Living in the shadow of Boko Haram



SHE realised almost instantly that her sister was dead. In the few seconds following the blast, amid the chaos, blood and body parts, Baba Hadiya instinctively reached out towards her sibling slumped alongside her. Today she recalls how puzzling it was at precisely that time to discover she was incapable of reaching for her sister. Moments later Baba Hadiya lost consciousness.

Some who survived say the suicide bomber was a young girl, others insist there was more than one

Baba Hadiya never saw who detonated the explosion.

All she knows is that when it ripped through the marketplace it killed her sister, blinded her in one eye and blew off her left arm beneath the elbow.

Today, sunglasses shading her irreparably damaged eyes, Baba Hadiya’s face remains badly scarred and the use of her remaining right hand is severely limited.

We are sitting talking on the balcony of a shabby building in the dusty backstreets of Gombe, a town in north-east Nigeria. The punishing heat of the dry season surrounds us like a blanket and the sun’s harsh light bleaches the walls. The intense blaze of the sun makes me think of those few seconds during which Baba Hadiya’s life was changed for ever.

This is a woman who believes it’s important for people to fully understand what such acts of violence meted out by Boko Haram really mean for its victims.

Bravely and discreetly she slides up her hijab towards her shoulders to show the terrible injuries the blast inflicted and the stump of her left arm, which hangs limply. Two years on, the scars on her right arm still look raw and her fingers seem locked in a painful claw-like grip.

“It was late afternoon just after five o’clock and the market was busy with people shopping before the Festival of Sallah, a local holiday,” she recalls of July 16 last year. “We had gone to the market to buy fabric for our business to make hijabs and dresses, and within five minutes the bomb went off.”
Those minutes became months of recuperation. During that convalescence and already a widow, Baba Hadiya had to rely on her mother to look after her four youngsters and the two infants her sister had left behind.

At some point during those long painful months of recuperation in one of Gombe’s rundown hospitals, Boko Haram, one of the world’s deadliest terror groups, claimed responsibility for the bombing that maimed Baba Hadiya and killed her sister and 49 other people.

Boko Haram sees itself as the West African wing of Islamic State (IS), to which it pledges allegiance. Just like its equally barbaric Middle Eastern big brother Boko Haram has wrought havoc and brought fear to the civilian population of north-east Nigeria. Women, especially, bear the brunt of its brutal rule.

Boko Haram’s abuse of women shocked the world and made global headlines when on April 14, 2014 its cadres attacked a secondary school in the town of Chibok and abducted 276 schoolgirls at gunpoint. The girls were asleep in their dormitory when several dozen armed fighters overran the premises, herded the girls on to trucks, set fire to the school and drove their hostages into the bush.

The attack was very much in keeping with the group’s aims. Loosely translated from the region’s Hausa language, Boko Haram means “western education is forbidden”. For a time the world united in outrage. From US First Lady Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenage Nobel Peace laureate, and across the global social media community there was a rallying call to #bringbackourgirls.
But that was two years ago and little had been heard of the schoolgirls until a video was released by the jihadis this week which appeared to show 15 of the girls who were abducted.

In the meantime women continue to suffer terribly. Hundreds have been abducted, imprisoned, forced into sexual slavery, raped and sometimes intentionally impregnated, perhaps with the goal of creating a new generation of fighters. “These people have a spiritual conviction that any child they father will grow to inherit their ideology,” Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State, said last year.

Many other women have lost their menfolk to Boko Haram’s rampages and been left to fend for themselves and their children in a country where most of the population survives on one US dollar or less a day. Then there are other women again who, like Baba Hadiya, have been the direct victims of Boko Haram’s bullets and bombs.

Perhaps though it is Boko Haram’s ability through coercion, fear and psychological manipulation to turn young women into the very suicide bombers who attack other innocents that is most difficult to fathom. It has been reported that some have been given the choice of being shot or strapping themselves with explosives, while others have been drugged, indoctrinated or a combination of both.

Whatever the reasons, close to 50 per cent of the suicide bombers in Nigeria last year were women, half of them under the age of 18. These bombers are as much victims as those women they target or others widowed by war and struggling as single parents. All, in one way or another, have been at the mercy of Boko Haram. The vast majority of victims, however, are those simply struggling to feed and keep a roof over the heads of their children.
The chafed, leathery skin of Maimuna’s hands is testimony to a life of near incessant toil. It was two years ago after dropping off food at their family home in Adamawa State that Maimuna’s husband returned to the market as a Boko Haram bomb went off.

“I tried calling him on his mobile phone, but it kept ringing out,” she recalls. Those who witnessed the explosion say her husband was killed, but Maimuna was never to see the corpse and is still unsure as to what exactly became of her husband.

With Boko Haram tightening its grip on the area she decided to flee to the comparative safety of Gombe, where she and her son toil daily to earn a few Nigerian naira.

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Only the kindness of a local man affiliated with a nearby mosque has enabled them to live rent free in a house he owned. But the man has since died and his family insist the house should be returned, leaving Maimuna and her son facing an uncertain future.

For now they manage to eat with help from humanitarian agency Mercy Corps. Modest financial help has allowed her teenage son to buy a sewing machine with which he has taught himself to make clothes and do alterations.
The income might be tiny but as is often the case with those whose lives teeter on the brink, such small sums can make the difference between survival and grim fate. Here lies the real tragedy and toll of what the Boko Haram insurgency has foisted upon the civilian population of north-east Nigeria.

