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SPECIAL REPORT… In Borno, the scars of war run deep: Agony of lives shattered by Boko Haram

SPECIAL REPORT... In Borno, the scars of war run deep: Agony of lives shattered by Boko Haram
By Editor
The stats are very troubling. The images out of Borno are even more horrifying!
Late 2017, the governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, informed the world that the crisis in Northeast Nigeria had created two million displaced persons and cost the six northern states over $9 million in economic ruins. But those were material losses. In terms of human lives lost, Shettima put the estimates at over 100,000 dead.
The Boko Haram war, he said, had created over 52,000 orphans, 54,000 widows, and 73,000 refugees in Cameroon and Niger. The crisis, in spite of claims by the Nigerian government, appears not to be abating even as it grapples with the challenges of resettling displaced persons. Ripples Nigeria Correspondent, Valentine Iwenwanne, travels to Borno to report on the scars of war and attempts at restoring hope to a shattered people and land.

It was a hot Thursday afternoon in the city of Maiduguri the capital of Borno State, in Northeast Nigeria. The weather was hot as the scorching sun blaze at 43 degrees Celsius.

I had just disembarked from an Azman Air Maiduguri bound airbus, having flown in from Ikeja, the capital of Lagos, to detail the years of pains and sorrows of survivors of evil machination of Nigeria-based Islamist terrorist group, BokoHaram — one of the deadliest extremist armed groups in the world, which has blighted the North East region for more than 9 years — and still rages on.

Dubbed terrorist hotbed is this once peaceful state, formally called the ‘home of peace’. Borno has already become a landmark for several deaths carried out by the international terrorist organization.

Still in its ninth year since the death of its founder — Mohammed Yusuf, which triggered the insurgency, the Boko Haram terrorist’s RED-TAG activities has had devastating humanitarian consequences for millions of people across the Northeast and Lake Chad regions — and it shows no sign of abating. More than two million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since the start of the conflict. Only twenty per cent of these survivors are housed in established camps, most of which are in and around Maiduguri. The others have melted into host communities where they live in uncompleted buildings or makeshift set up in open fields.

For the IDPs, the Boko Haram campaign is a tale of tale of terror, that has shattered not only their limbs, but their lives as well. They stay awake at night unable to sleep due to fears, and nightmares of their experiences. And they enter every new day not knowing which path their lives would follow.

“Bomb in my leg, ripped through my stomach”

Doctors at the State Hospital, Maiduguri, Borno State, battled to resuscitate Yahuza Mohammed who was close to death in the emergency ward of the hospital. He arrived the hospital gasping for breath, having been caught up in a suicide bomb blast which left him with raw, blistering sores in over 60 per cent of his body.

Due to his critical state, the doctors realized they had to do something drastic; else, their twenty-two-year-old patient would die.

Yahuza is from Jigawa State, he lives in the Muna settlement area with his parents who were at home when the explosion rocked the camp.

He was blown away by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) set off by a suicide bomber who entered the Muna Garage IDP camp with the IED strapped on his body. The bomb left one of his legs totally damaged, and then ripped through his stomach. He had just finished observing his evening prayer with his friends at a mosque situated about 300 meters away from his house.

Blast from the pit of hell

“It happened here in Muna Garage camp”, said Mohammed who was grilling in pains as he adjusted his crutches.

Apparently, his heart was already broken as he spoke. But just one look at him, one could tell he was simply grateful to have survived the blast.

Muna Garage camp is an unofficial host community camp where tens of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are sheltered; it is located on the outskirts of Maiduguri — the state capital, an exit route from Maiduguri, connecting Dikwa and remote Gamboru and Ngala towns. It’s a frequent target for the suicide bombers in the state.

On entering the Muna Garage camp, one is greeted by sights of shacks and makeshift homes made from corn stock, and a large number of children, who have become school dropouts — as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency. Under a small tree which provides shade were women sitting in twos and threes discussing and playing Awale game — one of the most fascinating African games.

