AS seven abducted women and four children were being taken deeper into Sambisa forest in Borno State, northeast Nigeria, Aisha Bakari Gombi received a call.
The voice was familiar: an army commander asking her to assemble a group of hunters to track them down. The seven had vanished earlier that day after a group of Boko Haram militants attacked their village, Daggu. Three local people were shot dead and cars, houses and food stores set ablaze.
Daggu is a half-hour drive from Chibok where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted in April 2014. Both villages are in the region of Borno, which has become all too familiar with such attacks by the world’s deadliest terrorist group.
“Boko Haram know me and fear me”
Bakari Gombi grew up near the Sambisa forest, where the extremists still operate despite a military offensive last year that destroyed many of their major camps. She used to hunt antelopes, baboons and guinea fowl with her grandfather. Aisha’s hunting skills impressed her father so much that he gave her his hunting rifle.
When the fighters attacked Aisha’s town, she gave up being a seamstress, sold her sewing machine and bought a more powerful rifle.
Now she hunts Boko Haram.
The fighters were chased out by the hunters who led the military onslaught against them. They were hailed as heroes, and as one of the very few women among them, Aisha entered into folklore. Civilians began to call her and ask for assistance in freeing their loved ones from Boko Haram captivity.
There are thousands of hunters in the region who have been enlisted by the military on an ad hoc basis. But Bakari Gombi is one of only a handful of women involved and she has become a heroine for hunters and local people alike. Her gallantry has won her the title “queen hunter”.
The first rescue mission in Daggu failed “because Boko Haram was heavily armed. But we saw where [the girls] are being held,” Bakari Gombi explains the morning after. “We could free them if the military would give us better weapons,” she adds, eyeing the double-barrel shotgun on her lap.
Like many in the rural regions of north-east Nigeria, Bakari Gombi is Muslim but also believes in traditional spirits.
Aisha uses the opportunity to teach younger hunters how to identify medicinal plants. One of her rituals is to douse fellow hunters with a secret potion to protect them from bullets. Others help them to repress hunger and thirst so they can stay in the bush for long periods.
The hunters know the fighters’ hiding places in the forests and mountains better than most government soldiers.
The 38-year-old leads a command of men aged 15-30 who communicate using sign language, animal sounds and even birdsong.
she says. Hassan’s grandparents look after her seven children so she is available to hunt whenever her services are called on.
While most of the group are volunteers who juggle their commitments with other jobs, Bakari Gombi and Hassan are among the 228 male and female hunters who were recruited on a more formal basis last year by a local government official.
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