Conflict & Justice

Boko Haram 'burned our houses, they burned our food' (VIDEO)

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Skyler Reid, Erin Conway-Smith

Editor's note: This article is part of a GlobalPost in-depth series on Boko Haram. See also Food's running out in Nigeria's refugee settlements; It takes "boko" to fight Boko Haram; and These are the real victims of Boko Haram.

YOLA, Nigeria — The insurgents wore camouflage, their faces shrouded in scarves like an army of ragtag desert nomads. “Allahu akbar!” some screamed as they raced through Gwoza’s dusty streets, piled high onto armored vehicles and Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, firing guns wildly into the air.

One minute Musa Salihu was unpacking his car after a business trip, surrounded by the usual bustle of Gwoza, a border town in the rocky hills of northeastern Nigeria. The next, he heard gunshots ringing out from every direction.

“It dawned on us that Boko Haram has come into Gwoza,” Salihu says. “And they have taken over the town.”

Boko Haram attacked the town’s military outpost first. The soldiers fled, rushing into the mountains. They left behind an arsenal of weapons for the insurgents to loot, and no protection for the people of Gwoza.

Over the next day Boko Haram fighters burned down the police station, the local government offices, the emir’s palace. They drove out the civilian militiamen who had helped guard the town.

Salihu, 52, a fabric shop owner and the patriarch of a large family, barricaded his children and wives in their home. He thought the insurgents would leave Gwoza.

Instead Boko Haram hoisted black flags and dug in, killing at least 100 people as they seized control.

On his third day in hiding, Salihu saw the insurgents — wild-looking men, some of them mere boys — going from door to door, house to house, killing the able-bodied men and taking the girls.

"I believe that even Boko Haram themselves do not know why they are killing people so carelessly."

“I believe that even Boko Haram themselves do not know why they are killing people so carelessly like that,” he says.

They shot dead Salihu’s 21-year-old son after he peeked out a window to see what was happening. They looted and destroyed Salihu’s shop, where he employed 10 people. He knew it didn’t matter that his family was Muslim — Boko Haram slaughters almost without discrimination.

“We had to escape,” Salihu says. “We climbed up the wall and jumped outside, leaving all the things we had.”

Salihu and his family fled for their lives, trekking by foot to Madagali, a city about 18 miles away. They survived on small food donations from people they encountered along the way, and managed to hitch a ride to Yola, the capital of Adamawa state. The assault happened in August 2014; his family has remained in Yola ever since.

Displaced women wait to receive food aid during a distribution at the Cathedral of Yola, state capital of Adamawa, on December 4, 2014.

Yola, city of mercy

For Salihu, like hundreds of thousands of others escaping Boko Haram, Yola has become a critical haven in a time of crisis, offering shelter and support. The city’s population of 340,000 swelled to nearly double from the deluge of people fleeing the Islamist insurgents.

It was to Yola that a university chancellor led his students after Boko Haram attacked their city. One young Christian woman came by foot with her children after escaping a forced religious conversion. Another, a Muslim woman, ran for days after her sister was kidnapped, and now waits to see if she can ever return home.

By late March, the Nigerian military, in a coalition with regional forces, took back Gwoza and dozens of other towns.

But this is far from the end of the Boko Haram crisis. The scale of the destruction is overwhelming, with an enormous swath of Nigeria’s poorest region in ruins. Aid agencies warn that a humanitarian emergency is looming. Some of the 1.5 million people displaced by the Islamic terror group are too traumatized to return home.

For months, Salihu, two of his wives and 13 children have slept in a half-built cinderblock house in Yola. A third wife remained in Gwoza — she got caught up in the chaos and wasn’t able to leave. She survived by pretending to be insane, says Salihu, who has heard bits of information about her. The men with guns let the madwoman be — as far as he knows.