The atmosphere was calm, and there was no noise except the creaking sounds from rickety shacks. Here in Muna, getting IDPs to speak on the recurring suicide bombing which has rocked the resettlement area was challenging as most of them were afraid of talking to Boko Haram informants. But about 40 minutes of search, Yahuza Mohammed who was ready and willing to speak.

With the aid of his crutches, Yahuza was leaning on its handles and then shifted his weight to the crutches, shoving his body forward slowly between the crutches, before he finally settled down on a bench.

Narrating his close shave with death, Mohammed stared with a subtle smile for a long moment — a smile that almost betrayed his emotions. Finally, he looked up with nostalgia. “I used to play football here with my friends. But now such playful adventure has eluded me,” he said.

“It happened between 9pm and 9:30pm,” he remembers the March 2018 suicide attack.

While he spoke, his voice was soft, and a bit strained, like someone had hit him in the gut and he was still recovering.

Already half-dead

Not long after the blast, he was rushed to the State Hospital Maiduguri, in an emergency but was already half-dead. He was given some form of anesthesia to relieve him of pains during the surgery. After the operation, he regained consciousness and discovered that his blistered leg had been chopped off.

“I happened to find out that one of my legs was gone,” he says in a frosty tone. “I was angry and sad; I couldn’t believe it… after battling for my life,” he adds. His voice was soft, almost fragile, as if it and his heart would break any minute.

Since the attack, he has lost the chance of engaging in his hobbies. He likes dancing and playing football which now comes with a hard part. He only sits and watch his friends dance and play football. Even though one may wonder if such a theater of war could still allow a football match, but they’ve just learned how to joggle both.

“They never told me my son was involved in the bomb blast”

It was just 4:00pm in the evening in Muna Garage camp, the breeze waft in great swirls from different directions, and her ramshackle makeshift could be heard to creak as if in its death throes. She definitely isn’t an affluent; her bare arms and legs were as ashy and pale as her face. She is a mother of seventeen children — all living in the rickety structure including her husband, she is 50-years old, her name is Bintu Muhammed. She and her family were displaced from their village of Doron Baga, in 2013.

Bintu Muhammed with her husband and children lived in Doron Baga, a fishing community in Kukawa Local Government Area of Borno State. Bintu’s family was safe and happy. Her husband worked as a fisherman, whilst she ran a petty trading business. In 2013, the Boko Haram foot soldiers marched into her village and killed 56 fishermen, who were returning from a fishing voyage. The insurgents forced them off their boats at gunpoint, and began to slit their throats with knives, while others who their knives could not pierce because of their ‘charmed’ skins, had their legs and hands tied with ropes, and then thrown into the river to drown.

Bintu Muhammed…lived in Doron Baga before the insurgency

​This although, isn’t their first exploit of horrific scale of attacks in this fishing town of Doron Baga, and it wasn’t their last either; they have since stepped up their attacks with heinous damages along with killings and kidnappings with astonishing speed and precision, forcing everyone to run for their lives.

“In Doron Baga, we lived peacefully without any problem. We go to the river to fish and take them to the market before Boko Haram sacked us from the village.” She said.

Now in displacement camp

In March 2018, Bintu Muhammed, was in her makeshift when she started hearing shrieks of different pitches — women, men and children — all screaming “Boko Haram is here! Boko haram is here!!”

It was a deafening noise, followed by thick smoke and fragments — a bomb had gone off, it exploded in the Muna Garage camp but its impact was felt as far as two kilometres away.

Her 27-year-old son, Musa Muhammed had just left their makeshift home to buy a wrap of tea bag from a nearby kiosk before the bomb went off, Bintu began to mumble prayers, “I began to pray. God please help me! And I started calling on the names of our prophets, to protect my son”, she said in Hausa language.

While saying her prayers, her neighbors gathered around her to inform her about the bomb explosion. But they never told her about her son— not because they choose not to, but to possibly avoid adding more figures to the already dead.

“People came to tell me that there’s a bomb explosion [in our camp], they never told me that my son was involved in the blast, they were just lying to me. Then one boy rushed to me screaming come and see your son! come and see your son!!”

