the bus, checked out their faces carefully, uniforms and ranks. He was a junior Lieutenant of about thirty and he too looked worn like he hadn’t gotten any sleep in the last few days, hadn’t even shaved in days. He saluted Rufai.
“Morning, Lieutenant. I need to get through your roadblock at once.”
“I’m afraid that will not be possible without the right papers from Division or Battalion headquarters. Our standing orders are to arrest and detain anyone attempting to get through us without adequate documentation.”
“My orders supersede any orders you may have received and I outrank you,” Rufai got out the papers from the pockets of his camouflage uniform, unfolded and held them out.
The Lieutenant accepted the papers and the Sergeant-Major supplied him with the light at once. The Lieutenant read through the papers quickly, once and then again as if he was finding what he was seeing a bit hard to believe.
“You may make the necessary phone calls to your superiors if you please,” prompted Rufai.
“I don’t think that will be necessary, sir,” replied the Lieutenant, handing back the papers. He nodded at the Sergeant-Major “Clear the road at once”
The Sergeant-Major moved off immediately to obey and the Lieutenant turned back to the Captain. “My sincere apologies for the delay, sir. You are free to go.”
The Sergeant-Major was backing out orders and curses at his men in rapid-fire successions as he kept waving the beam of his torch vigorously at the pole barrier and the blockading vehicles twenty yards ahead. His sleepy men hurriedly lifted away the heavy metal poles blocking the road and then the powerful beam of light from the armored vehicle ahead dimmed as its powerful engines started up. The armored vehicle backed slowly out of the road as did the big Pickup Jeep. An opening wide enough for the bus to get through was made.
The Lieutenant faced the occupants of the bus again and pointed ahead. “Beyond is hostile territory. We have no units out that way so you people will be completely on your own.”
“I know that, Lieutenant,” said Rufai dismissively. “Thank you.”
“Is there anything you can tell us about enemy strength and positions out there?” asked Samuel quickly.
“Not much, I’m afraid,” the Lieutenant shook his head. “We have had just two major confrontations in as many weeks so it’s relatively quiet out here on this front. A large group of them are dug-in just two hundred yards beyond the roadblock, but so far, they seem to prefer watching and waiting. They move around in small packs and take shots at us now and then, that’s about it. Turn off all your light as you go past the roadblock so none of them keeping watch will be able to see you clearly or pinpoint your position well enough in the darkness to take clean shots at you. The road from here is not too good, but keep to the left side and even driving at speed, you will be fine. Try to stay completely dark until you get well clear of the town limits and far out into the open countryside, you’ll be safer that way. The main thrust of their attack is coming from the south and southwest areas, out here to the east it is relatively quiet so you shouldn’t encounter much trouble, wherever it is you are headed. Most of the people living in the region have fled, but quite a number of them still remain in the villages so you will never really be able to tell a new Boko Haram recruit from an ordinary villager until it’s too late. The Boko Haram Army is growing too fast and they don’t seem to have enough uniforms for everyone so most of the new recruits are dressed like ordinary villagers which give them the advantage of hiding in plain sight. It is best you steer completely clear of all major roads and settlements on your way,” the Lieutenant shrugged. “That’s about all I can tell you. You’ll see things for yourself as you go on.”
“Thank you,” said Samuel. “You’ve been most helpful.”
The Lieutenant nodded, stepped back from the bus and saluted.
Rufai and Samuel both returned the salute, Efosa gunned the engine and drove forward.
As the bus neared the roadblock, it turned off all its lights and increased speed rapidly, swinging to the right side of the road.
In a second, it vanished completely into the darkness beyond.
The Lieutenant stood there in the middle of the road, watching until all traces of the bus vanished into the night and the blockading vehicles moved back into position on the road. He listened carefully for several minutes, but not a single shot was fired by the hostiles.
“Unbelievable,” said the Sergeant-Major stepping up to his side. “Not a single shot fired at them! Those bloody terrorists must be sleeping late into the morning.”
“Or in a special prayer session,” said the Lieutenant. “They never sleep.”
“Shouldn’t we have called it in first before letting them pass?” asked the Sergeant-Major.
“No,” the Lieutenant shook his head firmly. He was a sharp fellow who knew how things worked. “Those documents were from Defense headquarters and the signature on them was two star. The orders superseded ours by a full mile and they were very clear. We could have gotten into trouble just by delaying them long enough to make unnecessary phone calls to confirm anything.”
The Sergeant-Major’s eyebrows shot right up into his iron helmet and he whistled softly. “And now they are going right into enemy territory. What do you think they are even going to do out there?”
The Lieutenant shrugged. “I don’t know, but it can’t be far from the obvious. Did you notice the white cloth on their wiper? That wasn’t there by mistake, they are negotiators going in to meet with Boko Haram’s top commanders. A big shot wants to talk, most probably, someone or some people very important to a big shot must have been kidnapped by the terrorists.”
“Kai!” exclaimed the Sergeant-Major, looking shocked. “Have you heard or seen such before? Because I haven’t. We are not supposed to be negotiating with terrorists, particularly not with these criminals.”
“I’ve heard and seen it before, down in Gwoza,” said the Lieutenant calmly. “A team of three soldiers in a Helix just came up, through our front lines and went right through theirs without a single shot being fired at them. They had the white cloth tied up very clearly and all their light flashing like crazy. The terrorists actually cleared a path for them to get through without any trouble. Two hours later, the Helix come right back across the lines with a woman and two children. I didn’t know who they were, no one did, but from the amount of security involved and the respectful way they were being treated, it was easy to figure out that they were the family of a big shot.”
The forty-nine-year-old Sergeant-Major suddenly looked angry. “If it was my own family that was trapped in enemy territory right now, they wouldn’t even give me a day’s leave to go and give them transport money to take the next available bus out talk less of launching a special rescue mission!”
“With your harem of wives and over-population of children, I’m sure you wouldn’t notice the loss of a few,” The young Lieutenant eyed the older man unimpressed. “Get the morning patrol on the move and stop dreaming. There is no leave for anyone of us until this bloody war is over.”
The Lieutenant turned on his heels and walked off back towards his post without a backward glance.