By Vincent Lyn
I’d been having flashbacks for many months and there had been many sleepless nights staring into space and white walls. I seem to be sometimes like the walking dead. A Zombie merely surviving day to day though most of the time I seem to feel okay, but then something triggers it and I get these flashbacks of that awful day. It might be a mere word or photo memory or some inanimate object that brings me back to that fateful time. Today was one of those days and it was just a phrase I said in conversation that triggered it. It propelled me right back to Africa to that fateful day and the intensity overcame me and shook me to my core, ultimately stronger than I care to remember. Maybe it was because I was finally able to tell the entire story. I haven’t been able to tell it, just bits and pieces. Fragmented edited versions to appease the public, but to also keep me safe from harm, harm from others, and maybe harm from myself. So now I will finally tell it if you will listen?
It was a hot and humid day. A beautiful blue skyline with not a cloud in the sky and much to my surprise not even a gust of wind. It was actually quite serene and tranquil but an eerily calm before the storm. It was a mission to rescue captive children so the team of us roused together, we joked and laughed before setting off. Local Intel on the ground had made us aware that in a small hamlet, there were about 200 men and women interspersed with approximately 50 children, some possibly child soldiers being held captive by members of Boko Haram.
The Islamic State in West Africa (“Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad”) and commonly known as Boko Haram until March 2015, is a jihadist militant organization based in northeastern Nigeria, also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon.
Founded by Mohammed Yusuf in 2002, the group has been led by Abubukar Shekau since 2009. When Boko Haram first formed, their actions were nonviolent. Their main goal was to “purify Islam in northern Nigeria.” From March 2015 to August 2016, the group was aligned with ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant). Since the current insurgency started in 2009, Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands and displaced 2.3 million from their homes and was ranked as the world’s deadliest terror group by the Global Terrorism Index in 2015.
After its founding in 2002, Boko Haram’s increasing radicalization led to a violent uprising in July 2009 in which its leader was summarily executed. Its unexpected resurgence, following a mass prison break in September 2010, was accompanied by increasingly sophisticated attacks, initially against soft targets, but progressing in 2011 to include suicide bombings of police buildings and the United Nations office in Abuja. The government’s establishment of a state of emergency at the beginning of 2012, extended in the following year to cover the entire northeast of Nigeria, led to an increase in both security force abuses and militant attacks.
Of the 2.3 million people displaced by the conflict since May 2013, at least 250,000 have left Nigeria and fled into Cameroon, Chad or Niger. Boko Haram killed over 6,600 in 2014. The group has carried out mass abductions including the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014. Corruption in the security services and human rights abuses committed by them have hampered efforts to counter the unrest.
In mid-2014, the militants gained control of swathes of territory in and around their home state of Borno, estimated at 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) in January 2015, but did not capture the state capital, Maiduguru, where the group was originally based. On 7 March 2015, Boko Haram’s leader Abubukar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, rebranding as Islamic State in West Africa. In September 2015, the Director of Information at the Defense Headquarters of Nigeria announced that all Boko Haram camps had been destroyed.
With all that I knew and had studied regarding Boko Haram’s brutality and modus operandi. Looking back I’m not really sure any of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. So to say it was nothing out of the ordinary would be a slight understatement especially feeling a little on edge. Normally we’re supposed to go in with a team of six. But of all days two members came down with extreme cases of malaria and were bedridden, so it made the mission certainly more precarious and in hindsight was to be the worst mistake any of us ever made. We were all gung ho to get the job done and besides children’s lives were at stake. We knew the risks involved, but trusted each other that we would back each other up no matter what the cost. As part of the team, we always have one combat medic and one in logistics and intelligence. So we all felt confident that we would get the job done, rescue the children and get out unscathed.
Even though we were down to only four team members, we were feeling pretty good, but I couldn’t help feel out of sorts as if we were walking into a hornet’s nest. But we did what we have been trained to do. As we all entered the hamlet the village was estimated to have about 200 men, women and children, but there was an eerie silence and foul smell, the smell of rotting corpses. It was the smell of charred bodies. We saw smoke rising from different parts of the village, so we immediately split into two groups separating to both east and west sides of the village. We started going from one hut to another, finding nothing or no one, not until we heard sporadic gunfire coming across from the other side of the village. I told my partner Solomon to go and check it out, but to be extra vigilant and that I would continue to sweep the village and for him to meet me back here with the other members of our team. Looking back not a very smart move leaving myself out there alone in the open.
