When Azurfa John, 21, and her cousin Peace Aboi, 28, met up in Abuja, North-central Nigeria, and boarded the Abuja-Kaduna bound train, they had no idea they would end up in the hands of terrorists.
On that fateful day of March 28, 2022, terrorists bombed the rail tracks and attacked passengers of the AK9 train, killing some and injuring others, a tragedy that shook the country.
Alive but in captivity
After about two weeks in captivity in early April, Azurfa surfaced in a video released by the terrorists. Dressed in a yellow Polo T-shirt, she spoke on behalf of the students kidnapped. In a corner, although not clearly featured, Peace was also spotted. In Kaduna, both families, whose parents are siblings, were thrown into a state of confusion at the news.
During the train attack, while there was a lot of commotion, Azurfa reached out to a school roommate and reported what was happening. She called the same roommate and asked her to inform Ballie Moses, her eldest sibling, to call through the same phone number. He did.
Almost immediately, someone answered when Moses called. “I heard a masculine voice in the background. The person didn’t say anything. Since then, there has not been any communication,” he says, adding that he recalls the mobile application, Truecaller, revealing the caller as Sani Train Pilot. “The number hasn’t rung till today.”
Azurfa John is the only girl among four siblings. She is also the last born. “She was on holiday in Abuja due to the ASUU strike. I had asked her to come over to Kaduna and start up a trade because the ASUU strike was taking longer than usual,” Moses tells HumAngle.
They had lost their parents within the space of about two months in 2020 and Moses had assumed the role of a father figure. With Azurfa in her third year at the Kaduna State University’s Department of Agriculture, it looked like the entire family was closer to achieving some level of independence, particularly in the area of finance. Azurfa is industrious and has trained to be a make-up artist as well as a caterer, a plus to her degree programme.
“I barely sleep and eating is a problem,” Moses says. “I wake up in the middle of the night and think of how they are doing out there. Usually, sometimes I go to her room and say a word of prayer for her.”
It gets worse. When Moses allows his imagination to take a grip on him, he pictures what the terrorists could be doing to his little sister and her cousin. “We have gone through a lot. We have been praying and believe God is the ultimate. We have also joined other relatives of victims to organise press conferences, series of meetings.”
It’s been 46 days since they were taken and there is still no news of their release or communication from the authorities. No one has visited or called them from government quarters.
Elizabeth John, both girls’ aunt who has taken care of them from childhood has played an important role in their lives. Azurfa lost her mother in 2020 to illness while Peace’s biological mother passed away in 2003.
“This is no different from death,” Benjamin Aboi, Peace’s father, tells HumAngle. “We are experiencing so much trauma. We see our children surrounded by guns [in the video] like they committed a crime. We leave everything to God.”
The first child in her family and a twin, Peace is in her fourth year of studying to become a gynaecologist at a Ugandan university. She was planning to return when the incident happened.
“We are appealing to the government to do their best to ensure our sisters are released,” Moses says.
Victims’ families make demands
On May 9, 2022, in a statement signed by Dr Andulfatai Jimoh and Dr Ba’abba Muhammed, leaders of the relatives of AK9 Abuja-Kaduna train kidnapped passengers, the group lamented the “emotional, psychological, mental, and physical torture” they are passing through.
They pointed out that amongst those abducted are children, pregnant women, and the elderly. “Some of these victims have health challenges requiring daily medications, which they have had no access to in the last 42 harrowing days.”
The statement also read that since a presidential directive was issued, the National Railway Corporation has not communicated with relatives of victims “nor established any Situation Room as directed by the President.”
While thanking Nigerians, elder statesmen, and traditional rulers, amongst others, who have lent voices to their struggle, the group made two demands – the quick and safe rescue of their family members in captivity and the non-resumption of train services between Abuja and Kaduna until this happens.
On May 14, the terrorists released a video showing a woman who said the captors released her because of her pregnancy. She appealed to the government to negotiate with the kidnappers. Earlier, on April 7, the Managing Director of the Bank of Agriculture, Alwan Ali-Hassan was also set free, due to ill health, after a week in captivity.
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