It certainly was no fun for one to venture into the centre of the battle between Nigeria soldiers and Boko Haram insurgents, to physically see the human, structural and even socio-cultural destructions. The epic battle ground, obviously still constitutes danger zone in the North East.
What about being guarded and fully looked after by no fewer than 24 soldiers armed to the teeth, riding in two Hilux vehicles, one at the front and the other at the rear?
What about being spiritually guided and prayerfully protected by men of God: a Bishop and an Imam? What about the freshness of the fears that still hung visibly in the air; the fears that were magnified by the uncertainties of the location of the insurgents most of who are always on suicide mission?
As we took off from American University of Nigeria (AUN) guest House in Yola, capital of Adamawa state, heading towards the recaptured territory from Boko Haram, everyone was spell bounded with such fear of how it would turn out to be.
Immediately after passing Jimeta, the soldiers stopped the five vehicles in the convoy to give security instructions, especially to the driver of the Coasta bus that carried journalists, the Bishop, the Imam (Islamic Scholar), the AUN top operatives and members of the Adamawa Peace Initiative.
The commanding officer, a young Lieutenant told the driver to drive close to the Hilux vehicle in which 12 heavily armed soldiers took the lead.
He warned that at no time, during the journey, should the driver drive in other direction other than the footstep of the Hilux vehicle on the lead.
Instead of such instruction to reduce the fear of what we were venturing into, it heightened it, against the background information that later filtered in, of the possibility of Boko Haram’s planted landmine, laden with bombs.
The journey which took us through Jabbi-Lamba, Song and Gombi could be said to be less fearful, but immediately we stepped into Hong, from where Boko Haram’s territory extende, made up of several towns and villages and about five hour drive, tension began to build up. As a matter of fact, the destructive antics of the sect was visible: carcasses of bombed houses, churches, local government secretariat, political party offices, schools, shops, estates and charred remains of vehicles littered along the road and everywhere in the towns and villages. We knew instantly that our job started from there. We were busy taking snapshots of the destroyed structures as the vehicles were still speeding away.
The situation got worse as we moved farther afield into Kala’a, a village where the Boko Haram insurgents broke up the one of the bridges linking up Yola with other parts of the state, including the Republic of Cameroon. It is in this village, taken over and occupied by Boko Haram, that a big church building was left untouched but all the insignia of Christianity, including the cross, the statues of Holy Mary and the sign boards were destroyed. Every other structure in the village got the baptism of bombs.
Still farther ahead, in Maraba-Mubi, were more devastating destruction of just anything on sight. It is in this village that fierce battle was said to have taken place between members of the Boko Haram and soldiers. Boko Haram defeated the soldiers and added the town to their territorial expansion, from where they moved ahead to also conquer Mubi, Uba, Biang, Dilchim, Kudzum, Bazza, Kuwmi, Muvu, Muvur, Vimtum (home town of the former Nigeria Chief of Army Staff, General Alex Bade), Lira-Vimtum, Girei, Michika, Shuwa, Madagali and many more.
Indeed, there is a very unique town, Uba, where Borno and Adamawa states are divided only by the road that passes through it to Michika/Madagali. To the left of the road as you head towards Madagali is Borno state, with a road that leads to the famous Chibok village, and to the right is Adamawa state. Within the same supposedly one town are two traditional heads, one for the people of Borno and the other for Adamawa. Though the residents of the two states interact and inter-marry, but they have different cultures, different markets and different social lives.
While the Borno part of the town enjoys electricity, the Adamawa side had never seen electricity for years.
One of the greatest damages Boko Haram inflicted on Adamawa and Nigeria was the destruction of a big, solid bridge at Kudzum, about four hours drive from Yola. The bridge caved-in and split into two while the middle is down below in the flowing wide river. With the recapture of the Boko Haram territory, youths and good Samaritans of Kudzum embarked on improvising the bridge by filling it with sand to make it somehow motorable.
Around Bazza town, where a Nigeria soldier with the rank of colonial was mowed down, Boko Haram’s big armoured tank was abandoned and is still standing by the side of the road.
The biggest church, Saint Pious Church and the general hospital as well as other structures in Shuwa, about 45 minutes drive to Cameroon, were reduced to foundation level, thanks to Boko Haram’s bombs. Members of Boko Haram turned Shuwa into their mini headquarters after Madagali and Mubi.
Almost all the banks in Mubi, a standard town that could qualify for state capital were destroyed by the insurgents before they went to kill who they could and chase away others and capture it. The insurgents certainly had a field day, carting away billions of Naira from these banks, which include Unity Bank, Ecobank, Diamond bank, Union bank and others.
Boko Haram insurgents were believed to have such a big victory at the initial stage because of the superior weapons they were fighting soldiers with. It was learnt that while the insurgents were using 65 mm bullets, the soldiers then were making do with 32 mm, and that the situation not only left the soldiers greatly handicapped and frustrated but led to heavy casualty on the part of the soldiers. It was learnt that in many instances, the soldiers would have to run away from advancing insurgents even faster than unarmed civilians because they either had no single weapon to fight or their weapons were grossly powerless, against the background of the fetish power the insurgents have.