While he waits to see if he can ever return home, Salihu tries to work. Every morning he goes to the local market and helps a friend selling kola nuts. He usually earns 50 or 100 naira (25 or 50 cents) a day, but sometimes nothing at all. His wives and daughters beg neighbors for food. Some nights they go to bed hungry.

A child gathers grain off the floor after a Yola food distribution runs out.

“I feel pain, really,” he says with a sad, weary smile. “I was so worried before that it felt as bad as taking my own life. They took everything I had.”

“Sometimes I feel it would be better if I had just died.”

“Allah commanded us to rule”

For six years Boko Haram has spread terror, with the goal of ruling Nigeria and imposing a strict version of Islamic sharia law. The situation has intensified since January 2014 as the group stepped up attacks in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states. Of the more than 13,000 people killed, at least 10,000 have died since then, according to the US-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The group — also known in Arabic as Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (“People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad,” in English) — counts an estimated 15,000 fighters, though possibly more, mainly recruited from ethnic Kanuri areas in the northeast, as well as forced conscripts. At the roots is a deep unhappiness with the Nigerian government, led since 2010 by President Goodluck Jonathan, who is from Nigeria’s Christian-dominated, oil-rich southern delta. Jonathan was voted out in March 2015 elections, and is due to step down in late May.

Nigeria is an important oil producer, but much of that income is siphoned off by a greedy elite instead of being invested in the country. By almost any development metric — infrastructure, literacy, health care, employment, income — the mainly Muslim north is lagging far behind.

It is these differences that Boko Haram — the common name by which the group is known — has exploited since it began, drawing support from the young and alienated. Thousands of young boys receive only a basic Quranic education, leaving them without the skills needed for employment, or even basic literacy.

Boko Haram’s tactics are merciless, punishing villagers with beheadings and killing women and young children as they flee. The group has attacked churches and mosques, bus terminals and schools, police stations and military camps. They bombed the United Nations building in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

Town by town, village by village, Boko Haram took control of thousands of miles of territory across northeastern Nigeria, along the borders of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. The insurgency has spilled over into neighboring countries, in particular Cameroon, which shares a porous, mountainous border with Nigeria.

When Boko Haram captured Gwoza in August, the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau declared in an online video that Allah had decreed they rule the town under “Islamic law.”

“In fact, he commands us to rule the rest of the world, not only Nigeria, and now we have started,” Shekau says in a rambling statement.

Boko Haram kidnaps girls, and slaughters boys. Most infamously, in April 2014 Boko Haram fighters abducted more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok where they had gathered to write final year exams, leading to a high-profile campaign to “#BringBackOurGirls.” The schoolgirls still haven’t been found.

Despite the international attention, Nigeria’s government and military have long been criticized for inaction in combating Boko Haram. The official reason is that the government didn’t have proper military equipment until recently, but many Nigerians are convinced there were political factors at play.

To fill the military void across the country’s northeast, highly organized DIY vigilante groups and traditional hunters — men trained by their fathers to track in the bush — have fought the insurgents.

A band of hunters pose in Yola, state capital of Adamawa, on December 4, 2014 after taking part in an operation against Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. Military and vigilante forces acknowledge the crucial support of hunters in the fight against Boko Haram.

“Traditionally, before the police, hunters were the ones who protected the community,” says Kwaya Zakka, who leads a special security squad in Yola. “I don’t like corruption. The police do corruption. That is this problem.” But these ad-hoc forces have been no match for the better-armed and ruthless insurgents.

Only in February, as Jonathan battled for re-election, did Nigeria launch a concerted effort to defeat Boko Haram.

Election day was postponed by six weeks. Substantial help came from the militaries of neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger, with Nigerian forces bolstered by experienced mercenaries from South Africa and former Soviet countries.

In a matter of weeks, towns were freed from Boko Haram and the insurgents appear to have been turned on their heels. Shekau, in what some analysts interpreted as a sign of desperation, pledged Boko Haram’s allegiance to the Islamic State.