While recalling the scene, her voice sounded like it was made of gravel; it was a vocal expression that betrayed her countenance. Bintu paused as tears began to drip her already paled face, her watery eyes closed and opened again as tears flowed down her cheeks. Eventually she stopped speaking, wiped her tears and lowered her head in a quiet sob.

Fearless mother who later slipped into PTSD

Bintu was defiant and was ready to die if that was the only chance she could get to see her son’s corpse.

She continued after the tears, “People were holding me not to go see my son, saying that the soldiers at the scene will kill me. But I was defiant.

“For 50 days I couldn’t eat, until when some of my relatives visited before I could eat. “But I still think about my son’s death,” she said.

“Until he comes back before I can forget,” she adds with a grimace of pain.

Obviously, Bintu is battling with recurrent unwanted distressing memories of the Boko Haram attacks, with anxiety depression resulting from her son’s death. Not that she chose to, but intrusive memories of the traumatic events and flashbacks have refused to leave her. She’s experiencing what experts call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and psychosomatic disorder.

Both are mental ailments characterised by failure to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.

Bem Tivkaa, clinical psychologist with Neem Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that is helping worst affected survivors in terrorized communities due to violent extremism with psychological support, says these health challenges are enormous in many of the IDPs, because of the experiences they have gone through.

Bem said “it’s really very difficult for them to cope with these kinds of health challenges unless they are helped for them to develop resilience.”

Tivkaa says some of the displaced persons have other severe psychological cases like anxiety depression and stress that have led many of them into psychosis, a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality.

Their mode of operation

Bama is one of the most terrorized towns in Borno since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency, with survivors reintegrated into the town after being reopened by the government. Bama is located on the outskirts of Maiduguri; it was closed down in September 2014 because of the activities of Boko Haram terrorists.

Just like the Taliban controlled the border towns and villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Boko Haram terrorists primarily operating in the northeast controlled the towns of Gwoza, Bama, Marte and Mungono — all in Borno State.

In Borno state capital, the insurgents usually come with gunmen to first create a distraction for the military while the suicide bombers sneak into the city to carry out the attacks.

“Boko Haram foot soldiers took two of my boys away to Sambisa forest”

In the morning of June 2014, when the radical militant group Boko Haram attacked the village of Gwoza — formerly a stronghold of the insurgents, Ibrahim Zangava, 48, and his family fled as the insurgents seized the town, which was the epicentre of the insurgency that has forced more than 2 million to flee their homes and killed about 100 people in the attack.

Ibrahim Zangava…fled Gwoza LGA to Cameroon

Families scattered in a desperate flight

Many families were separated as they ran for their lives, Ibrahim and his family escaped in three groups as they ran.

“The insurgents invaded our village, surrounded everywhere and killed about 100 people; everybody took his own part. My family and I managed to escape in three different groups.

“They came on motorcycles and Hilux pickup vans, and killed all the men on sight, they weren’t interested in killing women, except the ones wearing a male outfit without a head tie,” he recalls.

“Some of us ran to Goshe/Gava Mountain in Gwoza, some escaped to Cameroon, while some ran to Gboko village.” Ibrahim narrated.

Gwoza is a Christian dominated town, a border town about 135 kilometres South-East of Maiduguri. The terrain is rocky and hilly, with heights of about 1300m above sea level and is made up of the Mandara Mountains, which form a natural barrier between Nigeria and Cameroon, starting from Pulka.

The Gwoza LGA was named “a notorious hide out” for the Boko Haram insurgents who arrived in the area in 2009 from Maiduguri. The area has suffered considerable violence as a result of the Islamist insurgency, and in 2014, saw an influx of Boko Haram fighters fleeing Sambisa Forest.

The town is not far from Chibok, where the group kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from a boarding school in April 14, 2014.

Narrow escape, fruitless crossover

For one week, Ibrahim and his family lived in isolation. This however, is not a rarity for those fleeing insurgency attacks as they escape through different parts. He didn’t believe it would yield a fruitful escape as the insurgents swooped on them with sporadic shooting.

