How an unarmed 78-year-old man saved his two young sons from Boko Haram

'I begged him to release them or kill me there and keep them'

Nigerian soldiers after retaking Damasak from Boko Haram in March 2015
Nigerian soldiers after retaking Damasak from Boko Haram in March 2015

A 78-year-old Nigerian man has told how he single-handedly rescued his captive sons from the Boko Haram militant group.

Madu Zaromi says that his home in Damasak, in the north-eastern state of Borno, is in an area of the country that remains under the control of the Islamist organisation.

President Muhammadu Buhari claimed in February that Boko Haram no longer hold "any territory" in Nigeria. However, this is commonly understood to be an exaggeration by the former general, as he attempts to follow through on his crucial election promise to defeat the insurgency.

In an interview with Nigeria's Daily Trust magazine, Mr Zaromi suggested that Boko Haram retains control over areas of its former stronghold in the north-east. He described his hometown as a "ghost town" where "[gun]fire" can still be seen at night.

Damasak was overrun by Boko Haram in November 2014, but it was recaptured by Chadian and Nigerian soldiers in March 2015. Troops subsequently discovered 400 decomposed bodies in the town, and it was claimed by locals that a further 400 women and children from the area were kidnapped.

But in February 2016, Nigerian news sources reported that the town was back under the control of Boko Haram.

Mr Zaromi was in the town when the terrorist group took it over for the first time in 2014. He said: "At first I thought they were robbers who invaded the town, but later I realised they were insurgents."

He was with his two youngest children and only sons, 16-year-old Bana and 14-year-old Momodu. Their home was invaded by Boko Haram insurgents, who struck him and absconded with the boys.

Niger steps up fight against Boko Haram

After recuperating alone in the town for a couple of days, he said he struck up a conversation with an "armed young man", presumably a sympathetic Boko Haram fighter, who "showed concern and promised to help."

The young fighter showed Mr Zaromi where he could find an "Amir", saying: "He is our leader. Tell him what you want. Do not tell anyone that somebody directed you. Your children must be in the building."

Mr Zaromi says he secured an audience with the Amir, and was told "he would release one to me, and the second one [was] to be enlisted among fighters.

"I took the cup of water he earlier offered me and stretched it to Bana. He drank from it and gave to Momodu, who drank and gave me. When I drank the water, I told him that I do not want to die of an empty stomach.

"I begged him to release them or kill me there and keep them. He looked straight into my eyes and after a long pause ordered two of his men to escort us back home."

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