The Road to Recovery

Mountain communities attempt to rebuild in the aftermath of terror.

ADAMAWA, Nigeria — In 2015, notorious terror group, Boko Haram, descended on Michika local government, a sleepy town several kilometres away from Yola, capital city of Adamawa State. From Bazza, through Malkohi, Mitre, Ganguluma and Mukula, the rampaging insurgents left horror in their wake and sobering tales of anguish.

Two years later, the residents are joined by others fleeing from nearby Gwoza, in Borno State. Together, they try to make sense of the life they have found in the informal settlements that have become their new homes. Grateful for life, these survivors recount the journeys that brought them here, in a special investigative piece by The Guardian.

The Journey

The road from Yola to Michika narrows and winds through rock formations and hills rising from the desert-hued landscape. One could drive for kilometres and see only leafless baobab and what may be harvested farmland. It is quiet, with only the occasional cluster of herdsmen grazing their cows and maybe a hut or two, hinting that perhaps people live further in, their communities away from the view of passers-by. It suddenly becomes possible what one hears, that mass killings can happen in the area and you would not hear of it for days, if not months, if ever. The recent bloody history of killings by Boko Haram is often an intimate one, witnessed only by those who died or fled, never making its way onto the pages of any newspaper.

The road gets more populated the closer one gets to Bazza, a town in Michika Local Government. Amidst the reclaimed normalcy, the damage done by Boko Haram is undeniable. Students in white and burgundy uniforms take classes in white and faded-yellow school buildings, ridden with bullet holes. Some buildings were standing, but with cracked walls, without roofs, and emptied of people by insurgents’ bombs. There are thatched-roofed homes where their owners are nowhere to be found; assumed dead, their homes and belongings are left untouched.

The road leading to the hills where the largely-Christian Mitre, Ganguluma, and Mukula communities are located, is not really a road at all, and one will not find it if you do not know where it is already. The checkpoints from Hong Local Government onwards are manned by the Civilian Joint Task Force, the local vigilantes in brown uniforms and hats. We took a turn by a roadside bar with crates of beer mounted high and made our way through the winding path — road does not quite describe it — until our car could go no further. We then walked down another ten minutes, to the rocky base of the hills, where we meet a group of about 200 hundred people.

“These people live up on the hills,” Program Coordinator for the Civil Society Coalition for Poverty Eradication (CISCOPE), an Oxfam Nigeria partner, Peter Egwudah, tells me, pointing upwards to what must be a hike of over an hour and a half to the most skilled of climbers.

“It’s actually very flat up there when you climb up. You can walk from one community to the next, from one local government to another, even all the way to Cameroon without having to come down.”

Yet, Boko Haram made the climb and attacked these people where they lived.

Horror Descends

At first, the people in these communities believed that living up in the hills shielded them from any attacks. When people in Bazza were under siege, they ran up to these communities in the hill for safety.

Joshua Nuhu Umaru, a local vigilante leader and father of eight, living in Mukulo community, told us that when Bazza was under siege, they did not believe that Boko Haram would attack them as well.

“When the people from Bazza arrived, we were in church. We heard gunshots and wondered what was happening. We saw them running up to meet us because of the Boko Haram attackers. We realized that there were a lot of people and wondered how we could accommodate them. All the food we had quickly finished, but we thank God, we were able to take care of them.

Days later, while sheltering the people from Bazza, we heard that BH was coming. As part of the vigilante, I joined the group to look out and saw that they were indeed coming to us. We ran to inform our people so we could all run away.”

Unlike Joshua Umaru, Mary, an elderly woman who also lives in the hillside communities, chose to stay and did not run when Boko Haram advanced. She lived in a house built by her husband (a now-deceased soldier), with a small hut and a barn where she kept her goats and her farm produce.

“When Boko Haram came, I hid behind a small rock. I saw them light the matches. They burned everywhere. They burned down my home. They burned down the barn, where I put my goats and the dog that had just given birth to puppies. When they left, I came and saw the damage and let out a shout. I cried and cried. Where is help going to come from?”

