17 May John Hunter Detained in Militants’ Camp
“I hope you can see in the dark. I wouldn’t want you to crash your speedboat on my account.”
Hunter met Pattan at the jetty just as they planned. It was exactly four o’clock in the morning, and the sun was still at least an hour away from inching into the sky.
“I assure you that I’ve done this many times,” Pattan said. “It’s just another day at the office for me.”
“That’s quite a unique office you have,” Hunter said with a friendly smile.
Down at the deserted jetty where he and Pattan were parking up the boat, thoughts concerning the identities of Hunter’s wannabe assassins lingered. The thoughts disappeared into the mist the split second Pattan revved up the boat’s motor and steered away from the jetty.
On the water, Hunter’s mind was soothed by the even hum of the speedboat’s engine. He wondered how they were able to pass Naval vessels without an interruption, until he noticed Pattan turned off his engine on sighting a Naval boat with heavily armed ratings and coasted past, restarting his engine at a distance.
The sun began rising, and the lush vegetation lining the creeks waved in the breeze. The mangrove swamps all assumed a uniform formation, one looking exactly like the next, leading Hunter to wonder how Pattan could maintain his sense of direction.
“We haven’t been travelling in circles, have we?” he said. “I could swear that we passed that same clump of shrubbery four or five times now.”
Pattan smirked. “You think?” he said. “You disappoint me, John Hunter. I would have thought that an intrepid investigative journalist like you could distinguish the subtle nuances of the environment.”
Hunter let out a loud laugh. “You’ve got me,” he said. “I can’t discern the differences between plants as well as I can recognize people.”
As more foliage passed by, Hunter could easily understand why the military had such a difficult time tracking rebels and militants in the creeks. They could hide almost in plain sight, and they could manipulate the environment in ways that would leave the best-trained navigators off-balance and confused.
Three hours later, Pattan manoeuvered the boat through the final series of creeks and steered it into an area lined with huts and shacks. These structures were the first signs of human life Hunter had detected since he’d driven out of the city. They had passed by fishing villages, some with thatch houses on slits, on the banks but these were far away from the boat.
“Where exactly are we?” he wondered.
“This village belongs to the Ijaw,” Pattan told him.
He reduced the boat’s speed to a crawl, circled, and eventually ran it up onto the shore.
Hunter was taken aback by the area’s amiable sense of life. Smoke from the cook fires puffed softly through the thatched roofs, and the scent of roasted fish wafted sweetly on the quiet breeze. Before he had a chance to hop out of the boat, a group of children had arrived to take in the sight of the visitors.
Standing on the shore , Hunter and Pattan towered over the children. Hunter smiled broadly as he shook their tiny hands and patted their heads. As Pattan took part in the welcoming, Hunter recalled watching the driver’s two young children playing in his yard back home. Pattan was right—all of these innocent smiling faces deserved to live in a world where their rights were honoured without the need to kill or die for them.
The sun had made its way completely into the sky, delivering intense heat to the earth. The act of disembarking from the boat and greeting the children had covered Hunter’s body with sweat. He pulled his damp shirt away from his body and tried to air it out. It soon became clear to him that such efforts to keep cool would be only minimally effective.
As the children surrounded and played around the boat, Hunter turned to Pattan.
“Now what?” he asked.
“You wanted to talk to people, right?”
“So, let’s find some people who will talk to you.”
They didn’t need to go far. A moment later, they were approached by a young man whose demeanour communicated a serious sense of purpose.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said.
“Good morning,” Pattan replied.
Hunter studied both men. He could not determine whether the two knew each other, something he found odd and confusing. Usually a small gesture or inflection would give away a past relationship.
“Please follow me,” the young man said in a polite but firm tone.
Once again, Hunter glanced at Pattan in search of some hint of explanation, but Pattan simply motioned for his companion to walk before him as he followed the young man’s directions.
The men were escorted through the village, passing the rows of mud huts thatched with palm fronds. Hunter found the scenery rather serene and inviting, yet he sensed the danger that lingered just below the surface.
