Sambisa forest … Sambisa forest, the evil place.
Sambisa forest, the stronghold of the Boko Haram Islamic terrorists, actually occupies a huge section of southern Bornu state, stretching from the remote southwest regions right up to the southeastern mountainous borders with Cameroon from which sprang from the Gwoza Hills. The vast forest went well beyond the borders of Bornu state into parts of Yobe, Gombe, Bauchi, and Jigawa states, even reaching far to the west into Kano state.
With a total land area of approximately 3,000 square miles, Sambisa forest is actually larger than the whole of Lagos state in southern Nigeria, three times bigger than Luxembourg in Europe and a tenth of the size of Scotland in the United Kingdom.
Sambisa forest has a population of over four million people, which is about half the population of Lagos State, the largest and most populous city in Africa, the fourth in the world right behind London, New York, and Bombay. The inhabitants of Sambisa forest are mostly very poor, illiterate farmers and livestock breeders whose lives have not been properly impacted by western civilization. They live in undeveloped villages and settlements of different sorts and sizes, and their simple ways are somewhat primitive.
Eighty years ago, during the colonial rule of Great Britain, the whole of Sambisa forest, all 3000 square miles of it, was designated a nature reserve. Unharmed by man, the vast forest soon became so rich with mighty trees and lovely vegetation, different varieties of birds and animals, beautiful rivers, waterfalls and streams teeming fish, hippos and crocodiles, all of which made the forest a popular tourist attraction that brought in Europeans and other foreigners in their thousands. Special lodges were built in different parts of the forest and the tourists would go on safaris, traveling from one lodge to the next as they enjoyed the rare sights of the abundant wildlife. Among the offerings were Leopards, lions, antelopes, elephants, giraffes, hyenas, baboons, monkeys, different species of birds too, even rare one, the last populations of the African ostrich were to be found there as well as guinea fowls, woodpeckers, colorful parrots and lots more.
Thirty years later, colonial rule was gone and Sambisa forest was in trouble.
The rapidly increasing population of the poverty-stricken region, unchecked by any laws, leaned heavily on the forest for their livelihood, destroying it at an alarming rate. They killed off the wildlife for food and pleasure, cleared off the rich forest land to make way for farms, grazing land for their animals and new settlements, new towns and villages. They cut down trees to build the new houses and other furniture, even for firewood.
After much havoc had been wrecked, and the wildlife nearly wiped out like their natural habitat, the Bornu state government was eventually forced to create the Chad Basin National Park Reserves and vast tracts of what was left of the mighty Sambisa forest were declared nature reserves. The Sambisa Forest Reserve was one of such to emerge. It retained the name ‘Sambisa’ because inside it was to be found the large village which originally gave the mighty forest its name long ago, Sambisa village.
The present-day Sambisa Forest ‘Reserve’ is generally referred to as Sambisa forest. It is located in the remote southwestern region of Bornu state, approximately thirty-eight miles to the southeast of Maiduguri. It is still the largest forest in the entire northeast region of the country, but the government, both state and federal, have been completely shut out of that area for the last five years due to the activities of the Boko Haram terrorists.
The forest is in trouble again today and there is very little left by the way of natural beauty and, particularly, wildlife.
The Bolo Haram terrorists, who hated all ways western and the technology that came with it, found a safe haven in Sambisa Forest Reserve and in no time, brought all the inhabitants under their strict Islamic rule. Their next order of business was to blow up all the bridges along the major roads leading into the region, effectively cutting off from the state capital and most parts of the state. Once settled into their new home, the terrorists started recruiting their first major Army directly from the illiterate population of the forest and the nearby settlements. They also got themselves, women, too, very young women and girls who were kidnapped and brought into the forest from outlying villages and towns. Chibok, the small town from where they kidnapped two hundred and fifty school girls was only thirty miles to the south of Sambisa forest.
The influence and power of the Islamic terrorists grew too fast and Sambisa forest proved too perfect a sanctuary for them; a huge forest surrounded by the flat open lands of the grassy savannah. Its heavy tree cover hid their stronghold completely from both aerial and overland view, even as the vast civilian population dwelling within the forest provided a massive hostage factor that couldn’t be overlooked by the Federal Government. Any direct attempt by the Nigerian military forces to attack the forest would have been seen coming over flat open land from miles away and effectively thwarted by the better equipped and fully mobilized terrorist Army. Even if a direct bombing — long distance shelling or air strikes — on the forest was launched, the result would be the deaths of the millions of innocent people who had made the forest their home for centuries.
These were the major reasons why the leadership of Boko Haram had chosen the forest as their supreme headquarters and number one stronghold in the whole of West Africa. This was why they stayed completely safe there, despite the entire world knowing about it.
Sambisa forest was, by direct military definition, a General’s nightmare. It was a no-go area for the Nigerian armed forces, whether they liked it or not.
