- The first time she was released from the detention centre, Ya’ana was told she would be locked up again if she ever narrated her ugly experience to anyone. But then, that is exactly what she does.
“Hajja Ya’ana has come!”
Unlike the other people she entered with, Ya’ana Kaumi*, 42, was not a strange face to the people at Giwa Barracks. As soon as she stepped within the barbed, over 10-foot-tall walls of the facility, many of the detainees and officials recognised her chunky frame though it was about an hour past midnight.
Cries of “Hajja Ya’ana has come!” rent the air. She had been here before, this detention centre where anyone suspected of having ties with Boko Haram is kept arbitrarily and often without trial. This place where inmates died in droves due to notoriously cruel conditions. She was lucky to have made it out the first time. But she wondered if her lightning of good luck could strike the same spot twice.
Now, sitting on the thickly carpeted floor of her chamber in Bulabulin Ngarannam as she eagerly tells her story, it is obvious that it did.
Bulabulin Ngarannam is a rural community about an hour’s drive south of the heart of Maiduguri. The roads are parched and untarred. The residences, mostly made with cement blocks, are tall and unpainted. Locals say the unusual height of the buildings and the absence of ceilings are deliberate to make the desert climate bearable. Notably, the ghostly brown of the road and colourless structures erected on them contrast sharply against the forest green of the Neem trees scattered across the landscape.
The town has not always been this tranquil. About a decade ago, it buzzed with terrorist activity and hosted many of Boko Haram’s fighters. It was considered the terror group’s headquarters. There, its members abducted women and killed several residents, including one cleric who ratted them out to the military, Sheikh Ali Jana’a. They also dug a vast network of underground tunnels under the stronghold through which they smuggled in small arms and light weapons.
In late 2012, soldiers had to seize control of the place, forcing out Internally Displaced People, expelling residents from their homes, and making both entry and exit difficult as helicopters patrolled from the skies. But it was not until the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a paramilitary vigilante group, joined the armed forces in hitting the streets of Maiduguri the following year that the insurgents were dislodged.
Ya’ana has lived in this town for a total of 17 years, so she was there when it all started.
“They used to preach in the centre at the railway terminus. They also went to Millionaires’ Quarters and some other places to preach. When they started the jihad [war] in 2009, they were selling their assets and those of their wives,” she recalls, gesticulating with her right hand as she reclines on a hefty mattress.
“In 2011, some came back and settled in areas like Abba Ganaram, Kawar Amila, Shehuri North, and Kaliari. There were new faces that come and go. They became part of the community and settled. They were reading their books and later they started killing people that condemned them.”
One day, in 2013, there was a gun battle between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram in the area, which led to the death of at least one soldier and one terrorist commander. The troops then returned in many vehicles and engaged the insurgents for long hours. The following day, the group’s members went from house to house to retrieve the dead bodies of their associates for burial. Ngarannam subsequently became extremely dangerous as terrorists swarmed the community.
Life with the insurgents was “very hard”. Visitors and vendors, including water-cart pushers known locally as mai ruwa, were not allowed in. If Boko Haram members saw strangers, they would capture and slaughter them, suspecting them to be spies.
At first, only three buses shuttled between downtown Maiduguri and Ngarannam. But then, one of the drivers was arrested by the military and detained at Giwa barracks. Another one, Ya’ana’s in-law, was also arrested. The third driver left for Kano, leaving locals who needed to go to town with no choice but to trek.
Ya’ana herself could not bear the hardship and eventually travelled south to neighbouring Adamawa State, where her husband lived.
When she returned to Maiduguri about 18 months after her trip to Adamawa, Ya’ana did not go to Bulabulin Ngarannam. Instead, she moved to Umarari, a small community about three kilometres to the south, where she resumed her food-selling business.
It was as a result of this business she got into trouble with the military – twice.
The first time was through one of her attendants named Ya Kaka, a former Giwa barracks detainee who was broken out alongside hundreds of others during the infamous Boko Haram attack of March 2014.
She had been working with Ya’ana for years and lived in her house back in Ngarannam with 12 other young girls. The insurgents forcefully married all of them. They would visit during the day and leave at night. When civilian vigilantes prowled in the area for terrorists and could not find any, they instead arrested the girls and women, about 47 in total, and drove them to the Giwa military detention facility. When the jailbreak took place, only seven of the girls, including Ya Kaka, returned. Others went with the invaders to their camps.
Back in Umarari, months later, a fight erupted between Ya Kaka and the landlord’s wife who accused her of ogling her husband. Out of spite, the lady then reported her to nearby officers of the CJTF, telling them she was a Boko Haram member.
“I was not around by then and when I came back they called me. They accused me of hiding a member of Boko Haram in my house,” Ya’ana says, as she keeps herself cool with the aid of a woven straw hand fan. “They first took us to a military checkpoint in Ngarannam where we spent one night and later they took us to Giwa.”
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