“People are seeing that the insurgency didn’t need to drag on,” says Clement Nwankwo, a civil society activist with the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre in Abuja. “I think there is a whole lot of worry about how protracted this insurgency has been, against what has been described as a ragtag army.”

The president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim from Nigeria’s north and a former military ruler who throughout his political campaign vowed to crack down hard on Boko Haram.

Boko Haram became active under a Muslim leader, the late Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua. Under their rigid doctrine, the insurgents view Nigeria’s Muslims as insufficiently strict in adhering to Islamic laws.

Destroying Boko Haram will be no simple feat, according to John Campbell, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Beating the insurgency back “will take time, given the movement’s deep roots in the marginalization and impoverishment of northern Nigeria,” he writes in a post-election analysis.

Based on Buhari’s previous record in office, civil society groups are concerned that his response could involve excessive military force and human rights violations.

And then there’s the matter of rebuilding: Boko Haram at its most potent ruled 20 local government areas in Nigeria, a territory the size of Belgium. The insurgents have left widespread devastation in their wake.

“No one knew it would get this big”

The American University of Nigeria is an unlikely place, an oasis of green amid the chaotic, dusty streets of Yola.

The air hangs heavy with sand from the Harmattan, the annual winds that carry Saharan dust across the region, blocking out the sun and lending a surreal, yellowish atmosphere to the bustling city.

Margee Ensign, the university’s president, a bundle of energy from California, remembers when the Boko Haram refugees began arriving in Yola last year. The people came in waves, trekking by foot over mountains via Cameroon, leaving everything behind to save their lives.

Staff at the university suddenly all had houseguests staying with them — perhaps a dozen extra people. Some had two dozen. Others even more. “We asked our head of human resources to do a survey, to find out how many employees had internally displaced people living with them,” Ensign says. “Much to our shock we found that one man who drives for us has 50 people living in his house.”

 

This lovely lady, who helps produce radio/TV dramas, has 43 people displaced by Boko Haram staying at her home.

A photo posted by Erin Conway-Smith (@erinconwaysmith) on

The university began distributing food to staff, but the need was far greater — and no one else was helping, says Ensign.

And so large-scale distributions began. The university’s Adamawa Peace Initiative, formed three years ago to bring together community leaders of various faiths, became a vital channel for feeding displaced people spread across Yola.

But despite generous donations from benefactors, the group has had growing difficulty meeting the overwhelming need. At a recent food distribution held at a Catholic church, representatives of 26,500 people showed up.

“No one knew it was going to get this big,” Ensign says. “The big question is, what if they’re never going home?”

Displaced families take shelter in a church building in Yola.

Yola is a hectic city but also a welcoming one, with an uncommon reputation for tolerance. Muslims and Christians live and work side by side with no apparent tension.

The sense of hospitality is also uncommon. Strangers stay cheek by jowl with their hosts in private homes, with thousands more camped out on the grounds of churches and mosques. Construction sites throughout the city have been turned into makeshift housing, with laundry hung over walls without ceilings and windows without glass.

The government is taking care of about 15,000 displaced people at official camps, and has directed its aid efforts via these camps, as have international relief agencies. But they represent a mere fraction of the more than 300,000 refugees living in Yola.

“In this culture, people would rather stay with extended family rather than stay in the camps,” Ensign says.

The UN’s humanitarian relief agency has lauded the “impressive solidarity effort” in northeastern Nigeria. But some of the private households that have taken in Boko Haram survivors are themselves now facing food shortages, having exhausted their resources.

Ensign sees difficult times ahead. The rains come in May. Many people in northeastern Nigeria are subsistence farmers, growing crops to feed their families. How will homeless people farm? How will they eat?

Yola has coped well under the pressure of a swollen population, but can this continue?

“I think there's an increasing awareness that there is a humanitarian emergency in northeast Nigeria,” Ensign says. But this hasn’t translated into international action.

“People have assumed that with Nigeria's wealth that Nigeria itself would take care of this problem,” she says. “Individuals have come forward, but we haven't seen the really large response that we need now.”