Lying flat on his belly in the high grass, Alex had the powerful binoculars glued to his eyes, scanning the three or so miles of open flat grassland between him and the eastern limits of Sambisa forest ahead.
He had left the pickup truck jeep parked in the ruins of a burnt-out village five miles back to the northeast and come this far partly on foot, and then crawled the last of the way on his belly through knee-high grasses and hushes, all to avoid the numerous enemy patrols which had increased as he neared their stronghold.
He couldn’t go any further now because there wasn’t adequate cover anymore, no high grasses or low bushes to hide in. It was only flat open grassland from where he was on, all the way to the distant borders of the forest, and the entire area was crawling with enemy patrols.
Too many enemy patrols.
Heavily manned security posts were situated at strategic positions all over the entire area ahead and small groups of well-armed terrorists moved back and forth between them. The patrols were mostly on foot, but some were mounted on horseback while a few drove around on motorcycles, all looking very watchful and alert.
The security posts were simple primitive hut-like structures of various sizes, thatched straw roof supported on poles with high barriers of sandbags piled up all around, mounted machine-guns in position, facing outward, ready to meet any threats coming at the forest stronghold. Some of the security posts had pickup trucks and motorcycles parked by them with enough men seemingly ready to investigate any trouble in the vicinity.
The lone dirt road leading in and out of the forest was locked down tight, checkpoints everywhere, particularly in these last three miles. Alex could see five different heavily manned checkpoints, the last of which was at the point where the road disappeared into the large forest. There were a Russian-looking Tiger heavy battle tank and an armored personnel carrier parked right there in the open, the black Boko Haram flag flying proudly from a tall pole over them.
A small dwarf goat hadn’t a chance in hell of getting across these open flat grounds to the damn forest in broad daylight without being spotted and shot dead, much less a full-grown man, thought Alex grimly. He knew he had to get right past all of them very quickly and quietly too if he was to get a chance at his targets. He knew he had to get to the girl fast before El Soldat felt comfortable enough to take advantage of her, he felt the urgency strongly within himself, he had spent too much time getting here already. Coming out of the forest was a problem to worry about later, he could start a private war if need be and blow his way right through, but only when he had that girl safe by his side.
A vivid image of the girl’s frightened lovely face popped into his mind’s eyes and Alex felt his urgency quicken. He glanced at his watch, five minutes past ten o’clock. The inside man was now five minutes late. Alex turned his attention back to the last checkpoint on the road, the one right at the entrance to the forest where the battle tank and armored vehicle were parked. It was the largest and most worrying of all the checkpoints. He began to study its layout carefully through the binoculars.
The merciless late morning sun was only three-quarters of the way to its zenith, but it was already turning the breezeless Sahel Savannah grasslands into a vast oven.
Alex lay there in the hot open fields under the sun, without any shelter whatever. He had been there for over twenty minutes now. He had on the green ski mask now and it covered all of his head and neck perfectly, leaving only holes for his eyes, mouth, and nose. The sleeves of his undershirt were now rolled down so they covered his arms completely, reaching to his gloved hands. All his body was well covered and protected both from the terrible sun and the stinging insects, of the fields and the green camouflage colors of the battle outfit blended perfectly with the green of the vegetation all around him, making him completely invincible to the naked eyes from any distance.
Alex shifted his position carefully as he moved the binoculars away from Sambisa forest, following the wide dirt road. There was a big dried-up Kola-nut tree a hundred yards directly to the left of his position and the road passed right by it, stretching out straight eastward over flat open countryside to disappear into the far distance where it split up four times before meeting up with the Maiduguri-Bama road eighteen miles away.
This was the only major road in the entire area and according to the GPS of the GX-2, El Soldat had gone into Sambas forest by it.
The road was fairly busy with all kinds of traffic heading in and out of the forest stronghold, but in the last ten minutes’ things had been relatively quiet. All the vehicles, particularly the ones going in, were searched at every checkpoint before being let through. Alex had taken careful note of everything in the short space of time he had been in position.
He saw a cloud of dust in the far distance down the empty road and immediately adjusted the powerful lens of binoculars to focus. A convoy of four vehicles jumped into view, three big civilian trucks with closed backs led by a pickup jeep with armed terrorists in the open back.
They were coming fast.
Alex watched closely through the binoculars as the vehicles reached yet another checkpoint, this one, two miles down the road from his position. All the barriers across the road were quickly removed and the convoy went straight through the checkpoint without any trouble at all. The four vehicles came on up the road at speed and soon drove past the big dried up Kola-nut tree, heading directly for Sambisa forest.
Scanning the open rear ends of the big trucks, Alex saw that they were full of wounded men.