One week after, Ibrahim landed in an informal displacement camp in Cameroon where he reunited with his family. But not with two of his sons, Tangwala Ibrahim Zangava and Ayuba Ibrahim Zangava — they had been forcefully taken by another group of the Islamist militants who intercepted his wife as she tried to cross into Cameroon with the two boys.

“We escaped to Cameroon and stayed there for 20days, expecting the Nigerian soldiers to reclaim our village and help us return home, but nothing happened.

“It was there I knew about my sons’ forceful captivity. If the military had intervened, maybe they wouldn’t have succeeded in taking my two boys.” He added

Reuniting broken family links

Many of the children, like Tangwala Ibrahim Zangava and Ayuba Ibrahim Zangava, have lost contacts with their parents due to forceful evictions of the Boko Haram terrorist sect operating in the rejoin. The situation regarding their displacement is complex, as some have been separated from their parents for a long time, and are now finding it difficult to reunite with their families.

In February 2018, Ibrahim Zangava, opened a tracing request form with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in Maiduguri, to help him carry out a search for his abducted sons. The tracing request service is provided by the ICRC, National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to look for family members, restore and reunite families seeking to clarify the fate of those who remain missing and put them back into contact with their relatives.

On a whole, over 8,800 new tracing requests have been opened by persons looking for relatives with the ICIR, almost 1,100 Red Cross messages containing family news were exchanged among separated family members, with 1,700 free phone calls made open to persons searching for their family.

“They came to our school, shooting sporadically”

Sixteen-year-old Tani Ibrahim Zangava, elder sister to the kidnapped boys, Tangwala and Ayuba Ibrahim Zangava, was in school when the jihadists entered her village of Gwoza as they launched their offensive like a pack of wolves swooping on vulnerable sheeps. She was in Primary six and was separated from her parents for three days—she was just twelve-years of age then.

“When we started hearing sporadic gunshots, we thought it was the soldiers, but when they got closer, we realized that they weren’t soldiers because they came on motorcycles unlike the soldiers.

“They started maiming and killing people. And there was pandemonium everywhere”, said Tani Ibrahim Zangava.

Boko Haram, whose name in Hausa, the dominant language in northern Nigeria, means “Western education is forbidden,” has targeted and killed teachers, education workers and students.

At least, more than 2,295 teachers have been deliberately killed and 19,000 have been forced to flee since 2009. Almost 1,400 schools have been destroyed with the majority unable to open because of extensive damage or because they are in areas that remain unsafe. More than 2,000 people, many of them female, have been abducted by the group, many from their schools from the beginning of the conflict.

Thousands more students and teachers have been injured, some in deadly suicide bombs in the same period. Between 2009 and 2015, insurgency attacks in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states destroyed more than 910 schools and forced at least 1,500 to close. By early 2016, an estimated 952,029 school-age children like Tani Ibrahim had fled the violence as they escaped into displacement camps. They have little or no access to education.

Huge blasts, gunfire

“I saw them coming on motorcycle, armed with guns and they shot one of my teachers from the back.

“Some of the other teachers that saw their colleague who was killed ran into the bush while the insurgents threw explosives into the classrooms killing some of the teachers hiding, many of the classrooms were destroyed.” Tani recalls.

“Some of my teachers and schoolmates were killed in a random shooting; they threw some teachers who did not die instantly into the well and buried some that died immediately. Even one of my teachers, Ayuba John, was killed with gunshot from his back.”

When Tani spoke, it sounded like her voice was made of gravel. Her clear tone was undercut with a choking heaviness that forced her to pause several times.

She said “They killed men alone and left the women untouched, even my classmates were not speared. But after the attack, some of those that were caught up in it died.

“They speared some of the women and gave them a place to lay their heads.” She adds.

Tani says she and other survivors escaped when foot soldiers launched into the community to search for the men.

“We quickly escaped when they went in search of men, some hours later everywhere became calm, many of the villagers began to leave the village, so I joined them, and that was how I landed in an informal displacement camp in Cameroon.

