02 Aug Detained Hunter Escapes In A Dramatic Operation
The air inside the truck had become so stuffy; Hunter tried to breathe in for as long as he could before exhaling and sucking in another polluted breath. Many of the people who had been taken from the club had been released. Some of them were just dumped by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, left to find their own way back to civilization. Others were transported away in smaller vehicles.
Hunter wound up in the back of a windowless delivery truck with five other people and two armed guards. No one spoke. Hunter tried not to appear too conspicuous as he studied his fellow captives. He hoped by identifying them he might have a better chance of identifying the group holding them.
There was nothing special about any of them. At least a few were foreigners. He wished he could speak to them, but there was no way. He was convinced the group was not chosen at random. People seldom went to so much trouble to hassle people they did not know.
Hunter suddenly found himself wondering about Canaday. He had heard Canaday give a lengthy plea to the militants, telling some story about being an insurance company representative, who had simply travelled through Nigeria on his way to somewhere else. He was surprised the captors fell for it. Then again, maybe they didn’t. They certainly weren’t stupid. So, why would they let someone go who was obviously lying out of their lair?
At that point Hunter begun to suspect he had been set up, that Canaday had taken him to that particular club knowing that there was a good chance—maybe even a probability—they would be attacked. If that was the case, he wondered if Canaday was really an American agent after all. Perhaps he worked for one of the oil companies that wanted him silenced. Maybe he was working with corrupt Nigerian politicians. Maybe he was merely a soldier of fortune. In the back of the stuffy truck and having not slept for nearly twenty-four hours, Hunter had trouble distinguishing truth from fantasy.
The bad air and the bumpy road made for a nauseating ride. Hunter had completely lost track of time. He assumed dawn had broken, but for all he knew, it could have already been dusk. But the need to assess his predicament proved life-saving. It gave his mind something on which to focus. Fitting the pieces together wasn’t easy. Even identifying the pieces was a challenge. The light in the back of the truck came from a small flashlight hooked onto one of the guard’s belts, something he used to make sure that his prisoners were not engaging in any conspiracy to escape.
Hunter’s eyes had adjusted to the shadows, but his improved vision didn’t help him solve his perilous puzzle. He studied the two armed men, hoping they might say something that would hint at their allegiances, but they sat still, as if carved in stone. In the semi-darkness, Hunter studied their uniforms for an insignia or some other marking that might provide some clues as to their identities, but nothing caught his eye.
Hunter’s visual interrogation was suddenly interrupted by the squeal of police sirens. The guards’ radios crackled, and garbled orders blasted through.
“Nobody make any sound,” one of the guards ordered.
Hunter could hear the sirens blaring directly outside the truck. He thought he had identified at least three police cars in the area. He couldn’t decide if the sudden police presence was good or bad. Either they were about to be rescued or the situation was about to get even more dire.
The truck screeched to a halt, sending all of its human contents tumbling around like marbles. Hunter had no idea who kicked him in the back of the head. It caused his vision to go foggy, but it cleared in time for him to see the guards throw up the back door just far enough so they could lie flat and fire shots at the intruding law-enforcement officers.
As Hunter tried to gauge their location by peeking out the back door, he wrote himself a mental memo: his captors were not connected with law enforcement. Police forces all over the world managed to live by one strict honor code: Never shoot at another officer. These guards were firing a significant amount of ammunition from their automatic weapons—and they didn’t appear to be firing warning shots. These men were shooting to kill, and they intended to kill as many as possible in the shortest period of time.
The captives tried to flatten themselves out and cover their heads as they heard the bullets ricochet off the sides of the truck. Some shots managed to sneak through the back door opening. The man lying next to Hunter let out an ear-piercing scream, signifying that he had been hit. Hunter caught sight of a stream of blood running down the arm of one of the guards, but that didn’t stop the man from continuing the firefight.
Suddenly, there was silence. Nobody moved. Nobody even appeared to breathe. The guards stopped firing, and there was no sound of movement coming from outside. The captives remained frozen in place. Hunter was the only person who dared to raise his head and look around.
A moment later, the guards got on their knees, tossed their rifles over their shoulders, and lowered the door, resealing the truck. The truck’s engine revved and the vehicle continued to move down the bumpy road.
