Chika Oduah

Escaping Boko Haram: The road from Bama

Thousands fled after the armed group overtook the city, but some children and elderly villagers were held captive

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Halima Abubakar heard the gunshot before she saw her husband fall to the ground, killed on their farmland by members of the armed group Boko Haram. She watched from behind a slim tree trunk. Two of her children fled the town days earlier, and she was still looking for the other four. But she knew it was likely that they too had run.

So it was her turn to flee. 

That was September, and now she awaits the day when she can tell Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan that Boko Haram has destroyed the only place she has ever called home.

“I left everything in Bama. I left my life there,” said Abubakar, who used a pseudonym out of fear for her safety. She now lives in a displacement camp in the nearby city Maiduguri.

Her story and evidence of atrocities committed in several towns in the embattled northeastern region, such as in Baga, where Boko Haram launched a series of attacks from Jan. 3 causing massive destruction, contradict the claim made last week by the Nigerian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade that no part of Nigeria is under Boko Haram’s control.

The extremist group, which says it is fighting to create an Islamic state in the northeast of Nigeria and has been operating in the region for more than a decade, has wrought increasingly horrific death and destruction over the past year. The fighters target civilians indiscriminately, including both Muslims and Christians. Nigeria's military has had little success in stemming the violence.

Bama, Nigeria, in February 2014, after a Boko Haram attack.
Jossy Ola / AP

At the beginning of September, Abubakar saw the insurgents overtake Bama, which she said Boko Haram previously tried to capture about a dozen times. But that did not stop her from trying to return to rescue people who were trapped there. 

During the first attack, she said, she was terrified that Boko Haram insurgents would catch her and slaughter her. But shortly after that, she quietly left Maiduguri. She followed a trail in the bush 45 miles to Bama, sometimes crawling on her hands and knees, memorizing landmarks so she could find her way back. Finally, she crept back into Bama. 

Abubakar saw Boko Haram fighters grabbing women, children and men and locking them in abandoned buildings. “They looked like madmen — dirty nails, unkempt hair,” she says in an unwavering voice. “They said they were doing the work of God.”

She hid behind trees and burned-out cars before dashing into some of the homes of her friends, neighbors and relatives. Through the windows, she watched armed men patrol the town. She saw some squash decomposing corpses underneath their shoes.

She couldn’t find her children but hurriedly grabbed more than a dozen people and led them out of Bama. For two days, they walked through prickly grasses and deserted farm fields. They finally reached Maiduguri — and Abubakar decided to return to Bama a second time.

“I just wanted to save people. I want to do the work of Allah,” she said. 

This time, she found a handful of children and other Bama residents hiding in the fields near the town. They trekked to Maiduguri without stopping because surrounding villagers had been warned by Boko Haram not to help anyone from Bama. Out of fear, the villagers complied.

“They didn’t even give us water,” she said. 

In Maiduguri, she learned that one of her sons had run away to a camp in the neighboring country of Chad. She found her five other children, and they relocated from an overcrowded camp to the home of a local politician who had opened his residence to internally displaced people.

Civilians who fled Bama after the attack take refuge at a school in Maiduguri in September 2014.
Jossy Ola / AP

There she saw familiar faces, neighbors from Bama, including Bukkor Ali, a 27-year-old college student. 

Ali, who used a pseudonym out of fear for his safety, said Boko Haram fighters shot four of his friends. “I saw Boko Haram with my naked eyes. They looked like the Nigerian army,” he said. “They came in army uniforms. They shot my friends, and they destroyed my car and my clothes and my school documents, so I ran. I also thought I would die.”

A crowd of men surrounded Ali in the stuffy parlor as he spoke. They interrupted his story, filling in details. “We hear the Boko Haram speaking so many languages — Hausa, Kanuri, French, Fulani,” shouted a bearded, slim man in a white caftan. 

“Some of the Boko Haram were tall and very black. Some had long hair and looked like Arabs and Chadians,” said another man. 

In a corner by the doorway, a woman named Fatima Jibrin, who also asked to use a pseudonym, listened with her face tilted toward the floor. In Bama just a few weeks ago, Boko Haram fighters locked her in a house with hundreds of other women. 

“No food, no water. They told us we were pagans, and they slaughtered two women in front of us so we would watch them die,” Jibrin said, her soft voice cracking. 

She said her husband, a respected elder in his 70s, had come to the house, knocked on the door and cried. 

“The Boko Haram opened the door and asked, ‘What do you want?’ From inside the house where they locked me and the women, I heard my husband ask Boko Haram to allow me to cook for him because he is too old,” she said.

Jibrin was allowed to leave the house to prepare food for her husband, but she used the chance to escape, running to Maiduguri and hoping that her four children were already there. She found her son Abdullah, but the rest are still missing.

Abubakar returned to Bama in early January to try to save people she knew, including Jibrin’s husband, but she said she could not recognize anyone because they were all starving. She managed to grab a few people who begged her to lead them to Maiduguri.

Her third trip to Bama may have been her last. Through word of mouth, she received a message from the fighters that they would behead her if she ever set foot in Bama again.

Abubakar was not the only woman who has returned to help people trapped in Bama. “There were five women who were going back to save people, but Boko Haram killed them,” said Abarambe Mamman, a leader in the Bama civilian militia. 

Sitting on a bench outside one of the largest camps in Maiduguri for the displaced, Mamman said that Boko Haram has destroyed villages and towns unchallenged by the Nigerian army but that he and his volunteer fighters are ready to defeat the group. 

“We have our local charms and powers to protect us,” he said. Holding out his left hand, he displayed a small purple pouch with black yarn threaded around it. Other militia fighters came forward to show off their charms and talismans. “We use these charms to fight Boko Haram and they are very powerful. Even Boko Haram is using charms,” he said.

He said the day Boko Haram attacked Bama, he and nearly 300 other militia fighters fought alongside Nigerian soldiers against the insurgents for more than 24 hours. But the next morning, he said, the soldiers had disappeared, so the militiamen also fled.

Mamman said the insurgents hoisted their black and white flag in four locations in Bama: at the town entrance in the direction of Maiduguri, at the college of education, at the army barracks and at the palace of the traditional ruler. There are rumors the group is now operating a base in Bama.

He wants to return home to defeat Boko Haram. Jibrin is waiting for her son to return from Chad, and Abubakar hopes to get married again.

​They said they do not envision a future in Maiduguri. Bama will always be home.

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Boko Haram

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