“It's been hard for people to accept that Nigeria” — Africa’s biggest economy — “is facing a humanitarian emergency.”

Soldiers from Chad hunt Boko Haram insurgents at the border between Chad and Nigeria.

“We need the government to do more”

“Welcome to our school,” says principal Bitrus Thakuma, ushering visitors toward the primary school wing, where children sit on a mat reciting multiplication tables. “Please will you sign our guestbook before you leave?”

On the outskirts of Yola, a group of displaced people from Michika, another town in northeastern Nigeria attacked by Boko Haram, have created a makeshift village in a housing estate still under construction. 

They were given permission to live here by the project’s contractor, a fellow native of Michika, and for now it is home to 3,480 people; they keep a good count. Food donations are distributed to households depending on their family sizes.

The community has a generator, a water tank, even a cobbler. A small shop sells soup, packets of Nescafe, vegetables. One entrepreneur has set up a mobile phone charging station, with a power bank and a variety of adaptors.

The school has 549 students in classrooms identified by white chalk on the bare brick walls. In a senior class, teenagers are studying agricultural science. All the teachers are volunteers, displaced from Michika themselves.

“When we started people were laughing at us,” says Thakuma, “because of our confidence.”

The classrooms lack roofs, not to mention desks and chairs, but the children are learning.

Children forced from their homes by Boko Haram attend a makeshift school in Yola.

“Some people are saying that now we can go home. It is not a matter of simply going home. What will you find there? Where will you stay? What will you eat?” Thakuma says. “A lot of people will stay in Yola.”

The Michika camp is an impressive example of self-reliance, reflecting a common attitude toward government in Nigeria’s north: It has done little to help in the past, and can’t be counted on in the future.

Dauda Bello, an imam and a member of the Adamawa Peace Initiative, worries about the effect of poor education on youth in the northeast.

“Most of the places where Boko Haram is strong, education is not very strong,” he says, adding: “I mean education in the Western sense.”

Thousands of young men receive only a simple religious education, in which they memorize the Quran and nothing more.

“They are what I call ‘learned illiterates,’” Bello says. “Their mind is closed, they are not allowed to think and to question certain things – which is not Islam.”

“It is these kinds of children that may be easy recruits into these evil organizations, because they are not educated properly.”

Bello says children at government-run schools, where the education is often substandard, tend to struggle after graduation and are unable to find work.

“One can stay for nine years without learning anything useful,” he says. “So as a result they just idle around on the streets and they become vulnerable, and can easily get into the wrong hands.”

"We need the government to do more,” he adds. “What they are doing is not enough."

“They burned our food”

Lediya Ujulu converted on the road to Cameroon.

Ujulu was fleeing the town of Madagali when she happened upon two Boko Haram fighters, headed right toward her. “When I saw them, I was scared — I was trembling,” she says.

“They said we should become Muslims. They said if we don't become Muslims they will take all of us away. And that if they see our husbands they are going to slaughter them.”

Ujulu converted — what other choice was there? she asks — and continued on the road, escaping to Cameroon and then Yola with her four children.

“I was thinking my world had come to an end,” she says. “I was crying.”

Ujulu, a 30-year-old widow, grew enough crops back home to feed her family and sell the extra, and had a small brood of chickens and a goat. But here in Yola she is a day laborer.

“They burned our houses, they burned our food. They drove us away from our farms,” she says. “Here I am farming to have money, but back home I do farming for myself.”

Children walk outside a charred house in the remote northeast town of Baga in April, 2013, after two days of clashes between officers of the Joint Task Force and members of the Islamist sect Boko Haram.

Ujulu is managing to feed her children at a time when there are warnings of a serious food crisis ahead.

Until the main harvest in October, much of Nigeria’s northeast will remain at the very least in a “crisis” state of acute food insecurity, according to a scale known as the Famine Early Warning System, run by the US Agency for International Development.