Hunter allowed himself to draw in a deep breath of dirty air. He was grateful the truck had no windows. He had no desire to see any of the carnage the militants had left in their wake. The victim of gunshot beside him had stopped moaning. Perhaps he was dead.
Unable to accurately gauge the passing of time, Hunter guessed at least an hour had passed when the truck came to a sudden halt. Assuming the worst, his fellow passengers suddenly flattened their bodies and covered their heads. The guards found their reaction amusing and laughed loudly. The gunshot victim was motionless.
One guard pulled open the truck’s back door, sending a harsh beam of sunlight directly into Hunter’s eyes. Three men stood outside, all of them equally well-armed, and they spoke to the guards in muted tones. Hunter tried to read their body language. They appeared casual, yet very business-like. Wherever they were at that moment, the guards did not seem concerned about an ambush.
Eventually, one of the new men climbed into the back of the truck, grabbed Hunter by the shirt collar, and yanked him to his feet.
“Let’s go,” he shouted, “and walks on your own. If I have to carry you, I assure you I will not be nice about it!”
Hunter was more than willing to walk on his own, but his legs had other ideas. His muscles felt rubbery, and his joints were stiff. His knees wouldn’t bend and his ankles were locked. The guard pushed him out of the truck, and he landed hard on the ground, sending a shock of pain from his collarbone down to the base of his spine. The men reached down, grabbed his arms in a vice-like grip, and hauled him upward. He needed a few steps to get accustomed to the solid ground beneath his feet, but he was soon walking, his body once again operating correctly.
Once his brain and body were in sync, Hunter noticed they were down at the creeks. Back behind him, the truck carrying the other passengers continued its journey down the road. Hunter didn’t have time to be concerned about where they were being taken or what ultimate fate they would meet. He was too busy wondering those same things about himself.
The militants gave Hunter his marching orders through a series of gestures, grunts, sneers, and shoves. Those guttural instructions led Hunter to board a speedboat that immediately began racing through the creeks.
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As the boat sped on, Hunter tried to work out how he’d got into this mess so shortly after the good time with Lucy. It wasn’t easy. The headache that blasted through his skull made it difficult for him to concentrate on anything other than the pain. His left eye was completely swollen shut, which made it difficult to see, and he tasted blood, which made it difficult to swallow. He also tried to make note of some landmarks to give him an idea of his location, but the surroundings were unfamiliar—and everything looked the same.
When the speedboat docked in the creeks, the militants dragged Hunter through the marsh and up to a beaten-up shack.
Inside the shack, even before his eyes could adjust to the darkness of the room, one of the men plunged his fist directly into Hunter’s gut. It immediately knocked the wind out of him, and he heaved in an effort to breathe once more. Before he was afforded that luxury, another man’s fist came in contact with his jaw. The blast to the back of his head felt like it was caused by a blunt instrument, probably the butt of a rifle. Hunter’s equilibrium was instantly destroyed and he wobbled for a few steps until he fell facedown on the concrete floor. From there, he felt several sets of boots kick sharply into his ribcage from both sides.
Hunter had no idea how long the beating had continued, but now that he was awake, suspecting he had suffered a concussion, he felt the pain of every strike. Try as he might to recall the communication of the militants among themselves for leaks, Hunter couldn’t think of a single word that had been spoken by his captors. No names were called out. No explanations for the kidnapping or the beating were given.
Hunter had no idea how long he had been lying on the floor staring up at the ceiling when the door to the room creaked open. A large man entered and stood over him.
“Hello, Mr Hunter ,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
Hunter focused the vision of his open right eye on the man’s face. “You look familiar,” he said, “but I think I’ll need a hint as to your identity.”
The man flashed a sardonic smile. “My name is Godspower.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said with a nod, “I remember.”
Godspower crossed the small room. “I helped you before,” he said.
“Yes, sir , you did.”
“I’m not sure I will be able to do so again.”
He stopped pacing. Tension hung in the air as his gaze wandered, landing on nothing in particular.
“The situation is out of control, Mr Hunter ,” he said. “We are beyond the point of negotiation. The pot of anger is about to boil over.”
“What can we do to stop it?” Hunter asked.
Godspower shook his head. “It cannot be stopped,” he said. “I wish it could, but it can’t.”
Hunter forced himself to his knees. “Yes, it can!” he said. “Until it actually happens, it can be stopped!”