The insurgents are believed to be abstaining from water and bathing with water at all, in order not to reduce the potency of the charms which they believed make them invulnerable to bullets and other weapons of death.
The soldiers, most of who are vibrant and ready to lay their lives so that Boko Haram would be wiped off, began to pick up their fighting spirit when weapons that matched and even surpassed that of Boko Haram were being made available to them. For instance, instead of 32mm bullets, they were now getting 120mm, which almost doubled the 65mm bullets of Boko Haram.
When the battle hotted up and Boko Haram took over towns and villages, many people, especially those in Madagal, Shuwa and Bazza, ran into Cameroon to take cover while others took refuge under some mountains nearby. There were others who went as far as Yola. They left behind their farmlands, food stuffs, money, hundreds of cows and other domestic animals and above all, their businesses and houses. They suddenly became refugees in search of where to live, what to eat and do. They began a new strange life. The invading insurgents then took charge of their life possessions, including food stuffs, cows and even their wives.
As a matter of fact, the insurgents carried away young men and women they met in each of the towns and villages they captured and possibly conscripted the young men into their fighting group and married the young girls.
A woman at Bazza lamented the loss of seven of her children: two girls and five young men, adding that they were taken away by Boko Haram insurgents when the older ones ran to hide on the mountains.
It is instructive that a day before we journeyed across the dreamt country of Boko Haram, our team visited both Malkohi Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) Camp where a few months ago, Boko Haram killed seven and injured many with planted bombs. The IDP camp is a few metres away from none governmental IDP camp, called settlement, to where people ran from Gwoza to settle. The two camps are located within a verse military barracks in Yola. At the formal IDP camp, the population of the inhabitants has reduced from 2,311 when the battle was hot to 732 now, as many of them are gradually returning to their recaptured towns and villages. And there are about 800 people who are still taking refuge from Gwoza, in the informal IDP or settlement within the same Malkohi vicinity.
As the Nigeria soldiers took the battle to the door step of the insurgents and recaptured all the towns and villages captured by them, people are returning in their hundreds to their homes. As a matter of fact, more than 13,000 residents of Bazza have returned and many more have returned to Shuwa, Madagali and other towns and villages.
Even the emir of Mubi who was chased away as the Boko Haram insurgents took over and occupied his palace has since returned to occupy his throne, even as businesses are gradually picking up.
The joy in the whole sad picture is found in the reopening of schools with pupils and students playing around their school premises, even as young men and adults are seen working dexterously on their farms while commercial motor cyclists are picking and dropping passengers. People were seen buying and selling in shops, markets and road sides as businesses and life are returning. These were the towns and villages that were once occupied and declared by Boko Haram as Madinatul Islam, a new country they dreamly carved out of Nigeria.
In fact, there was no sign of panic among the people of the towns and villages that once fell to the hands of Boko Haram. People carried on as if nothing happened, except the scars of war: bullet holes on walls, charred remains of bombed and burnt structures and of course, memories of hundreds of innocent people in the neighbourhood that were mercilessly killed.
The beauty of it all is the realisation that people are back on their farms even as various crops, such as maize, beans, okra and others are making rapid progress. There are flourishing farms everywhere you go, stretching several kilometres and miles.
The Adamawa Peace Initiative, spare-headed by American University of Nigeria is up, rehabilitating the returning indigenes of the towns and villages seized by Boko Haram. Leaders of the group, co-headed by the Catholic Bishop of Yola, Most Rev. Dr. Stephen Dami Mamza and an Islamic Scholar, Imam Dauda Bello, have been procuring food stuffs, clothes and other items which they go round to distribute to the returnees in designated places.
Bishop Mamza assured the people affected by the Boko Haram war that it had nothing to do with religion, even though churches were mostly affected. He said that the Peace Initiative is a conception of both Muslims and Christians to find ways to lessen the hardships of the victims of Boko Haram.
This was even as Imam Dauda asked the victims to regard what they went through in the hands of Boko Haram as a test of faith from God, even as he asked the people to pray to God to bring quick solution to the security challenges facing the North East in particular and the country in general.
The journey to the dreamt country of Boko Haram took the whole day, starting from 7am. We returned to Yola at about 8.30pm, with a far different positive knowledge in us, of what the soldiers have achieved so far in the battle with insurgents.
According to the Executive Director in the communications and public relations office of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Daniel C. Okereke, journalists who made such tour of the areas devastated by Boko Haram are more informed and can write authoritatively on the subject than those who are far away from the scene.
Of course, Daniel was right only that those who also went to see physically where the battle was fought and is being fought at reduced rate, risk losing their lives.
They included the Deputy Digital Editor of powerful Washington Post in American, Karen Attiah: Maggie Fick of the Financial Times and Eleener Whitehead of the Economist all of London: the publisher of Newsdiary online, Danlami Nmodu, publisher of Greenbarge Reporters, Yusuf Ozi-Usman, Emmanuel Ogala of the Premium Times, Dr. Lionel Fred Rawlings (the assistant vice president, security and safety operations of AUN), the Bishop, the Imam and others in the entourage.
Thank God we made it and returned in peace, not pieces, to tell the story, perhaps better.
Read also: My Journey To Shekau’s Enclave, By Emmanuel Yawe[myad]