The young man led Hunter and Pattan to the last hut in the row, positioned directly on the edge of the forest. He pointed down at the wooden bench at the side of the structure.
Pattan casually sat down. Hunter had questions. The blank expression on Pattan’s face suggested that he didn’t have answers, so there was no need to voice them. Hunter took a seat on the bench.
The two men sat quietly for several minutes. They had not been ordered to remain silent, but at this point, they had nothing to say to each other. They merely waited—for what, neither of them knew.
Hunter had become comfortable listening to the gentle sounds of the bustling village and feeling the soft breeze wafting through the trees. His reverie ended abruptly.
A shotgun blast splintered the air. Hunter ducked out of pure instinct. Other shots followed, like an explosion of fireworks, one blast overlapping another. Hunter tried to figure out where the shots were coming from, but the echoes made that impossible. He looked over at Pattan, who had not so much as flinched. As he said before they sailed into the creeks, “It’s just another day at the office.”
Eventually the gunfire subsided, and a group of well-armed young men came tramping out of the forest. Without a command or direction, they headed straight toward Pattan and Hunter .
The men hovered around the bench, sizing up its occupants. Some strong herbal scent permeated the air. Hunter glanced around and noticed that one of the men was smoking weed—deeply inhaling it and truly enjoying the experience. The man next to him snatched the joint out of his hand, took a hit and passed it over to the man at his side. It didn’t take long for the herb to travel around the group.
Hunter waited for some direction, but the marijuana was fully dominating the men’s attention at the moment. The joint made two more laps around the circle before it was completely consumed. Only then were the men ready to deal with the visitors before them.
One man motioned for Hunter and Pattan to stand.
“Come,” he said. “Follow.”
Tired from sitting, Hunter was happy to comply.
Hunter and Pattan were led back into the center of the village, giving Hunter a second look at the surroundings. The place was just as quiet and unassuming as it had been when they first arrived, but he sensed this was soon to change.
They were brought over to a pair of black plastic chairs that had been set out for them. One man motioned for them to sit—and they did.
“Thank you,” Hunter said and winked at Pattan
Pattan cracked a small smile but made no comment.
They once again spent time sitting—and waiting.
The wait came to an end when the group of men surrounding them parted to allow an elderly bearded man bedecked with several long strands of bright orange beads to enter the circle. He took the seat opposite Pattan and Hunter , displaying perfect posture and a sense of regal authority.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” he said in a husky voice. “My name is Chief Kekwe. I am one of the chiefs of this area.”
Pattan nodded deeply, bowing in respect. Hunter repeated the gesture.
The chief looked squarely at Hunter . “What is your name, Sir?” he asked, “and why have you come to our village today?”
Before Hunter had a chance to answer, Pattan spoke up in the local dialect. He gestured to Hunter who instinctively flashed his News Hub press ID along with a genuinely sincere smile.
The chief studied Hunter’s identification closely, his eyes darting back and forth between Hunter’s face and the photograph on the credentials.
“My newspaper, The News Hub is one of the most objective media outlets in the country,” Hunter said. “Our journalists and editors believe in justice for all Nigerians. We have been covering the struggle in the Niger Delta very closely for a while now. I came to speak to the leaders of DNDR.”
Chief Kekwe listened to Hunter’s words carefully, studying his every inflection and gesture. He probably had spent many years deciphering people’s thoughts and intentions—and Hunter presumed him to be quite good at it.
“You are in the wrong place,” the chief said as he stood up and looked down at them. “I have sent word to the people with whom you wish to speak.”
Chief Kekwe turned and began to walk away. Hunter stood to follow, but he was stopped when a man in the group held up his hand.
“Please sit,” he said. “Wait.”
Hunter sat back down and glanced over at Pattan, who hadn’t bothered to move.
“How did he know my intentions?” Hunter said. Pattan shrugged.