Though as much as you can prepare yourself mentally and physically everything changes in the field. It’s like training for a fight spending countless hours sparring and then comes the day of the competition. At the precise moment the first punch is thrown and hits you everything changes.
I stopped to sit down and take a drink and as I prepared to enter another dwelling, I came across a pile of charred smoldering bodies of men, women, and children, possibly 30 to 40 in numbers, but I really couldn’t tell. Many were bound and tied together, and I could smell gasoline, so they had most likely been burned alive. I immediately puked my guts. It was horrific. I started coming across more and more bodies. Some were shot most were mutilated figures lying stretched out in the dirt. Some without limbs, ears, lips and women’s breasts had been cut off. It was a macabre scene. I will never understand this for as long as I shall live how human beings can commit such inhumane atrocities. It is beyond anybody’s imagination?
Images that no human being should ever have to see but are now stained in my memory forever. I looked across the village and the gunfire had all but stopped and though I wanted to call out, of course, I did not. It was then I started to get nervous and your mind starts to question, should I stay put? Should I go back? Should I continue on? But you don’t have time to start analyzing what you should do or should not do. So I continued on and stayed on point. There’s a point a threshold that has now been crossed and you can’t go back. It’s all about the mission rescuing the children and the only thing that matters. I was about to enter another hut and as I checked my back, I scanned around once again and looked down and saw a trail of fresh blood coming from the floor of the hut. I threw the AK47 over my shoulder and took out my 9mm and as I entered the hut, I saw a man holding a machete to a young girl’s throat. Around him were bodies of children, boys and girls dumped in a pile on the floor. Most were unrecognizable. I aimed my gun at him and made a gesture to drop his weapon and let the girl go.
A moment later my partner ran in with his AK drawn. He locked aim at him and much to my surprise, along with three young girls in tow who were in a state of shock. I asked my partner where were the others team-members. He looked at me and just shook his head and I knew what he meant, that they were dead. As soon as the girls saw the bodies they screamed and ran outside. I told my partner to calm them the heck down and don’t let them out of his sight. I snapped and I looked quickly back and told the guy to drop his weapon. At the same time, trying to console the girl, not to worry. Don’t be scared. It will be all right. I put my side arm down and unslung my AK also placing it on the ground. My partner came back in with his gun drawn again. I motioned for him to lower his weapon and go back outside and watch the girls. I said, please let the girl go. You don’t want to do this. Whatever terrible things have happened here today, in your heart please just let her go. At the same time I could hear the sound of the girl’s crying outside.
Without hesitation or showing any emotion or remorse he immediately proceeded to cut the young girl’s throat from ear to ear. At which point I ran at him and was able to disarm him, I immediately grabbed him by throat, choking the life out of him and grabbing his face to show him what he had just done to the girl and the other children. I was not myself and had turned into everything I despise. I was yelling and repeating over and over again why? Why? Just, why? I looked deep into his callous eyes for a moment and pulled out my knife and slowly exacted the same punishment on him. He gargled and started choking on his own blood and I let his lifeless body fall to the ground like a rag doll. He lay there reaching for his last few breaths clinging on to whatever moments of his life were left. It was a cold and calculated decision playing judge jury and executioner and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life. I have never and will never lose one second of sleep over him on the other hand it’s the children I couldn’t save that keeps me up at night. As I walked to the door of the hut and gazed at Solomon, he looked at me and I just shook my head. I drew a deep breath of anguish only to be set upon by a sound from behind me.
I slowly turned and there seemed to be a shallow murmuring coming from the pile of bodies that were strewn on the ground. I carefully started to move the carnage of children and I came across this mutilated body of a young boy, maybe six or seven years old. He was barely breathing but still alive. I carefully picked him up and held him in my arms, wiping the blood from his face. I noticed there was just blood spewing out from his lower extremities.
I knew there was nothing I could do to save him, and I just held him. He barely opened his eyes but strained to look at me and said, thank you. He just kept repeating it over and over. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Each time getting fainter and fainter until he no longer had the strength to say anything. I caressed his head and told him it’s going to be okay once again, and yet, once again. But it wasn’t going to be okay. Not today, not ever. He died in my arms right there on the dirt floor of that blood soaked hut. I wept like a child and held him into my chest. Solomon reached over and grabbed me by my shoulder saying, we got to go. We must get out of here.