Ambulance trucks, he thought. The terrorist must have a well-equipped hospital in the forest to be shipping the wounded all the way down here from the war front at Bama so fast. He wondered what things were like down there now, what the casualty figures of the lesser armed Nigerian Army really was like.
About a mile up ahead, the vehicles went through the next checkpoint without being stopped. All the other checkpoints let the four vehicles go through unbothered as well, and soon, they disappeared into the forest and were gone.
Yes, thought Alex, it was exactly as the inside man had said. Every vehicle going in or out of Sambisa forest was being thoroughly searched but the regular or rather the irregular ones were being let through unbothered. That was definitely his only chance of getting into the forest.
He glanced at his watch again. Twenty minutes past ten o’clock.
The road was empty again now, except for an Indian tricycle and a Volkswagen bus on their way out of the forest.
Alex settled down and began to wait.
He waited for only three minutes before the vibrations of the GX-2 in his pocket brought him fully alert again. A phone signal the sophisticated GX-2 was set to track was now within its range; within a one-mile radius of his position.
Alex lifted the binoculars to his eyes at once and looked far down the road again.
A dirty white two-ton truck with a box back was coming up the road. It was the only vehicle on that part of the road and it went through the checkpoint two miles away without being stopped.
Alex put away the binoculars, adjusted his rifle over his back and began to crawl quickly through the knee-high grass on his belly, moving towards the Kola-nut tree.
Hassan mopped his sweaty face yet again with the dirty piece of brown cloth that was his handkerchief and tried to concentrate on the road ahead.
It wasn’t that the cabin of the truck was too hot, no. Hassam was afraid.
Ali, his partner, sat across from him in the passenger seat, deep in a drugged sleep. Hassan had slipped him a dose of a powerful sleeping portion half an hour ago by way of a bottle of local beer.
Hassan was twenty-five years old and Ali was twenty-eight. They were both soldiers attached to the supply arm of the Boko Haram army and their unit was based right out of the forest. The unit was responsible for the transportation of all ‘available goods and provisions’ from any section of their rapidly expanding territory back there to the headquarters, and for that they had a fleet of just six vehicles, six trucks of different sizes, the biggest and most reliable of them all, this powerful Toyota two-ton truck which had been captured somewhere and officially assigned to Hassan, a former truck driver, with Ali as both his partner and apprentice.
Their job had Hassan and Ali shuttling in and out of Sambisa forest on a regular basis with badly needed food and supplies, so naturally, they were rarely ever interfered with at the checkpoints along the road. They also ran weapons directly for El Soldat, who was, among many things, directly responsible for supplying the entire terrorist army with genuine high-grade weaponry, and on such occasions, they had special escorts as well as special orders from the highest levels which allowed them to get through the checkpoints completely unbothered. All these factors added up, was the reasons why they had so much freedom of the road. But still, there was always the possibility of being stopped and checked when there weren’t any special escorts or special orders from above like today.
The situation was really complicated today because of the bomb blast in the forest earlier that morning. Security was on high alert now and that possibility of being stopped and searched was all too real. This was what had Hassan so scared.
There was nothing implicating about the truck’s cargo. The hold was loaded down with big bags of rice and beans, loot from a newly captured grain store down in Bama. What had Hassan so scared was the new ‘goods’ he was about to pick up just ahead on the road. It had been necessary to drug Ali in order to accomplish this alone as required.
Ali’s unconscious state wasn’t a problem once they got safely into the forest. Hassan would make a little detour and drop him off at his village with his wife before proceeding to the food depot to offload his cargo and that was that for the day. But if the truck even got stopped at any of the checkpoints on the way in, Ali’s unconscious state would raise enough suspicions for the cargo hold to get search and once the new ‘goods’ he was about to pick up was found, he was a dead man.
Hassan cleaned his sweaty face again with the dirty cloth and kept his eyes on the road ahead.
He had been working for his secret employers for four months now, ever since they had quietly captured his father and the rest of his family in a remote village in neighboring Jigawa state. Until today, all he had been required to do was, pass them a few simple information which he had been able to acquire easily enough.
But today, all that had changed.
Today, they wanted him to actually ‘do something’ and he had to do it all alone, without Ali. Hassan knew well enough that Ali, a thoroughly brainwashed Boko Haram zealot, would give him away without even a second thought if he ever found out about what he was up to or who he secretly worked for.
Hassan focused on the road ahead and tried to keep his calm, but his hands on the steering wheel wouldn’t stop shaking.
Just ahead, the big Kola nut tree loomed. It was the pick-up point, but the ground all around was so flat, Hassan couldn’t see how the ‘goods’ could be anywhere. Still, he would do what they wanted him to do.
An ancient 504 station wagon approaching from up ahead soon passed by and the road was totally empty ahead, the next checkpoints so far in the distance. Hassan glanced in the rear review mirrors to make sure no other vehicle was on the road behind him. The last checkpoint he’d passed was over a mile back, the road was clear and the 504 would soon be gone. He looked over at Ali again.