The attacks happened in rainy season, so the people who ran away had to hide from Boko Haram while finding shelter from the rain. Those who hid did so for three days and then returned to survey the damage the militants had caused.

“We lost everything; our barns and our yields were burnt. Our livestock was stolen. We found it hard to come back to our normal lives. Our children fell ill, and we do not have hospitals here. We lost some of our children. We got no help from anyone. Until one day when Oxfam came; they are the only source of aid for us. When we saw some soldiers arrive during our ordeal, that’s when we knew that at least we would have peace.”

The Trek to Cameroon

In the Southeast of Maiduguri, about 74kilometres away from Michika, the inhabitants of Gwoza were also under intense fire. Gwoza, Borno state, is regarded as a notorious hideout for Boko Haram insurgents and has been so since 2009. In that week however, many residents fled from an aggravating familiar danger.

“It was on a Tuesday evening when Boko Haram came to our community. We all went indoors, and stayed there for two days. On Thursday, we couldn’t stay any longer because we heard that Boko Haram was planning to kill all our husbands. We ran to Madagali while our husbands hid in the hills.”

A week later, after things quietened down, Hauwa Ibrahim and family reunited and the husband travelled. Then, the news of an impending air raid by the army on insurgents advancing in Gwoza made the family finally flee from their homestead. In the confusion, Hauwa lost sight of a daughter who is presumably captured by Boko Haram and will be given a choice to be a slave or wife.

“We ran; my six children and I. My daughter Fatima ran away and I didn’t see her go. We spent the night in a cave in Madagali. There, we met someone who took us through a safe route to Cameroon, for a token. The border officers gave us passage to a small town not far from the border.

"We were in Mokolo [a town in Cameroon] for three days before we got a big vehicle that took us to Yola, where I met up with my husband. It was in Yola that we found out about a community of people from Gwoza in Malkohi.

Fatima Ali was not so lucky. She was captured and separated from her husband as they tried to flee Gwoza. She, alongside scores of other women, cooked for the terrorists in a barricaded high-fenced large compound with dingy rooms, where they were held hostage.

"Boko Haram’s gunshots started that early morning, and everybody started to run away. While running, I was caught. I and others were taken to a building with a big compound and a long fence. They locked us there, and they would come to us with food to cook for them — sometimes corn flour, sometimes a goat, or kuka (a condiment made from Baobab used to make stews). There were so many of us where I was kept, women and children; we could barely breathe.

“Boko Haram later split us into two groups. I was among the people who were moved. In that new place, the fence wasn't wired, so we organized to escape on the third night — like 30 of us. We walked all night, all the way to Madagali, then did another walk to Cameroon.”

They had been held captive for three months.

The trek to Cameroon was hard, but the group was helped along the way by people in local communities who were sympathetic to their plight. It was a 58KM stretch trekked in fear of being recaptured and under great duress especially for the women with children and or pregnant.

“In one of the communities called Lawan, we met people who took pity on us. They gave us food and water, and the community leader appointed one of their civilian vigilante members to accompany us to the border. The vigilante leader communicated with the border officers in French to tell them to let us through the border.

We were in the border town of Mokolo for three days and they arranged a big vehicle to take us to Yola. In Yola, we learned of this community of people from Gwoza in Malkohi.”

A New Life

The first thing you notice in any displacement camp is the plethora of children. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), under 5s make up 28 per cent of the total population of displaced persons in Nigeria's Northeast. An Oxfam rep joked about how many naming ceremonies she has been invited to in the camp. The day that The Guardian visited Malkohi, a newborn baby was placed into an aid worker’s arms. The young mother smiled when the aid worker offered her congratulations.

We walked around the camp, past the water pump where the children were fetching water into big yellow kegs, past women selling bread and noodles and eggs, past children playing. There is a Safe Space for Women and Girls in Humanitarian Setting, a cube of a building nailed together with wood and aluminum sheets, with an orange and white poster showing support by the UNFPA, USAID, the Government of Japan — no local NGO partners.