Godspower took a few more solemn paces. “Some men will come to see you tonight, Mr Hunter,” he said.
“Who?” he asked. “I hope the other guys in the truck were not kidnapped for money? I hear hostage-taking is a moneyspinner now.”
Godspower ignored his questions. “It is in your best interest to tell the men exactly what they want to hear—and mean it.”
“What do they want to hear?” Hunter asked.
Once again, Godspower ignored Hunter’s enquiry. Without looking down at him, he quietly exited the room and closed the door behind him.
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The door flew open as if it had been hit with a battering ram. Hunter had been lying in his semi-conscious state for several hours when a battalion of heavily armed militants charged into the room. They stood over him and pointed their guns directly at his head.
Assuming he had nothing left to lose, Hunter let out a loud laugh. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said.
He was surprised to hear most of the men laugh back. Perhaps it was their way of releasing stress.
One man kicked Hunter in the chest, knocking him flat on his back. “You are a reporter,” he said. “You write for The News Hub.”
“You are writing a story about us,” the man said.
“That depends,” Hunter said. “Who are you?”
The men lost their sense of humour. One kicked him hard in the leg, and another smacked him in the head with the butt of his rifle.
“Yes!” Hunter said with a yelp. “I am writing about the crisis in the Niger Delta. That, I assume, involves you.”
The man who appeared to be the leader sat down on the floor and rested his back against the wall. “What exactly do you plan to write about us?” he asked in a stern tone.
Hunter thought for a moment and then said, “I intend to write about your conflict with the oil companies and the Federal Government, and how they don’t care about the people who live in the Niger Delta.”
The men collectively nodded, but they still appeared suspicious.
“Anything else?” the leader asked .
Hunter’s stare met his. “What do you mean?” he asked.
The man smirked. “We’re not backwoods fools, Mr Hunter ,” he said. “We know who you are, and we know where you’ve been. More importantly, we know who you’ve seen.”
Hunter shrugged. “I don’t understand.”
“You’ve been cozying up to the executives at Crust and the other oil barons!” he said, his voice rising. “You plan on blaming this mess on us!”
Hunter held up his hand in an attempt to calm the man . “No,” he insisted . “I have not cozied up to anyone on either side of the issue. I have simply interviewed as many people connected with the situation as possible to get every side of the story.”
The leader stood up and paced. “You intend to expose our oil reclaiming operations,” he said.
“You mean your oil bunkering operations,” Hunter said. “But that is already public information. Every Nigerian knows this is an ongoing business, so that is no news to report, except perhaps the barons, and not the foot soldiers.”
The man reached down and slapped Hunter across the face, causing his swollen eye to throb with pain. “Baron? You stinking fool,” he said, screaming now. “It is not theft. It belongs to us. Crust, First Oil, the security forces and others are the ones in illegal bunkering!”
Hunter drew in a deep breath. “That’s a matter of opinion,” he said.
“No!” the leader yelled. “It is a matter of fact!” He moved around toward Hunter’s right side, got down on one knee, and looked directly into Hunter’s good eye. “Your status as a journalist is the only thing keeping you alive right now,” he said. “We know that The News Hub already has computer files containing some of your reports on the Niger Delta. The question now is how the story will end. You have a choice, Mr Hunter you can write the story showing how the oil companies have eviscerated our land and water and portray us as the true patriots we are, or you can destroy yourself.”
Hunter folded his arms painfully across his chest. “What exactly are you saying?” he asked.
The man stood and resumed his pacing. “You underestimate us, Mr Hunter ” he said. “We have very strong connections in very high places. We are not merely above the law. We are the law. If necessary, we will not only kill you, but we will decimate every News Hub office and every person connected to the newspaper living on the continent.”
“Hmmm!” Hunter sighed.
“We may even eliminate some of your international facilities—and we will get away with it,” the militant continued. “Our associates in law enforcement will do a good job of pretending to investigate the bombings, but they will never discover enough evidence to make so much as a single arrest. Even if they do, the destruction will not be blamed on us. In fact, I can already assure you that it will be classified as an inside job.”
He snapped his fingers and pointed to the door. The rest of the men instantly ran out of the room.
“Think about it, Mr Hunter ,” the leader said before he sauntered after them.