The man was slumped in the seat, still fast asleep, clutching his Ak-47 rifle in-between his legs.
Hassan cleaned his sweaty face again and forced himself to be calm as he began to reduce the truck’s speed gradually.
The pick up was about to go down.
Lying flat on his stomach just ten feet from the roadside with only a little part of his head sticking up above the level of the tall grasses around, Alex watched the truck come up the road through the powerful lens of the binoculars.
He easily saw through the windshield, the driver had a partner sitting in the passenger seat next to him, but the man was seemingly fast asleep or rather, unconscious like the inside man had promised would be the case. Aside from this, all seemed fine.
A hundred yards down the road, the truck turned on its parking lights and slowed down considerably.
Yes, thought Alex. All was fine.
Hassan kept looking all around the immediate vicinity, but never saw a thing. But then, the fresh grown low bushes and grasses all around here could hide a man lying very flat on his belly. A very clever soldier who knew his thing well could hide right in plain sight and no one would ever see him.
Hassan slowed the truck even more as he approached the huge big Kola-nut tree.
Alex waited patiently until the truck went past his position.
With another quick glance, up and down the road, he was on his feet and running for it. He reached the back of the truck in seconds and leaped onto the solid iron bar that was the foothold, catching hold of the handle on one of the double doors. Once balanced on his feet, he turned the handle and the door came easily open to reveal the cargo hold, packed full of bags of grain.
Alex saw instantly that there was some space between the bags and the doors for him to stand in. He slipped in at once and pulled the door closed again.
The truck was already accelerating back to normal speed.
The truck got through all the checkpoints without being stopped, and then it was in the forest.
Hassan kept driving up the main road within the forest for five minutes, then turned off onto a small side road that was barely larger than a wide trail. He drove on for about fifty yards, made a left turn onto a wide clearing that was overgrown with low vegetation, pulled the truck to a final stop and killed the engine.
This was a rarely used area, only loggers came here, so there was no chance of any vehicle or anyone just stumbling upon the truck here. Hassan climbed out of the cabin quickly, glancing furtively around as he headed for the back of the truck. He was being very careful, the continued availability of his head on his shoulders depended greatly on it.
The forest was thick all around and very quiet, not an animal or bird to be seen anywhere, no one. The air was hot and humid and the heavy tree cover cut out direct sunlight completely, making the area gloomy.
Sure, that there was no one around anywhere, Hassan got the cargo door of the truck open and found himself staring down the long barrel of a rifle, aimed right at his head by a masked Nigerian soldier.
“Move back,” said the soldier in fluent Arabic with a gesture of the rifle, his low voice, hard and dangerous.
Hassan stepped down at once from the foothold and moved back fast, both arms held high above his head.
The masked soldier leaped down off the truck and glanced around quickly to make sure they were alone, then stood listening for a moment.
Hassan saw the way the man moved and stood, and he knew instantly that he was a highly trained soldier like the ones that had captured him four months ago and turned him to their informant.
The masked soldier faced him again and spoke in the same flawless Arabic. “In the middle of a sea was a lake….”
“…. a lake of grass and trees, the abode of tyrants” concluded Hassan, giving the end part of the line that was the contact code.
The soldier seemed to relax a bit. He lowered his gun and motioned for Hassan to lower his hands.
“Where do I find El Soldat and the girl,” asked the soldier at once.
Hassan pointed in the far direction towards the west.
“El Soldat has a lodge deep within the forest,” he said and pointed at the road. “Follow this road to where it meets a wide stream, then follow the stream in the direction of a setting sun until you reach a bigger road. That road, going south, leads straight to the lodge.”
“How about patrols and guards?” asked the masked soldier
Hassan shook his head. “There are not many patrols here within the forest, only outside. El Soldat’s lodge usually has just two guards because most of his men are away at the war, but since the bomb this morning, there are more.”
Hassan shrugged. “Many.”
“Were you there when the bomb went off?”
Hassan nodded. “I made food delivery to him and his men this morning, and then stayed there for some time to observe as instructed. El Soldat and the girl were not harmed, but three of his top men were killed and almost all the money was burnt, too much of it, and part of the lodge too. It all happened too fast so I didn’t really see everything, but he was called off to see The Wali, the Supreme Commander, right after the bomb blast and left the girl locked up in a room in the lodge. I think she is still there now and he is still at the meeting.”
The masked soldier stared hard at him for a moment then glanced at his watch and moved back from the truck, motioning Hassan at the open door of the cargo hold.
“Be on your way,” he said.
Hassan stepped up on the foothold, pushed the door closed and relocked it. When he turned back again, the soldier was gone.
To Be Continued…