There’s nothing more we can do. Everyone’s dead. We’ve got to get out of here and get these girls to safety or all of us might die here. The pain I felt suppressed any fear I might’ve felt. I honestly don’t know what came over me. Really. Uh, I immediately stood up and drew my gun and pointed it at him, pointed at his head and said he can leave anytime he wants. I’m going to finish what we came here to and we still need to clear every hut in the village. I told him that he could leave anytime he wanted. He reiterated, okay, I’m with you no matter what. Maybe looking back, I really didn’t give him an alternative. Anyway, I lowered my weapon and said, look, you get the girls out of here and I will give the village one last sweep just to be sure we didn’t miss anything or anyone and that we would meet at the designated rendezvous point as we had planned. I was now alone and finally there seemed like nothing more to do.
So it seemed? And I slumped over from exhaustion taking a rest on the ground. A few moments passed. And as I got up to check my equipment and recheck my weapon to just make sure everything was in working order. Just at that split second a bullet whizzed by my head and then another and yet another and I turned and returned fire. I don’t even really know if I was actually even looking at what I was shooting at, but wherever it was coming from, I just returned fire. It was two men running towards me, guns drawn, and with one continuous burst from my weapon they were stopped dead in their tracks. I walked over to them to make sure they weren’t breathing. They were dead. I knew I needed to get back and meet up with Solomon at the rendezvous point. And I was about to pick myself up and, and I heard something, I heard a faint sound, off in the distance, and it sounded like crying. I wasn’t sure if it was an animal or what it was, but it sounded like an actual baby crying. I raised my weapon and scurried to locate where the sound was coming from. The crying increased and I started just checking one body after another. I saw a woman lying prostrate and as I turned the woman over, she had been cradling a child. It couldn’t have been more than a few months old. The baby was caked in blood and I didn’t know if it was injured, but the child was very much alive so I quickly made my way and met up with Solomon. We both got the baby and the three girls to safety and amazingly besides a few bumps, bruises and obvious shock. They were all in perfect physical health.
The mental and physical trauma never really goes away. It subsides with time but it’s a wound that stays with you forever. Another team eventually went back to get the rest of our teammates who had been killed that day. That day will always be etched firmly in my memory for the rest of my life. It seemed everyone died that day, including a part of me. If there is a hell, then I was surely there, but I also know that child was a gift from God. If not for that child, I think I never would have come back from that place a sane person. I don’t know? As for the child’s family there was no way of ever knowing who they were. We don’t even know the baby’s name. We don’t really don’t know anything and I guess may be it’s better that way. The little girl is alive and that’s all that matters. So I made sure that her life will be good and whole and that she will receive everything she possibly needs in life and her future. A place to live an education, school supplies, clothing, whatever she needs. One day that child will become an adult and she will want to know what happened to her parents and God willing, I will be the one to tell her. I will let her know it was because of her that I’m alive today. I saved her but in the end she really saved me! The three young girls are receiving psychosocial care, therapy, education and most of all love. Hopefully in time they will all eventually be able to assimilate back into society to start life anew. Time does eventually heal.
To seal the fate of that terrible day was only made worse by hearing that my partner Solomon was killed in action a year ago on another mission trying to rescue child soldiers. The irony, he was shot and killed by a captive child soldier he was trying to save.
For months following that fateful day I questioned why I lived and my friends died. I felt somewhat responsible for losing my teammates and friends. I had to see a therapist for many months in New York City as I was diagnosed with PTSD. The visions haunt me and sometimes still do but I’ve learned to deal with it slowly one day at a time. They will never go away and will always stay with me but I now know that I wasn’t responsible for my teammates deaths. We all knew the dangers and willingly went anyway knowing full well that anyone of us would give the ultimate sacrifice. Once in a while sitting on the subway I will see a little boy or girl that will remind me of that day. The boy that died in my arms and the lifeless body of the young girl who was butchered right in front of me. I hold back the tears but sometimes it’s just too much to bear. That day I should’ve died with my friends but I know “A Child Was Sent From God To Save Me”.
CEO/Founder We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Rescue & Recovery Security Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts