What it feels like… to be robbed at gunpoint01/24/2021
I heard the scrape of the front screen door in the Nigerian home I was staying in and assumed it was just one of the neighbours coming to visit.
I was working on a community development project at the time and my hosts – a prominent local leader and his wife – were in their nearby bedroom, watching the latest instalment of a Nigerian soap opera. Visits from neighbours were common, so it was nothing out of the ordinary.
When I turned my head to look at what caused the noise, I saw that the front door remained firmly shut so I returned my attention to more important matters – the plate of rice and beans balanced on my lap.
As I swallowed my next mouthful, there was a sudden noise. Three men had entered the house silently through the front – and each one held a gun, now pointed at my head. ‘Don’t scream,’ the leader ordered.
The disbelief hit immediately, yet deep down I knew it was real. Something instinctive took over because my screech was automatic.
‘Lie down,’ the leader told me angrily. Too scared to comply, I crouched down and showed my hands to prove I was no threat.
‘I’ve got money,’ I pleaded. ‘You can take my money.’ My mind leapt into overdrive, scared that this would end with me being assaulted, or worse.
One of my hosts – who had been summoned by my screech – appeared at her bedroom door, assuming that I’d seen a mouse. But she quickly pulled back into the room when she spotted the men surrounding me on the sofa, and warned her husband of the unwelcome guests.
The men beside me began to panic. ‘Don’t bring your gun, Oga [sir],’ they called into the darkness of the doorway.
Any hero tactics or trigger-happy fingers and I would likely be the one getting killed, given my prime position between the two parties. Perhaps lying down was the better option after all.
No more guns appeared – thankfully – and the men quickly separated us. The leader and one of the others went with the couple into their room to search for valuables, while another took me to find the money I’d been so eager to donate to them.
Petrified, I walked into my room with him following behind, unsure about what was happening to my hosts and scared for what was about to happen to me. I felt relief when he ordered me to hand over my money – hopefully this was just a robbery.
As I handed over the cash, I conveniently didn’t mention the second envelope of emergency funds kept in the inside pocket of my rucksack – shocking myself with my audacity to ignore their orders, given the tools at these men’s disposal. Thankfully, the man took my word for it and I wasn’t found out.
But when he took the camera that was lying on the end of my bed, I felt the wrench of losing something more important than cash.
I’d recently returned from a trip around the north of the country, and now all my photos would be gone. Photos of places I’d never likely see again.
The laptop was next. A work-issued number that stored my almost-finished report and all the evaluation data from the project I’d been working on – a project due to end the following Friday.
‘I’ll have to start from scratch,’ I thought. I was annoyed I hadn’t packed everything away for the night.
I’ve had counselling since, but even now – more than 10 years later – I still carry a fear deep within me
A few moments later, one of the other men appeared at the doorway and shoved the man of the house into my room. Without a word, they left and locked the bedroom door behind them.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked, shaking from the adrenaline that was racing around my bloodstream now that the biggest danger seemed to have evaporated. I asked him where his wife was, as I worried that they had targeted her or that they would come back to ‘deal’ with us later.
A few moments later, the woman of the house ululated loudly, her voice entering on the warm air through the open windows. Over and over, the high-pitched sound signalled to those in hearing distance that we needed help.
Within minutes, the house was filled with people. They kept on coming.
For days, we had visitors bringing drinks, food and condolences. Talking through our experiences with us was like a community-led post-traumatic counselling session.
I later found out that the robbers had ordered the woman of the house to take them to the car. Concerned that it might be alarmed, they had forced her into the car with them.
Thankfully, she convinced them they didn’t need her and they pushed her out of the vehicle as they exited the compound.
The robbery was reported to the police, but it was only weeks later that the car was found abandoned in bushes miles away. All the valuables – mainly cash, jewellery and electronics – were long gone and the car damaged, but at least it was something.
My work offered to rehouse me for the final week of the trip; I declined. The family I lived with couldn’t up sticks and escape the threat of violence, which is all too common in many parts of the world – including the inner-city London estate where I now live – and I owed it to them to stay put. So that is what I did.
But each night that week, as dusk descended, the fear returned. I couldn’t sleep beyond short fitful bursts. Each sound reminded me of that scrape of the screen door just seconds before the men had appeared, guns at the ready.
Returning to the UK, I naively assumed that out of sight would mean out of mind. The triggers became less frequent, but a few months later – during my first trip to the cinema since returning – everything came flooding back.
I was watching a big Hollywood number with a gun scene, and just seeing the weapons and the damage they inflicted – even though it wasn’t real – sent me back to that moment.
I felt my chest tighten and started to panic, looking around for somewhere to run to escape the threat, even though there was none.
My then-boyfriend had to practically hold me down to stop me pushing my way through the legs of the enthralled audience.
I’ve had counselling since, but even now – more than 10 years later – I still carry a fear deep within me.
There’s a small part of me that’s always listening out for that warning sound I missed – the scrape of the screen door. Keeping alert so that if there’s a next time, I’ll be ready for it.
In this exciting new series from Metro.co.uk, What It Feels Like… not only shares one person’s moving story, but also the details and emotions entwined within it, to allow readers a true insight into their life changing experience.
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