- It took three to six years of agonising detention and total separation from their families for Mu’azu and Muhammad to be “cleared” as having nothing to do with the notorious terror group, Boko Haram.
The people of Andara, a town in Northeast Nigeria, were worried sick when Boko Haram invaded in 2014 and started dictating how they could go about their lives. The terrorists set strict rules and forced them to receive religious instructions, all while threatening anyone who dared to disobey with death. So, one day, many of the locals fled under the cover of night, including Mu’azu, 35, and various members of his family.
Located in the Bama Local Government Area (LGA) of Borno State, Andara at the time had close to 200 households. The people farmed and reared livestock without hindrance.
“But when they came, they began to impose their rules on us, like women should not go to farms or fetch water and firewood, and men should attend Islamic schools, raise their trousers [a practice known as nisfu sak], grow a beard, and observe prayers accordingly. And no smoking and taking of drugs,” Mu’azu, a soft-spoken man, recalls. “We just had to observe them against our wish because if we didn’t, we would be killed.”
Anyone seen trying to escape was slaughtered. Though no one was caught in Andara, they heard of public executions that took place in neighbouring villages. This, however, did not stop them from plotting their escape. Eight months into the occupation, they tried their luck.
“About 50 households escaped that day. Some escaped in the daytime and others in the night. We assembled in the bush and waited for others from the neighbouring villages before we proceeded.”
With the communities being just a few kilometres away from the border, they went straight to Cameroon in their hundreds. Days later, while back in Banki, Nigeria, five of them, including boys as young as nine or 10, were screened out as suspected Boko Haram members, beaten, blindfolded, and taken away by the military. Everyone else had heaved a sigh of relief, which they would later find was premature.
Bama Local Government’s chairman visited the displaced people and suggested they remain in Banki, Mu’azu says. But some of the people complained that they had not been receiving their salaries. Others feared the town was vulnerable to terrorist attacks. So they boarded trucks and buses and followed the chairman to Bama town, at the heart of the Local Government Area.
In Bama, they were kept in a prison for another phase of screening. But this time, it did not seem the authorities cared who was really a member of the terror group. The detainees were deprived of food and water. Some were tortured. “ーSeven later died of thirst and hunger.” Eleven days after their arrival, 110 youths were separated from the elderly and transported to Giwa barracks.
Muhammad, 41, was born in Makasuwa, a community in Borno’s Mafa LGA, and had lived there all his life. Like Mu’azu, he was also victimised by Boko Haram. On their way to launch attacks in Dikwa and other communities in Central Borno, the terrorists would pass through Makasuwa and preach to the residents. This happened almost daily.
“They would tell us we should study, we should not allow our wives to work on the farm or fetch water, we should grow a beard, we should shorten our trousers, our women should cover themselves with hijab, and so on,” he says, his recollection quite similar to that of Mu’azu.
The community leaders agreed it was best they sold their livestock before the Boko Haram members seized them. Muhammad’s family, which had up to 70 cows, started selling them in batches.
“When our people took some of the animals to Maiduguri to sell, they stayed there for over a month because the market was not good. When they noticed we were selling the cows, they seized the remaining ones. From there life became very difficult for us because they even seized farm produce like beans, groundnuts, sesame seeds, onions, and millet.”
With his livelihood gone, Muhammad decided to join his kinsmen who had travelled to Maiduguri with his wife and children in early 2018. About two other men and four households joined them. They settled at the gate of the Muna Garage IDP camp located along the Maiduguri-Dikwa road on the outskirts of the state capital.
But that night, some soldiers came and asked who among them was “Muhammad.” When he signalled, they put him in their van and drove off to the “sector.”
“They asked me if I am Boko Haram, I told them I am not. ‘I was staying in Makasuwa, teaching Qur’an to children. I came here when it was not comfortable for me to stay there.’ They said, ‘Since you have stayed with them you are Boko Haram,’” he narrates.
The soldiers asked why he stayed back when some of the residents already left, and he replied that he did not get a chance to. “I was an Imam and they were strictly monitoring me. People began to leave gradually as it became difficult to stay there due to starvation. Then I also left when I got the opportunity,” he explained to them. During the two weeks he spent at the sector command, he would be offered food just once every day at 4 p.m. The Army officers quizzed him four times about alleged ties with Boko Haram but he stuck to his story.
“They took me to Maimalari barracks. After about 30 minutes, they took me to a certain house; they said it was in the garrison. I stayed there for two days but they didn’t ask anything. Then they took me to Giwa barracks,” he says, tugging at his right foot.
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