“A woman there gave us the direction to where other Nigerian refugees were camped; it was there I got reunited with my parents and sibling who also escaped to the camp, including some of the villagers.” She added.

Clearly, Tani’s trajectory of reunification, her courage, hope for the future, and escape from Boko Haram is a typical example of the many hurdles facing children in the northeast. Today she is happily attending school and living with her parents and remaining nine siblings in Maiduguri.

“I was raped and forced to carry the child of a Boko Haram fighter”

It was in the evening of August 21st 2014 when the Boko Haram militants marched into Gava, a small village in the town of Gwoza, Borno State where Rebecca Bitrus-Ndara, a staunch Christian and her husband were living with their two sons, Zachariah and Jonathan Bitrus-Ndara. Zachariah was five-years-old while Jonathan, the younger son was three.

Rebecca was in the bathroom taking her bath when sounds of sporadic gunshots began to resonate from afar as the fighters unleashed their horrific attack in her village, she ran out of the bathroom with her wrapper strapped on her body.

“They came into our village and started shooting; I was in the bathroom then, but ran out with my wrapper tied on my chest”, Rebecca recalled.

Desperate flight for survival

According to her, the husband had already escaped with the children but as he was running, they were shooting at him but couldn’t get him while she ran after them asking him to drop the boys and run for his life.

He dropped them and continued running, Rebecca attempted taking her sons but luck ran out on her as the Boko Haram insurgents pounced on her.

“One of them hit me with his gun in the jaw and then shot into the air, and asked me to follow them since they couldn’t get my husband.”

“While we were going, I saw some people whom their legs and hands had been tied with rope, with their faces masked. And they started shooting at them and screaming Alahu Akbar! Alahu Akbar!! Meaning Allah is great. My face was also masked, with my hands tied with rope.” She recalls.

The Islamists dowry, forced marriage and rape

Rebecca was five months pregnant with her third child at the time of her abduction; Mala, one of the Boko Haram commandants took interest in her just some few days after her kidnap, and began to profess love to her, saying that he doesn’t want her to be killed, and asked her to marry him, but she refused and told him that she was already married with two children and that her Christian faith does not allow such.

Rebecca Bitrus-Ndara and her two children

“I told him that I prefer to be killed than getting married to any of their members. So he started dragging me on the ground.” I begged him but he was adamant, unfortunately for me, I lost the pregnancy in a miscarriage.” She said in Hausa language.

Bitrus-Ndara said that at one point, she was forced into a marriage with Mala, who paid one thousand Naira as her dowry to their leader – unlike many of the other female captives whose dowry were five-thousand Naira and subjected to forced marriage and repeated rape. She was raped and eventually became pregnant and gave birth to a child whom Mala, her impregnator named Ibrahim Mala in the forest.

“Mala forcefully slept with me, some weeks later; I discovered that I was pregnant.” “When I told him about the pregnancy, he was happy and asked me to live with him in their camp, but I didn’t say anything, I just kept quiet thinking about how to escape.”

Radicalization of the vulnerable

While the Islamic terrorist organization is known for kidnapping women and girls in Nigeria, the group is also notorious for abduction of boys whom it forces into becoming jihadists. It has kidnapped some 10,000 boys since 2010, including Bitrus’ children.

“Some of the sect members showed up with some children whom they had abducted, and I saw my son Zachariah with them and began to beg them to free him. But they assured me that they were not going to kill them, that they will put them into training in their camp”, she said in a superficial tone.

The same amount of money paid as dowry was what they paid for the male children which they abducted to join their foot soldiers. Bitrus-Ndara’s five-year-old son, Zachariah was bought with a sum of five-thousand Naira which was given to her as compensation for the boy.

“They came to me after some days, offering me five thousand naira as compensation for my children, but I rejected it. So they descended on me with beatings”

She said the insurgents wanted her to convert to Islam being Christian, but she refused. As a result, she said the militants grabbed her youngest son, Jonathan, and threw him into a river.