A woman who had lost her husband and fled with two children was now selling bread in the camp, laughing at something someone had said. A child was playing inside an empty yellow commercial tricycle. There is neither electricity nor running water. Most people in the camp make what money they get from subsistence farming or trade. The dust there, like in the main town, was a golden-brown colour and got on everything — the children’s hair, slippered feet and the top of the UNHCR-branded white tents they lived in.

Hauwa has since heard nothing on her missing daughter and does not know if she is alive.

Fatima, on the other hand, did learn about the whereabouts of her husband, months after settling in Malkohi. He was remarried.

Fatima Ali, Gwoza

Fatima Ali, Gwoza

He did not look for me, but I wanted to find him. When I found him, he said he had found out that I was taken by Boko Haram and had decided he did not want anything to do with me. He had remarried and I had to go.”

Large-scale destruction by conflicts like these are also accompanied by a more intimate tearing apart of families, marriages, even the individuals themselves.

The stories from Fatima and Hauwa are typical of the grim experiences of people in settlements and camps like these throughout the Northeast. Just as with the vast majority of displaced people, they are rebuilding their lives. Fatima has since remarried in the camp since getting rejected by her first husband, and now makes traditional hats for men in the camp. Hauwa is now a tailor and owns a pepper grinding machine, while her husband is a driver currently seeking work. Both women would like to return to their homes in Gwoza one day, but are relieved to now have food and a roof over their heads, even if it is a UN-branded tent and food aid.

“I give thanks to God,” Hauwa tells us, “since we came to Yola, we are not suffering anymore.”

Picking up the pieces

Even in the provision of relief to the displaced, politics looms.

At the time The Guardian visited, the communities on the hills had no access to; clean water, hospital and electricity but for a few who are able to save to buy small generators to power their radio or television sets. The communities share one makeshift ‘clinic’ that has some painkillers and antiseptic. But for anything more serious, such as malaria or fever, they have to make the two-hour trek to the nearest primary healthcare centre. Pregnant women who fall into labour are placed on hurriedly-made wooden slabs that serve as stretchers, and carried down the hill to the primary healthcare centre in Bazza.

But while the people of Malkohi have provided thousands of displaced persons with land to live and farm, the state governments are warring over whose responsibility it is to provide welfare.

Adamawa State Government has been accused of not wanting to take care of previously-based Borno citizens, and the Borno State government has not reached out to provide any assistance to the displaced in this particular settlement. All the help they get, largely comes from international organizations, local civil society organizations, and the more peaceful communities.

“Nobody from the government has ever come to help us. We do not see the government, we do not have schools, we do not have hospitals, we have no basic amenities. The only thing we know is that the communities down the hill sometimes get help from the government.”

Egwudah of Oxfam partner CISCOPE, believes it is too early for government’s calls to displaced people to return to their communities.

“It is an act of wickedness for our government to ask people to leave the camp and go back to the community that they have not fixed. In fact, Maiduguri has nearly two million people still in the camps and you are asking them to leave when you have not fixed their communities? They can and should stay anywhere they need to and go about their livelihood, so long as they do not break the law.”

Shaping the Future

These mountain communities are just a few of the many communities in the hills of Malkohi, and on the ground, where people have been left to pick up the pieces of their lives without any assistance from the Nigerian government.

As at February 2017, nearly two million people have been displaced and 93 per cent of them are from Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. According to the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) released by the IOM, 56 per cent of these persons are under 18 and their biggest need remains food.

Displaced populations are getting support from host communities and concerned Nigerians for now, but with the lingering of difficult economic times and uncertainty around international development funding growing, people fleeing the Boko Haram conflict like those in the Malkohi settlement will need robust assistance from their state and federal governments – not just goodwill – to survive.

Special thanks to Oxfam, who provided material support to our team in the coverage of this story.

Additional Resources:

Related coverage from the Guardian: