Then came the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (Arabic for “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad) but more commonly known as Boko Haram and dreaded for its terrorism, which many agree completely negates Prophet Mohammed’s teachings.
Beauty has turned to ashes in Adamawa. Peace has turned to deaths and destruction in Borno. Pride has turned to humiliation in Yobe. Yet, humanity still stands in these states in Nigeria’s northeast.
What kind of life goes on in these lands when you never know where and when Boko Haram will strike again, even as the troops of the Nigerian Army have continued to regain control of these towns and villages?
The Defence Headquarters had on February 28 announced that it had dislodged the extremist sect and retook many communities it captured in Adamawa and Yobe states. Military officials said many insurgents were killed and others arrested during the battles for the liberation of those communities, while arms and ammunition were recovered.
We travelled to some of these communities to meet residents, and experience, first hand, the monumental destruction that Boko Haram unleashed on their people.
Mark, aged 43, resident of Michika in Adamawa State recalls vividly when the insurgents invaded the town at about 10.45am on Sunday, September 7, 2014:
“I was in my house when they came into the city and I escaped and ran for over eight kilometeres into the farm and onto the mountains.
“We escaped through the corn farms to the mountains. Some people hid in the corn farms for three days without water and food,” he said to PREMIUM TIMES.
Mark found his way to Gombe, which is 328 kilometres from Michika, where he joined other escapees to flee to Singagali, Sinakwande and Tillijo mountains bordering Nigeria and Cameroon.
Michika is no longer in the grips of Boko Haram. Mark returned there weeks after troops recaptured the town.
His house was not torched. But he said, “I found that my house was used as a clinic by Boko Haram medical team because they abandoned different types of drugs, infusions and equipment there. Some of the drugs were still in their cartons,” adding, “An old woman who could not run when the insurgents took the town said she was treated in my house when she took ill.”
The insurgents occupied Michika for seven dreadful months maiming and killing men, capturing young girls and married women and raping them with horrifying recklessness.
Townsfolk alleged that they killed Christian boys who refused to convert to Islam and Moslem boys who refused to fight on their side, and took away children to Sambisa Forest to train them as fighters.
Mark said boys, aged between eight and 10, who were captured by the insurgents, returned brandishing AK 47 assault rifles and shooting at their relations.
“If you see the aggression displayed by these little children, you would feel sad about how Boko Haram took away their innocence and planted violence and hatred in their hearts,” Mark said with a shudder.
“But we are ready to rebuild our town and live together as we did before the enemies came in and stole our joy.
“Christians had no problems with Moslems here and by God’s grace, we will not fight our Moslem brothers because of the crimes of evil men,” Mark said.
Residents said Boko Haram invaded this community thrice in 2014. The first time in February and the second in March.
Bala, a resident who witnessed it all said the insurgents first arrived in the community with six Russian-made armoured tanks that day in February, at about 6.30 pm; destroying anyone and property in sight.
“They were shooting everywhere as they drove through the town. We fled into the bush and they went away just to come back when we returned and started killing our people again,” he recounted, his voice shaking.
After the initial assault on the town in which 13 persons were killed, Bala said the insurgents moved to Bazza, where they wreaked further havoc. Not done, they re-entered Shuwa and moved out again before coming back to occupy the land and descend the residents.
“When they entered our town, we ran to Baza and when they came to Baza, we fled into Cameroon. We are neighbours to Cameroon. They stole from the people and loaded their vehicles and drove to Krichinga which is about eight kilometers away.
“Six months after that initial attack, they came again and occupied the town. It was during the occupation of the town in November 2014 that they blew up several houses, shops and places of worship.
“They occupied the town for three months and we fled to Lasa and from there to Bau and to Yola.”
In the terrorists heaven
Imagine that the terrorists, during one of their forays into Shuwa, tricked the people that they were “friendly.”
Said one resident, “They told us they did not come to harm us and asked us to stay in our houses. But a few days after, they went from house to house, killing people and taking our wives and our girls away to live with them.”
“After taking our wives and daughters away, they ordered that those of us, fathers, who could not read Arabic Language should be killed. So many people were killed,” said Suleiman, one of the residents.
“They arrested my friend Joseph and me and threatened to take us to Sambisa Forest and kill us if we cannot read Arabic. At that time, the military was approaching and the jetfighters were flying all over the place. They ran away with us to Gulak and were hiding so that the jetfighters will not locate them.
“At Gulak they said anybody who cannot read Arabic should be carried to Sambisa. That was how they carried many of our people to Sambisa. Because my friend and I read Arabic, they allowed us to go. But those they took to Sambisa have not returned.”
Another resident, Shuaibu, a Catholic, has a different account. According to him, while in church on September 7, 2014, news filtered in that the insurgents were closing in on Shuwa. So, the priest prayed for the congregation before urging them to go home and remain indoors. “I was standing outside our house with my mother, discussing how people from neighbouring villages were running away when suddenly, we saw heavily armed men coming in a Toyota Hilux and some motorcycles,” he recounted.
“They were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar,’ and we wanted to run into the bush and one of them on the motorbike told us not to run. They said they were looking for people who registered with them and collected their money,” he added.
He said the insurgents drove straight to Michika without hurting anybody or destroying any property on the way. However, he said the insurgents deceived the people into staying back while stationing their men in strategic locations ready to launch a brutal attack.
“I stayed in our house located by the roadside for four days. On the fourth day, my grandfather and I were feeding the animals when the insurgents went from house to house attacking people.”
“They had taken positions near our house and before we knew it, I heard a loud knock on our door and I looked out of the window and saw them outside. I ran to the backyard and jumped over the fence. They pursued me and asked me to stop running but I did not stop.
“Three of them pursued me into the bush and at a point it was as if they were going to catch up with me. I don’t know how they lost me because the initial distance between me and them was about five metres.
“I was wearing a green T-shirt. I guess it was not possible for them to shoot while running after me. I fell down and started crawling and they lost trail of me.”
When the insurgents retreated after the initial attack on the town, Shuaibu, who said he was watching from a tree top in the bush, sneaked back to his home, collected his credentials and those of his siblings and fled.
He went back to the bush and trekked several kilometres under the cover of trees and farmlands until he got to a point where he boarded a vehicle to Yola.
But back in the village, the elderly folk who could not run away were at the mercy of the terrorists.
The story of Shuaibu’s 86-year-oldgrandfather is ironic. He was said to have been taken hostage by Boko Haram for over a month. He was later freed but killed where he sought refuge.
Says Shuaibu, “I did not come back to see my grandfather alive. He was killed near the mountains while trying to run to safety with the credentials he carried from the house.”
“He was not killed by Boko Haram. He was killed by our people who were taking refuge in the mountain area. They had warned that people should not approach the area in the night and so they saw him coming from afar, they thought he was an insurgent and they killed him with five other people who were trying to escape with him.
“Only my old mother and I are left of my family now. We came back to find that they stole everything we had but fortunately, they did not burn our house.”
One of the survivors of the carnage, Ayuba, said the insurgents went totally berserk in Madagali, demolishing almost everything in sight – worship places, private homes, shops and markets. They also stole everything of value including furniture, cattle, sheep and goats.
He said the insurgents spent a day during its first incursion into Madagali, a situation he said made residents who had fled to safety to return.
“When they came the second time, I was writing exam in school. My parents and sibling had fled before Boko Haram took our town but two of my closest friends were killed,” he narrated.
“I was told that they were caught while attempting to run away and asked to denounce Christianity.”
Based on the account of some of the elderly community members who witnessed the killing of the youth, the duo remained adamant and told the insurgents they would not deny their religion.
“I learnt my friends told the insurgents they would not reject Christ and the insurgents asked one of them to go but as he made to leave, they shot him in the mouth and he died instantly,” he said.
“My other friend was tied on the hands and legs and asked to convert to Islam and he refused. They cut his throat with a sharp knife.”
After the Nigerian Military reclaimed Madagali, the residents returned to find rubbles where their homes used to stand.
Ibrahim, 28 year-old resident of Madagali said he ran through the bush to Lassa and crossing the Lassa River, trekked to Mararaba Mubi, a distance of over 100 kilometres.
“Madagali was attacked on the day the Nigerian Military armoured tank fell into a ditch along the road here. When the military removed the tank and went away with it, that night, Boko Haram went to Michika and burnt houses,” said Ibrahim.
“We came back to our houses thinking nothing will happen. When we were least prepared, they came again and destroyed everything we had. We escaped into the bush and ran to Lassa. After we crossed the Lassa River, we were told the area may also come under attack.
“That was when we fled again through the bush to Mararaba Mubi from where I borrowed a phone and called my brother in Abuja to inform him of what had happened.”
His brother, he said, begged one of his friends in Yola to come down to Mararaba Mubi and convey them to safety.
Ibrahim said Boko Haram forced aged parents and grandparents who could not run to join Islam and started teaching them how to recite the Holy Quran.
“They killed my aunty and many of my relations. In my village, Wure Ganji Walle, they killed more than 27 persons,” he continued.
“It was when we came back that we did their full burial rites. If not for the help of the bishop, we don’t know what would have happened to us.
Boko Haram took everything we had. They stole our clothes, mattresses, furniture and food.”
Even after the Nigerian Army drove them out of Adamawa towns and villages, residents say the insurgents still sneak in to kill and steal foodstuff from the people.
“It is less than 15 minutes ride on a bike from here to Sambisa Forest where they are now hiding,” a resident, who would not give his name, said.
“They are monitoring what is happening here and could launch an attack anytime. But they are not as bold as they were because of the presence of soldiers and local hunters, who provide security here.”
Although they are still struggling with the pain inflicted on them by the insurgents, Mark, Ayuba and Ibrahim told PREMIUM TIMES they have refused to give in to hate but are determined to rebuild their towns and villages and live happily again.