Although Hunter recognized the necessity of following cultural protocol, he couldn’t help but grow impatient. Lives were at risk, and mayhem could erupt any second. Sitting around waiting just didn’t feel like the proper thing to do.
As it turned out, this particular wait did not last long. In a few short minutes, the roar of a speedboat’s powerful outboard motor assaulted Hunter’s eardrums. The vessel came to a halt in the narrow creek nearby. Once Hunter’s ears stopped ringing, he looked over to see ten men leap out of the boat with their weapons propped upright on their hips and their faces immobile and expressionless.
They collectively composed a menacing sight with their heavy belt-fed machine guns at the ready and their ammunition, resembling copper snakes shining harshly in the midday sunlight, draped across their chests. Most were decked out in cast-off camouflage pants and combat boots with bright red sashes tied around their heads. Some had painted their faces with white chalk, a ritual Hunter knew was intended to signify purity. Many had tied amulets around their arms, necks, and foreheads to ward off bullets.
Hunter and Pattan remained seated and watched the display unfold. There was a sense of rugged pageantry to the event, a tone that suggested it was not as spontaneous an arrival as it was intended to appear. The bodies soon parted, as if on cue, and a slender man in a black and white robe and dark glasses emerged from the crowd. He walked directly over to Hunter and assumed an intimidating pose before him.
“John Hunter ,” the man called out, his voice almost a hiss.
Hunter said nothing, but instead waited for clarification.
The man spat at his feet. “What are you doing here?” he said in a demanding tone that was, at once, dry and shrill.
Hunter cleared his throat and sat up straight. “I have come to speak with members of the DNDR,” he said.
“You should have contacted us by email first,” the man said, his voice rising. “We don’t like people sneaking up on us.” He turned and glared at Pattan. “You brought him here without permission. You know that is against the rules.”
“I tried to call Jasmin…”
Before Pattan could finish, the man pulled a pistol from his belt, cocked the hammer, and pointed it directly at his forehead.
Pattan fell out of his chair and down to his knees, sending the rest of the militants into a state of hysterical laughter.
The leader pulled back his gun and jammed it into his holster. “Lucky for you, Pattan, I am in a very good mood today,” he said.
“You may leave now. When we are finished with Mr Hunter , we may call upon you to collect his remains.”
Pattan didn’t wait for confirmation. He quickly scrambled to his feet and charged toward the creek, never looking back at Hunter..
( ( ( ( (
The ride in the militants’ speedboat was long and monotonous. Hunter tried to maintain a sense of location at first, but he realized that it would be pointless because he wasn’t sure where they started.
The redundant scenery quickly bored him, so he decided to sit back and rest his eyes. Nothing would happen to him while they were in transit—it never did. Still, if Hunter could convince these men that he had fallen asleep, they might inadvertently say something that might be useful to him later on.
But all the men remained quiet until the boat arrived at a jetty within an area that appeared to be a military encampment. An elderly, tall and broad-chested man approached the boat and motioned for Hunter to come down. Without a word, he led him into the camp, which was hidden within a thick tropical evergreen forest. Hunter noticed the tents were covered with leaves, a camouflage that made them difficult to spot from the creek.
Young men sporting firm muscles and fierce expressions patrolled the grounds, but none seemed to take any particular interest in Hunter . As they walked about, Hunter took in the sights. He was bored and frustrated and saw nothing of particular interest.
The elderly man led Hunter to the entrance of a small tent surrounded by larger ones. The man pushed open the flap for Hunter and the two of them went inside.
“This is your bunk,” the man said. “This is an intercom. It can only communicate to locations within the camp, so don’t go thinking you can contact people on the outside.”
Hunter nodded. He was impressed. He’d been detained before, but he’d never been granted the use of an intercom. His captors appeared to be unusually accommodating.
“Make yourself comfortable,” the man said.
“I’m sure you can see how stupid it would be to attempt to escape.”
Hunter nodded again.
“Good,” the man said. “The boss will come to speak with you when he gets in.”
“Do you have any idea when that might be?” Hunter asked.
“In about three days. Maybe.”
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