Most people displaced by Boko Haram had to abandon their farms. Markets and shops have closed, and in places like Yola host families have exhausted their food supplies to feed their guests.

Margee Ensign wonders: Why not find plots of arable land around Yola, where people displaced by Boko Haram can grow crops and help feed their communities?

“It’s unlikely we can continue to feed people for another year,” Ensign says. “The big question is what can we do to make sure people can get to some land where they can farm and have enough food for themselves and their families.”

“We're working on a solution, at least we hope it's a solution, where we'll be able to at least offer that to some of the IDPs [internally displaced people] that are here. Very soon, because the rains start in about two months,” she says.

It’s a potentially controversial issue, she admits, given tensions over land rights in some parts on Nigeria’s northeast. But already one local chief is on board.

"It can happen to anybody. We have to be our brothers’ keepers."

Alhaji Abdulmumini Abubakar, chief of Bole village on the outskirts of Yola and a member of the Adamawa Peace Initiative, has already allotted land to displaced farmers, and is willing to give more. They can stay as long as they want — forever, if necessary.

“Some people cannot go back to their area because they don't have the guarantee of peace,” he says. “Anyone who is able to farm, we will give him land to farm.”

Abdulnasir Laya, 68, a retired local government commissioner from the Maihe area, works in the chief’s farmlands, and hired Ujulu and another woman to help.

“They come here, they spend the whole day here. They get something to survive on instead of going to beg,” he says. “They want to be civilized. They don't want to be beggars.”

Everything they owned was taken away by the insurgents, and it won’t be easy for them to go home, Laya adds.

“Apart from the fear, their houses, everything of theirs has been destroyed. Where will they go and stay? No food. Nobody to employ them back home.”

“It can happen to anybody,” he says. “We have to be our brothers’ keepers.”

Family patriarch Musa Salihu, 52, lost his business and his 21-year-old son to Boko Haram in Gwoza.

"I lost so much"

For nearly eight months, Boko Haram kept their headquarters in Gwoza, the hilly town on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon where Musa Salihu ran a fabric shop.

Gwoza was a strategic base for launching attacks throughout northeastern Nigeria, protected by the nearby Mandara Mountains. The missing Chibok schoolgirls were rumored to have been held in a Gwoza compound, according to escaped residents, but have not been found.

In late March, Nigerian forces retook the town at last. News of this major capture came on the eve of presidential polls, prompting critics of Goodluck Jonathan to note with skepticism the incredible timing.

“FLASH,” announced the official Twitter account for Nigeria’s military. “Troops this morning captured Gwoza destroying the Headquarters of the Terrorists self-styled Caliphate.”

Photos posted on social media showed grinning troops posing in front of Gwoza’s police training college after recapturing the town.

Chris Olukolade, Nigeria’s defense spokesman, told a news conference in Abuja that dead bodies had been discovered in a well. The full story is unclear, with access to Gwoza still restricted. One man, who had been forced to join Boko Haram, reportedly said the group’s leader had ordered women in the town to be killed.

Olukolade also described “massive” destruction of infrastructure and property throughout Gwoza, where the militants had reportedly set up a bomb-making factory and kept civilian prisoners.

Musa Salihu fears the worst but still wants to return home, desperate to find out what happened to his wife and his house. His shop and his cars have already been destroyed, that much he knows.

“I intend to go back to estimate the losses and try to live there,” he says. “If I can't live there then I will find my way to some other place.”

Salihu also knows he has a tough road ahead to rebuilding his life, his family’s livelihood, his lost community.

“Anytime I think about this loss I feel demoralized,” Salihu says with a sad smile. “But now I've gotten used to it. Otherwise you would find me weeping, because I lost so much.”

Editor's note: This article is part of a GlobalPost in-depth series on Boko Haram. See also Food's running out in Nigeria's refugee settlements; It takes "boko" to fight Boko Haram; and These are the real victims of Boko Haram.