The Long Walk Into Sambisa Forest For Missing Chibok Girls
OLUSOLA FABIYI, who this week joined two ministers, Nigeria Air Force personnel, some journalists and members of the Bring Back Our Girls for the search of missing Chibok girls inside the dreaded Sambisa Forest, reports
The about one-hour flight on Monday from the Nnamdi Azikwe Airport Abuja in the Nigerian Air Force Transport Plane, otherwise known as Hercules C-130 to Yola Air Force Base, was even. This was after a little squabble that ensued between the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed and the Convener of the Bring Back Our Girls group, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, on the mode of flying was harmoniously resolved.
Each member of the team was in raptures but cautious mood. The mission was to join the members of the Nigeria Air Force in search sorties of the remaining yet-to-be rescued Chibok Girls. At the Yola Air Force base, preparations were already made on how to fly the team to Sambisa Forest.
Also in the squad was the Minister of Defence, Brig.Gen. Mansur Dan-Ali (retd.) and a few selected reporters from local and foreign media organisations.
Members of the first team, which did not include our correspondent, were conveyed in two Beechcraft 350 surveillance aircraft. They departed the Yola Air Force Base to Sambisa Forest at about 2.30 pm.
However, at about 2am on Tuesday, our correspondent joined another crew, made up of Mohammed, Ezekwesili, another member of BBOG, Hajia Aisha Yusuf, a correspondent from Times of London and a cameraman from Channels Television to fly into Sambia Forest in one of the Beeccraft 350 surveillance aircraft. This flight was unique in some ways.
This was because; unlike in the daylight when two Alpha Jets escorted the first set to the forest and provided cover for them, before returning to base, the night crew did not have such luxury. But Dan-Alli, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Vice Marshal Sadique Abubakar; Air Officer Commanding, Tactical Air Command, Air Vice Marshal Nurudeen Balogun; Commanding Officer, Air Companies of Lafiya Dole, Air Commodore Charles Ohwo and other senior air force personnel assured us that we had nothing to fear.
Again, unlike in the afternoon, the night movement involved only one plane. Not showing any form of frightening or despair conversely, our correspondent, who sat by the side of the minister of information, and very close to the cockpit, was having his mind on the forest.
Soon, we were hovering in the air, at 15,000 feet altitude, according to the information given by the young but energetic pilot and his assistant. In less than 40 minutes of departure, there was announcement that we had entered the Sambisa Forest. With the aid of complicated intrinsic surveillance camera in the airplane, the team was shown the video images of burnt vehicles and camps of the Boko Haram insurgents throughout the forest, particularly at Camp Zairo. The camp, according to the military, was previously the stronghold of the Boko Haram. It fell into the hands of the military, which is known as the ‘home troop’ in military phraseology, on December 22, 2016.
Sambisa Forest, according to Ohwo in the map shown to the group during one of the presentations made by the officers, covers 60,000 square kilometres which is about 18 times the size of Lagos State. He added that it also occupies 85 per cent of Borno State land surface.
Several burnt places, which included vehicles and camps of the Boko Haram insurgents particularly at Camp Zairo, were also seen in the images through the sophisticated camera.
These burnt areas, according to the pilot, were subsequent of attacks carried out by air strikes and activities of ground troops of the military against the members of the Boko Haram. Images of trees under which the insurgents built houses were equally noticed. The images of the tracks of the insurgents as well as the whereabouts of the ground troops of the military who have occupied the forest were also shown to the team.
Even at night, the surveillance aircraft discovered skeletal movement of some sort in the forest. It was however discovered that those in the video were women.
Having spent more than two hours in the forest, the pilot announced that the team was returning to Yola and that during the flight, the surveillance camera would be switched off. But that however did not stop members of the team from engaging in discussions and also, asking questions which were all related to the activities of the Boko Haram insurgents and the determination of the military to get rid of them.
With enchantment and without showing any sign of being weary despite the rigours of the journey which started early in the previous morning from Abuja, members of the crew alighted from the plane when it landed at the air force base at exactly 5:09am.
On ground to receive us were the Chief of Air Staff, the Minister of Defence and other senior military officers. Beaming with infectious smiles and showing signs of contentment, Abubakar said he was pleased with the performance of his troops. He was also grateful to President Muhammadu Buhari for, according to him, equipping the NAF with the needed equipment and manpower to fight the insurgents.
