- At the height of Nigeria’s war with Boko Haram, safety during travels within Borno was as uncertain as a roll of the dice.
One cool morning many Septembers ago, Goni set out on a long journey to the urban capital of Borno with a few personal items, three companions, and a healthy herd of goats. He was going to sell the livestock at the Maiduguri Cattle Market, use the proceeds to buy fabrics, and then head back home to his family and fiancée. The fabrics were part of his bride price. In three months, he was going to be Amshigni’s husband. But nothing went as planned.
After all, it was an unstable period in northeastern Nigeria, a region squirming under the weight of violent extremism. A road could be open today and closed tomorrow. A market could buzz with activity today and be dead silent the next day. A building could stand strong one moment and be nothing but rubble and ashes the next. Similar misfortunes arbitrarily befell people. Deaths. Displacements. Disappearances. The air was heavy with a dark foreboding.
In Goni’s experience, though he was heading for the market, he — and his travel companions — ended up in military detention, where they enjoy as little freedom as the goats they had hoped to trade.
There were four men on this journey: Goni Zain, 16; Mallam Sa’ed Mohammed, 25; Ali Hassan, 30; and Zogolo Hussaini, 40. The distance from Rafa, their village in Bama, to the market in Maiduguri is about a hundred kilometres. On foot — assuming one travelled in a straight line and without rest — it would take an entire day to arrive at the destination. But the travellers took a detour that first led them north towards Dikwa before the westwards journey to the state capital. In the evening, halfway through the trip somewhere between Ajiri and Mafa, they encountered a group of soldiers.
As Kellu Jime, Goni’s mother, would later hear from multiple witnesses, the soldiers fired into the air and the men raised their hands in surrender. They explained their mission: to sell goats in Maiduguri. But the soldiers arrested both the men and their goats.
The victims’ parents recall that the incident happened two months into Tukur Buratai’s tenure as Nigeria’s army chief — or two months after the fasting season of Ramadan, placing it roughly around Sept. 2015. It’s suspected that the arrests may have been connected with a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed on movements in Maiduguri at the time.
“There was another group of travellers behind them,” says 50-year-old Kellu. When that group heard gunshots and saw the military personnel, they stopped, climbed on nearby trees, and witnessed what happened. A panic-stricken Kellu asked the witnesses if the soldiers had killed her boy. They replied no, “only that they beat them and put them in the car”.
Goni is her only son. When she heard about the arrest, her instinct was to go straight to Maiduguri to look for him.
“But because of the state of emergency, the road was closed and people could only come to Maiduguri on foot. When I said I would come to search for him, I was told it was too far and wasn’t safe to go. I felt very bad about it,” she says, the shock from that day still blazing through her eyes.
Eventually, her husband, Zain, fell sick and she had to stay back to look after him.
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