Meet the ‘Queen Hunter’ Aisha who catches Boko Haram fighters and searches for kidnapped children in northern Nigeria.
Among the thousands of hunters enlisted by the Nigerian army to track and capture Boko Haram fighters, one stands out from the crowd.
Aisha Bakari Gombi towers over her band of hunters, one of the few women who has joined the fight against one of the deadliest armed groups in Africa.
With her shotgun slung over her shoulder, she ventures into the scrub of Borno, the northeastern province of Nigeria long plagued by Boko Haram attacks, hunting down their fighters.
Her bravery and keen hunting abilities have earned her the title of ‘Queen Hunter’.
Government troops are quick to call on Aisha for her skills but slow to reward her efforts financially.
While she is unable to liberate many more captives held by Boko Haram due to a lack of resources, she will never stop trying.
Dive into the multiple worlds of Aisha, a commander, a hunter and a wife.
By Rosie Collyer
The moment I met Aisha, I felt safe despite us meeting in one of the most dangerous places on earth. At six feet tall, Aisha is a woman of few words and a lot of action.
She signals and people follow, she commands both at home and on the battlefield. I asked if she was afraid of being killed or kidnapped by Boko Haram. She replied, “Boko Haram know me and fear me.”
I did not need any further convincing to follow her on a mission to track and capture fighters.
The main challenge for me was how to film in a region where access to the places fighters hide out is restricted by the military.
As a Nigerian passport-holder I have a right to free movement, but as a filmmaker with ambitions of making a documentary for audiences around the world, I was well aware that the security forces would be suspicious of my intentions, so I decided to stay below their radar. This meant wearing a hijab at all times and not talking in the presence of strangers to avoid them hearing my British accent.
Aisha gave me unrestricted access to her world. I joined the hunters on a hunt into the bush where 30 years ago antelope roamed. In recent years only small mammals have remained, and the hunters caught just one hare that day.
Aisha used the opportunity to teach younger hunters how to identify medicinal plants. They believe that secret potions 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. Aisha has happy memories of hunting in those places as a child with her father.
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.
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.
The arc of the film shows how Aisha and the hunters overcome the challenges of responding to distress calls. The main obstacle is convincing the military to allow them to go on rescue missions. One military commander may give his authorisation but another in a sphere of command a few kilometres away will not.
Hunters must also raise the money needed to buy ammunition, hire vehicles and fuel them themselves. In some instances, people who have fled their villages come together and raise funds for the hunters. It took several weeks to raise the amount needed for the mission I filmed in the Sambisa Forest.
Most of the money came from villagers who were desperate to return to their farms. Neither the government nor the military was able to help them resettle in their villages, so they turned to the hunters.
Once inside the vast Sambisa Forest, the hunters spent several days second-guessing the military. Fighter jets were flying overhead, and no one knew if the pilots were aware hunters were on a mission in the forest.
We moved through the forest on the backs of motorcycles just as Boko Haram does. The sound of artillery fire from a military base on the fringes of the forest punctuated the silence of the night. The hunters explained that soldiers fired surface to air missiles from their bases to warn off the fighters.
As a filmmaker, the biggest challenge was the dust and the fatal damage it can do to a camera. Over 100 hunters moving on foot or in columns of motorcycles meant there was a constant cloud of dust. This, in turn, provoked unprecedented thirst.
I had to make do with one litre of water a day in 40-degree heat. So, it felt almost like a mirage on the seventh day of the mission in Sambisa Forest when the hunters captured three Boko Haram fighters and questioned them at length.
The fighters revealed the whereabouts of women and children they were holding captive, but it was so deep in the Sambisa Forest that the hunters did not have enough fuel to go there.
The hunters handed the three fighters over to the military, but not before parading them before displaced villagers. The villagers were overcome with joy because at last someone was brave enough to confront the fighters and round them up.
A few weeks later, I visited the villagers on their farms inside the Sambisa Forest. The rains had come, and everything was green, which reinforced a sense of renewal. The villagers had been given a new start by the hunters who were now guarding them and their farms against Boko Haram.
Most of Aisha’s adult life has been marked by her inability to conceive a child. Her first marriage ended because of it. As a woman without a child, Aisha found meaning in being a hunter, and even more so when she began battling fighters and freeing women and children.
This is how she has earned her respect among both men and women.
But during the filming of this documentary, Aisha became pregnant. Her priorities are now clearly divided between being a conventional housewife and mother and continuing to safeguard her people from the ravages of Boko Haram.
While Aisha contemplates her future, the nagging question of how to eliminate her arch enemy remains. Throughout the film, Aisha is tormented by a Boko Haram commander named Bula Yaga. She has faced him in battle but has never been able to capture him.
Bula Yaga is notorious for being a sadist who kills and tortures women and children. He is also responsible for the ambush and death of Aisha’s commander, Bukar Jimeta.
Soon after, rumours emerged that Bula Yaga was killed in a military operation. Pictures circulated on social media but Aisha and several other hunters who have met Bula Yaga face-to-face say the corpse photographed in the back of a pick-up truck was not his.
For Aisha, the battle against Boko Haram will not be won until Bula Yaga is captured or killed. But for now, he remains very much alive and in control of a no-go area in the Sambisa Forest. According to the hunters, Bula Yaga continues to be supplied with weapons by some unscrupulous members of the Nigerian army.