Besides some 17,000 deaths it has torn apart families and caused the loss of homes, land, jobs, breadwinners, dignity and hope.

A conservative estimate of the number of people uprooted and displaced is a staggering 2.2 million. Caught in the epicentre of this humanitarian storm, it is women, children and the elderly who are often most at threat.

According to Michael Muazu, humanitarian projects manager for Mercy Corps in Nigeria, 92 per cent of displaced people are living in ordinary communities rather than formal camps across 12 states and in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “Most of the male heads of the households are not around, having moved to look for work elsewhere, so women and children are left behind and are vulnerable,” explains Muazu as we talk at the agency’s base in Gombe.

Mercy Corps provides food assistance for 4,000 households in the city, Muazu says, adding that one household equates to seven people, which means 28,000 people are provided for in terms of what aid workers call food security. It is a vast responsibility but a drop in the ocean of need in responding to the humanitarian crisis.

Almost every day those whose lives have been turned upside down by Boko Haram arrive in Gombe. In the space of one afternoon I meet Abbas, his wife, family and other women who have fled with them. In a compound in the impoverished Pantami neighbourhood they have set up home.

“Back in our village we had to stay inside much of the time and couldn’t go to our farms. There was little food and water and always Boko Haram slaughtering people,” Abbas tells me of the five months his family and fellow villagers spent living in terror.

Clearly exhausted and traumatised, his elderly mother, wife and children sit in the dust. Lined up along one wall are a handful of bulging trolley bags and holdalls containing all the belongings they could carry during the five gruelling days it took them to escape their village after the Nigerian Army punched holes in the Boko Haram-held territory.

Their story is just one of a stream recounted by those who arrive in Gombe.

Forty-year-old Jummai escaped the same Chibok district in Borno State where barely six months earlier the schoolgirls had been abducted.

“It started at 11am and I was at a little restaurant in town,” Jummai recalls of the day when Boko Haram came to her community. In the chaos that ensued Jummai managed to slip back briefly to her house but there was no sign of her children and husband so she fled into the bush. It was during that time that she came across a family of five other children who had become separated from their parents and were hiding.

“Not being able to find my own kids, I could only imagine what the mother of these children was thinking, so I took them into my care,” she says.

For the next three days with no food or water Jummai and the children dodged Boko Haram fighters combing the district.

Today Jummai and her husband, who were reunited in Gombe with their own four children, still care for the five children she found in the bush, the youngest of whom, Joel, is 12 and the eldest, Hanna, now 17.

In the two years since they fled Chibok, the children have not met anyone from their family, relatives or neighbours, and the fate of their parents is still unknown.

Sitting in the shade of a baobab tree in the heart of Gombe town I ask Joel what his life is like now. “Things are good, but not so good. I still dream about my parents,” he tells me, before the other children chip in by saying that at night before bed they often sit together and reminisce about their mum and dad. They tell me that in Gombe some local youngsters pick on them because they are outsiders and come from areas where the terrorists operate.

“They call us Boko Haram, but if they had seen what we have seen they would not say such things,” one of girls from Jummai’s adoptive family says quietly.

Sadly this prejudice and subtle shunning is a familiar story too for those women who have been captives of Boko Haram but escaped. In this conflict stories rarely end with a happy family reunion. Many of the women who survive captivity are viewed with profound suspicion. The prevailing, if perverse rationale is that their captivity, even rape at the hand of Boko Haram, might have allowed them to establish a bond with the terrorists.

If there is any good news emerging from the nightmare that is the Boko Haram insurgency, it’s that its fighters may no longer be able to control territory as tightly as they did because of an intensifying military campaign by the Nigerian government. But as Muazu points out, the jihadists still pose an enormous threat.

“Yes, they have been weakened, but their capacity to attack vulnerable villages is on the increase and they are now striking soft targets like markets where people gather,” he says.

Muazu adds that Mercy Corps expects to step up its humanitarian response in vulnerable areas like south Borno State, replicating what it has done in Gombe. Programmes which often engage women’s support groups and focus on the provision of food and non-food items, livelihood start-up assistance, cash for work and nutritional assistance have made an enormous difference to the lives of many women in Gombe. Among one of the innovative schemes was to provide women with a smart card that is secure and can only be accessed by a PIN number. Designated vendors are given electronic handsets, and local beneficiaries and the displaced select their preferred food items from the touch screen, make calculations and complete transactions in a few minutes. The result is a more effective and tailored system of provision than the old method of using paper vouchers that can easily be stolen, lost or torn.

These voucher smart cards, which give purchasing power to people affected by conflict or disasters where markets have been disrupted or financial services are hard to access, have proven to be a very effective tool for humanitarian workers and beneficiaries alike. In the words of one woman, Ai-Ssatou, “Without Mercy Corps and the help the card has provided things would have been impossible for my children and me.”

Two years on from the abduction of the schoolgirls that momentarily galvanised an international desire to do something for those suffering at the hands of Boko Haram, the abuses and suffering is unrelenting. The world, it seems, has turned the other way.

Despite the pain Boko Haram has inflicted, never once among the women I spoke with did I hear talk of revenge or retribution. Finding a way to feed, house, school and ensure the health of their children was always first and foremost.

Even those who have suffered most at the hands of Boko Haram are determined to put those horrific chapters of their lives behind them.

Before I left Baba Hadiya I asked what she thought of the Boko Haram members who had planted the bomb that killed her sister and left her with such terrible injuries.

“Those responsible are an enemy to us all,” she replied simply, “but I have left them in the hands of God.”


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