The escape

After spending two years in captivity, Bitrus and some other captives managed to escape and ran off into the forest when the military fighter jet which hovered the forest from above, caused confusion in the camp. They wandered through the forest for more than seven days with no food or water; they were bitten by mosquitoes and developed rashes. They eventually reached an army base where she was taken to a hospital and later transported to Maiduguri, her hometown.

At a church she was reunited with her husband who she thought was already dead. She says she still struggled to accept the Boko Haram militant’s child and wanted to give him away for adoption, but her husband accepted him and he was christened and renamed Christopher Bitrus-Ndara.

The Christian persecution

Persecution of Christians is believed to be part of the grim picture created by Boko Haram’s nine-year insurgency that has claimed more than 20,000 lives and forced more than 2 million others to flee, including school children.

On February 19, 2018, the Islamist group abducted 110 innocent and vulnerable girls from a government-owned secondary school in Dapchi, Yobe State – a replica of the Chibok experience (which took place on April 14, 2014).

Thirty days after, 104 out of the 110 schoolgirls abducted were released; five died while one of the girls, Leah Shaibu is still being held because she refused to renounce her Christian faith.

Truth, half-truth and propagandist defeat of the Boko Haram

Nothing symbolically screams failed state more than a government that is making up cosmetics for its goodwill. When a well-packaged web of lies is been sold to the masses in concerted efforts to show the nation that it is winning the war against Boko Haram insurgency, the truth will seem utterly preposterous.

While the Islamic extremists that have taken root as a terrorist organization like al-shabab and al-Qaeda in Nigeria continue to be emboldened by each terrorist act it commits, the Nigerian government and the law enforcement agents who were anxious to show the nation that they were winning the war against terrorism have made several victory claims.

It’s not the first time in the last three years, Nigeria’s government has made several victory claims of having tactically defeated the terrorist sect. Kabiru Adamu, a Security expert says both the military and the Nigerian government are spreading propaganda, and the message the minister of information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed was sending was a message for Nigerians to support what the government is doing in the war against Boko Haram.

But on May 29th 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari in his democracy day speech, carefully avoided using the word ‘defeated’. He indicated that the insurgents have been decimated. Adamu said “the president’s thinking is a reflection of the situation on ground. The terrorists have not been defeated, but they’ve been pushed to some locations.”

Reintegration at all cost

While some parts of the northeastern region still remain vulnerable to the Boko Haram insurgency, some closed communities have been reopened with survivors being reintegrated; the most important question is what measure has the military and the other security departments put in place to reduce this vulnerability?

Kabiru says he thinks it’s an aspect of the take, hold and rebuild, that the government is sending a strong message of victory to the insurgents, but the most important element is to determine the vulnerability of the people being reintegrated into these communities. He gave an example of the relocation of IDPs in Bama.

“For example, in Bama where some of the IDPs have been returned to their locations, we’ve seen several attacks especially on soft targets after their return.” This however, takes us back to the counter terrorism campaign,” he adds.

The beginning of the warfare

As the Nigeria-based terrorist organization continues to wage the brutal war against the Nigerian state with sophisticated weapons that has left the nation’s police stretched and running scared, critics express concerns over the military’s involvement in internal security rather than the Police.

Adamu argues that the security sector has not done enough in terms of sharing the responsibility to the entire security apparatus. He however pointed a finger of blame at the office of the National Security Adviser (NSA).

“We have to remember that the counter terrorism unit is under the NSA. It is the brain behind the counter terrorism strategy that Nigeria is implementing today, but we are not hearing the voice of that office in term of division for different responsibility. “That’s why the insurgents are able to enact themselves in the campaign as they forcefully conscript their captors.”

However, John Agim, Defense Ministry spokesman has said that “The kind of criminality and the kinds of weapons being used [by the insurgents] have reached a level of sophistication to a point that the police don’t have the capacity to handle it and the military has to come in.”

 

***This investigative project by Ripples Nigeria was conducted in partnership with the Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism.

 

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