Lost Boys of Kankara – By Sam Omatseye

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FEW can imagine the trauma beneath the façade of the hundreds of Kankara boys as they walked out of bondage last week. We saw the freedom of the body in pictures and video footages, but how much damage is afoot in those souls?
I recall a personal experience over a decade ago in Ibadan at a conference, and how robbers visited us in the hotel at night. I was sharing a suite with Dapo Olorunyomi, then chief of staff at EFCC and now publisher of Premium Times. But many persons inhabited rooms in the large hotel. We had completed the course and had an evening together outside after the heady hours of intellectual exchange.
* Sam Omatseye*
I was in my room when I heard what was like brawls and capers of the unhinged. I chalked it up to the wall banging and throaty uproars of the drunken, a wild afterglow of what was however a tame evening. It went on for almost an hour before a silence. And someone knocked on my door to ask for my whereabouts, and it was then I learned that robbers had struck. There were no after-parties on the corridors, but armed goons flexing guns and daredevil eyes. I walked out of the room to see the air-conditioners dislodged to the floor. Televison set crested the refrigerator before I went inside. In that position, we had seen African Cup of Nations the previous night. But now both Televison set and refrigerator lay prostrate beside each other.
Where was Dapo? I asked. He had been rushed to the hospital. He returned with neck braces. Former Rivers State commissioner Ibim Semenitari, then a publisher, had cleverly outmanoeuvred them. Most conferees saw the men, trembled and lost valuables. I did not lose a kobo. I wondered why they did not even knock. My door was not locked.
But I did not escape their foray. The sound of hectoring and banging followed me out of Ibadan, and it did for at least a year. I never slept well. Whenever crockery quaked, silverware dropped, a foot fell, an involuntary cough leapt into the air, I started. If at night, I woke up. They did not rob me of Naira or phone or shirt, but they murdered Shakespearean sleep. They banged my soul. I was bruised and bled inside. It was a trauma I thought would flog me forever until I decided to fight it with willpower and prayers. That was for me as an adult.
I recalled my struggles when I saw the boys. They had seen threat, walked miles on barefoot, hectored by what one of them described as “tiny boys with big guns,” survived on grass and leaves of questionable edibility, starved, displaced, tortured, pined for home, despaired of rescue.
We are not sure how they were released. Few believe that they did not get ransom. Negotiations imply concessions. We are not sure what they conceded. But the boys are back. We thank God for their body, but is their soul in hell? Are they battling nightmares? Are they going back to school? Can they ever see school as education rather than a door to danger? Did that weekend just seed a monster or breed a mouse? “The diseases of the mind are more numerous and more dangerous than the diseases of the body,” noted Cicero.
That is why the government’s self-congratulation is premature. Somehow, some are seeing it as a feat of the military triumph, even trying to force us to fantasise about Entebbe Raid. President Muhammadu Buhari called it a military operation. Army spokesman General Enenche said the army had no hand in the release. The word ‘rescue’ exaggerates what happened. Until we know the details we should suspend judgment. Were the boys just too many for them to handle. From reports, the goons did not know what to do with their miracle. They had to make phone calls on what to do, and decided to walk many of them. Unlike the Chibok girls, there were not many trucks to ferry the find. We still need an accounting. How many did they take? How many are left behind? A reckoning in form of a roll call should clarify. Then we have to ask, why did they leave the others if we cannot account for them? Was it a sort of selection, a Spencerian survival of the fittest? I hope they released all. We do not want the repeat of the Dapchi example of Leah Sharibu and a few others held behind?
Maybe we are seeing the boys back because they form a logistical nightmare. It takes too much resource to feed such an army of boys, even if you want to make an army. Again, one of the boys said they asked for the location of the girl schools around. Are we “lucky” because they are boys? Would they return them if they had three hundred girls, innocent, nubile, waking up the primitive impulses of their loins?
One reason we cannot celebrate is that we know it should not have happened. It shows our army, unlike Buhari’s claims are not motivated and ready for the task ahead. We know that even as the boys returned, an emir was laid to rest after a bandit attack, some innocent were killed and ferreted away in Borno, several died in southern Kaduna. Death still skulks the north while Abuja gurgles its Kankara wine.
What we had in Kankara is the story of lost boys. They are lost even though we found them. There are many who are not captured but who are lost because they are thrashing about for hope and meaning for their lives. Yet, it is not about the north alone that we should grieve. We are seeing in the south another incarnation of mass murder, slow, surreptitious, apoplectic, its numbers swelling. They butcher better than surgeons. Or call them surgeons of the gods.
In his new novel, Chronicles of the Happiest People On Earth, Wole Soyinka draws parallels between a surgeon treating many butchered after a terror onslaught in Jos, and the ritual murderers down south. Both cut human parts, the southern ritualist being more cold-eyed and clinical. Like in the north, they pick the child, the albino, the big and small man, and the women.
The federal government has decided to subject the boys to medical tests. But it is not just about a test or a psychiatric treatment of a few days. This is a lifetime experience.
The Katsina State where it happened has been in the spotlight for years. Many have drawn the president’s attention to his home state of terror. They did not strike for the boys when Buhari was ensconced in Abuja. They waited moments after he came to town in all his pomp and presidential grandeur in Daura. For emphasis, they farted when the emperor walked in for dinner. If he was absent when the House called him, and the soldiers were a no-show when they arrived in Kankara, why should anyone think we have any answer to the free fall of insecurity? It is a season of absences, both soldiers and president. Were the soldiers there when the bandits made a butchery of slit throats in Zabarmari?
We have all kinds of lost boys today. Not only the herders on the prowl, not only the gold hunter in Zamfara, not only the jobless in the Niger Delta. Nigeria is a lost boy with his father preening about his luxury and great power. Rather than the son, it is the leader who is prodigal.
Nigeria is not the first country to have lost boys trekking for miles. When Southern Sudan fell to slaughter over a decade ago, thousands of boys were displayed and walked for miles in lines, through bushes and plains, and villages, some of them bitten to death by snake, others devoured by lions. They were scattered all over the world, including in the United States and Europe. American novelist Dave Eggers captured it in his novel, What is the What, a thriller that reads like a movie. But it was a real life experience.
But our boys came home. But is the body together with the soul?
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