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The small window that allowed Hunter to see day turn to night served as both his clock and his calendar. By his estimate, he had been held captive for three days. Over the three days, militants barged into the room at odd moments. They rarely spoke. They simply entertained themselves by seeing who could kick or punch Hunter the hardest. They occasionally burned him with cigar butts or shocked him with wires connected to batteries. Hunter managed to withstand it by psychologically removing himself from his body. At that point, he was too beaten down to feel any more pain and too mentally disconnected to experience any sense of humiliation.
Young boys were sent to bring Hunter his meals, but he never touched the food. His jaw was too sore to chew, and his stomach churned too much to digest. Besides, rejecting food was his only way of protesting his captivity, so anytime a meal was delivered, he angrily pushed it aside.
Very late on that third day, the meal was not delivered by a boy, but instead by one of the armed men.
“You will eat tonight, Hunter ,” he said. “We have had enough of your stalling. The team is out reclaiming our oil, and it is my obligation to feed you—whether you like it or not.”
“I will not eat!” Hunter said in defiance.
“Yes, you will!” the man said. “You will eat every bite of this meal even if I have to use my hand to cram it down your throat.”
The meal service began with the man simply holding the sandwich in front of Hunter’s face, urging him to take a bite. When that method proved ineffective, the militant broke off pieces of the sandwich, stuffed them into Hunter’s mouth, and held his hand over his lips until he chewed and swallowed.
Hunter noticed the more he cooperated with the militant, the less force he used, and soon he went back to simply holding the sandwich in front of his face. He relaxed the hold of his left hand on the rifle and eventually dropped it beside him.
Hunter slowly chewed and swallowed a few more bites, carefully watching his captor’s every move. The man eventually offered Hunter a sip of water from a bottle, and Hunter gladly accepted it. When the man brought the bottle up to his own lips, Hunter quickly pushed him back, snatched up his automatic rifle, and aimed it directly at his head.
The man threw his hands up in the air. “Don’t shoot!” he said.
“On your knees and turn around!” Hunter ordered.
The man nervously did as he was told.
As if he were swinging for the fences, Hunter cracked the rifle against the back of the man’s head. He dropped forward, completely unconscious.
Hunter searched him quickly for anything that could be useful to him. He found a small torchlight and put it in his pocket. Then he picked the AK 47. It looked fairly new. He weighed it again in his right hand and stormed into the night. Moments later, he had another look at the riffle and threw it away reluctantly. Journalists don’t kill anybody, he thought to justify the disposal of the rifle, and continued trudging through the middle of nowhere.
He had no idea in which direction he was going or if it would lead him to safety. He moved away from the swamps and kept on walking on dry land with the creek always in view in the moonlight. At a point, he felt he could not push his muscles any longer. He slumped under a tree to rest. He soon fell asleep only to be awakened by something crawling over his legs. It felt cold. Instinctively, he reached out slowly and touched it.
“Snake,” he shouted and jumped up to run. He soon stumbled and fell so heavily that he could not get up immediately. It was then he heard the animals he had set off rustling through the bush for their own safety. They continued running even when he remained on the ground to catch his breath.
When he remembered that the bunkerers were likely to return to base after delivering the stolen oil before dawn, he jumped up and walked on, quickening his pace with the little energy left in his muscles.
As the dawn broke, he saw some smoke ahead of him and decided to walk towards it. Soon, he heard voices from what appeared to be a village. He drew closer, hoping that he was not returning to the gang of illegal bunkerers. He was greatly relieved when he saw two men with fishing nets walking towards the creek.
“Please, help!” Hunter yelled as he leapt out of the shrubs, waving his hand feebly.
“Who are you?” the man behind shouted.
“I need help,” Hunter said. “I was kidnapped.” Then he slumped forwards.
A few minutes later, he was riding in a speed boat, sipping water, served by the young man who appeared to be the son of the elderly man about 70 years old. Hunter watched their every move.
“We need to get you some medical attention,” the younger fishermen said. “You look like you’ve been trampled on by a herd of elephants.”
Hunter smiled mirthlessly. “I’ll be all right,” he said. “I just need to get a phone.”
The older man rummaged his bag on the floor of the boat and fetched a cell phone. “Here.” He thrust it at Hunter , who promptly called Musa Duke.
“Where the hell are you?” Duke said, obviously relieved.