He recalled that as at July 2015, the military used to fight Boko Haram with a single war aircraft. Now, things have changed, as according to him, the President had equipped the force with three more planes. He said the military was already fixing the fifth plane with a camera, adding that as soon as this was done, it would join the fleet to root the members of the insurgency out of the North-East in particular and Nigeria as a whole.
He said, “We used to fight the Boko Haram with just a single plane. Now we have four air planes and we are working to get the fifth one. We are trying very hard to locate where the kidnapped Chibok girls and others in the captivity of the Boko Haram are being kept.”
He, however, regretted that the air force could not resort into arbitrary bombing of every human object sighted in the forest because of fear that innocent people could be killed. “If we do that, there won’t be any difference between us and the Boko Haram elements who kill people indiscriminately. That’s why we are using Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance,” he added.
He said there were occasions when pilots went on missions and had to return with their bombs intact because they were afraid that they could kill women, children and even innocent men if they dropped bombs on those they perceived as members of Boko Haram they saw on ground. He added that there were occasions when members of the insurgents wore hijabs, adding that such gimmicks were part of what the members of the sect used in their attempt to deceive the military.
Abubakar said, “Those you see wearing hijabs are at times not necessarily women. They could be members of the Boko Haram. Don’t forget that they are also trained to fight. It is their own way of disguising to deceive the military.”
Also speaking, the minister of defence paid glowing tribute to the President, who he said, had been carrying all the neighbouring states along in the fight. He said this was the reason why the war had been largely successful as displaced insurgents were denied access to the neighbouring countries. Dan-Ali said that the fall of Camp Zairo being hitherto used by the insurgents was significant, adding that it was like the spiritual headquarters of Boko Haram.
For the NAF, the battle had taken a toll on its time and resources. In 2016 alone, the force said it flew 6773 hours in 2,105 missions and 3,534 sorties in its operations in the North-East in 2016. Ohwo, who stated this, also revealed that N2, 738, 062,145bn was used for Jet A1 fuel for aircraft, excluding the cost of maintenance and consumables during the period.
Speaking on significant operations conducted within the period, he said that crackdown on the insurgents was organised by the Theatre Command, which commenced on April 25, 2016 and lasted for 23 days.
“A total of 348 sorties were generated by the air component for the operation that led to the capture of Alargano, the supposedly spiritual headquarters of Boko Haram”, the commander added. He also revealed that the intensity of the operation of crackdown forced some breakaway groups of the Boko Haram insurgents to move towards the far North.
“The Multi-national Joint Task Force initiated Operation Gama Aiki and very important location, Malamfatori, was captured on Sept. 27, 2016,’’ he said.
The Air Officer Commanding Tactical Command, Air Vice Marshal Nurudeen Balogun also disclosed that a seven-day operation between Oct. 22 and Oct. 28, with 55 missions, was a precursor for the Operation Rescue Finale that was going on in the region. According to him, the Operation Rescue Finale which commenced Nov. 1, 2016, was instrumental to the December 22, 2016 fall of Camp Zairo, the major stronghold of Boko Hram.
Having combed the forest day and night, the question being asked was the whereabouts of the remaining 195 Chibok girls. Why the jubilation over the fall of Camp Zairo?
The minister of information agreed that the return of the girls was the only way the nation could be joyous about the end of the Boko Haram. But he noted that the capture of Camp Zairo in Sambisa, which is the headquarters and stronghold of the insurgent was very crucial to defeating the terrorists.
He also stressed that the proportion of the camp to the size of the forest notwithstanding, the capture was a big victory for the military.
He likened the capture of the camp to the sacking of a government in its seat of power. He said, “Camp Zairo might occupy probably one kilometre out of 60,000 kilometres expanse of Sambisa, but it is so crucial to us in this war. It is like imagining that there is a war and the Villa is captured. That is the essence of Camp Zairo. It is not the extent of physical expanse but that we struck at the very heart of insurgency and it does not mean the end of the campaign in Sambisa Forest.’’
What is of interest to Ezekwesili and her team remains the finding of the girls. In doing that, she wants government to consider the option of negotiating with members of the sect if that would lead to their release.
Besides, she wants the government to prosecute anyone found to have embezzled money meant for the prosecution of the war.
For now, the search continues for the girls, with the hope that the NAF will not allow the regrettable incident of the tragic bombing of IDPs in error dampen its morale.
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