“I’m not quite sure yet,” Hunter said, “but I think my friends here can help me get back to Lagos somehow. I have come full circle. He gestured to the older man for their location.
“Buguma area,” the man said cheerfully.
“Editor Duke , Buguma area,” Hunter relayed the information. “Sounds like a familiar name.”
He listened as his boss told him about his encounter with Canaday and how he had been trying to locate him. As they spoke, he noticed the younger fisherman speaking frantically in a local language on another phone. He couldn’t understand what the young man was saying, but it made him nervous.
“I might have a security breach here, sir ,” he said in a muted tone. “I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”
The older man waved at him and shouted. “As long as you’re here, you will be fine.”
“I don’t know,” Hunter said. “But I will be grateful…”
“Yes, we have abandoned our work for now to take you to the nearest place you could get some first aid,” he said. “We insist.”
Hunter thanked him and tried to rest his back on the floor of the boat. As he lay there wondering about what could happen to him, he heard the sound of a helicopter growing louder towards them. Out of sheer paranoia, his fear grew in intensity with the sound.
He looked around him for a possible escape strategy and decided at last to disappear in the swampy forest if the boat was not bombed from the air by his attackers to kill all three of them. Soon the chopper was flying overhead. It was an unmarked helicopter and Hunter panicked as his weary eyes caught someone looking inside the boat with binoculars. Hunter looked away instinctively.
A little relief came as the helicopter flew past them. “Can we go back to your village, please ?” Hunter pleaded.
“You’re afraid,” the old man said. “It must be the military on patrol. They noticed we are harmless and left.”
“I hope so,” Hunter said and swallowed.
“Trust me, young man.”
“Okay, sir .”
Some five intense minutes of apprehension later, it was all quiet on the creek but for the sound of the outboard engine. The helicopter did not return, but Hunter continued to rationalize his fear – it must have landed in the village they were headed to.
Exactly what I thought, Hunter said to himself as he saw some three men wave at them as the boat slowed down to a stop at the shores in a village.
He hesitated as the two men helped him to get down at the bank. “We will be with you,” the older man said.
“I am not sure who those men are,” Hunter whispered as the three men walked towards him. All tall and masculine, they wore white T-shirts over black pairs of trousers. The tallest of them had his hair cropped and his dark glasses gave him a menacing look.
Hunter looked back at the creek and decided that was not an option, then drawing on his survival instincts, he felt courage surged in him. He was ready to fight the men, possible with the support of the fishermen.
The man in dark glasses walked towards Hunter and stood still, blocking his way. “You have the right to remain silent,” he flashed an ID hurriedly. “Anything you say ………”
“Who are you? “Hunter interrupted angrily.
“The man needs medical attention,” the older fisherman pleaded.
The two other men in T-shirts closed in on Hunter.
“Mr Hunter , we are from a private security firm,” the man in glasses said. “You may want to talk to our boss,” he fetched his cell phone from his pocket, dialed a number and handed the phone to Hunter .
“Young man, I think we’ve had enough from this particular assignment.” Editor Duke’s voice was unmistakable.
“Oh Boss! ,” Hunter shouted. “Did you send these clowns?”
Engrossed in the conversation, Hunter did not notice what was happening on the creek, but his rescuers must have seen it.
“Down everyone!” one of them shouted.
As Hunter turned to the creek he saw a finger pointed at him, followed quickly by gun fire.
“Yeiii!” he heard the older fisherman shout.
“Oh my God,” Hunter gasped as he curled in the sand, and gunshots rang back and forth.
Behind them, the villagers who had gathered to watch the arrival of Hunter rescuers scampered for safety.
“Got him!” Hunter heard one of the rescuers say.
Then a sharp scream from the creek. All quiet again. The gunfire stopped from both ends. It was then the older fisherman’s moans became audible. Hunter rushed there to find him in the arms of the younger fisherman. He was gasping for breath, with blood oozing from the chest where he’d been hit. He looked up at Hunter and dropped his head.
“Quickly!” Hunter shouted. “Help, somebody help.”
“Let’s get him to the chopper fast,” the leader of the rescuers shouted.
“There are bodies floating in the creek,” another person shouted.
“To the chopper everybody!” Hunter shouted. “Some first aid first,” he said, taking the older fisherman in his arms and hurried off after the leader of the rescuers.
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