Shoni Ibrahim was nineteen and in secondary school when Boko Haram first attacked Gwoza. He remembers the date: it was September 11, 2013, exactly twelve years after a similar terrorist attack by its associates, Al-Qaeda, destroyed the World Trade Centre in faraway Washington D.C.
The insurgents came into town and killed as many people they could find on the streets until they were repealed by the army. The locals gave it no thought and continued to go about their daily businesses.
A year after, they returned but with more vigour, fervently pumping bullets into the air and into the bodies of escaping residents of the town. The invasion was swift and sudden; at the end of it, the intruders began to live in some of the houses. Ibrahim was one of the first to flee into the mountains overlooking Gwoza with his father, mother and seven siblings.
“Boko Haram were walking around in the houses like it was their property and what made it painful was that we could see them doing this.”
His family ran away empty-handed with nothing but the clothes they had on and their phones; some of the others found the time to pack food supplies and a few knives for protection. But that soon ran out and as a few of them braved the situation and went down into town to get more food. A number of them were successful but the others were unfortunate and Ibrahim watched as they were beheaded.
“Many of the people, my neighbours, family friends, schoolmates were slaughtered by Shekau’s men. No mercy. We started to eat fruits, leaves and raw food when we could not find stones to use to make fire in the caves. So many people died because of starvation.”
One day, the insurgents decided enough was enough and that it was time to move up into the mountain caves as well. As they advanced, the survivors began to panic, running helter-skelter with a few falling down the rocks to their death.
So they all escaped one more time, running in different directions at dawn and by noon, they had gotten to different villages. Ibrahim found solace in a church in one of them where the pastor gave him money to go on to Michika in the neighbouring Adamawa state.
Soon after, his elder sister who had escaped to Maiduguri called him on the phone which he had miraculously held on to and a few days later, he began the onward journey to the capital.
There, he and his family were given a tent at the Christian Association of Nigeria camp for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Wulari, a suburb of the city, where they live now. The feeding is inconsistent – one meal a day half the time and two meals at other times – but the family is happy to be together again, the 22-year old says.
His sister now works as a temp staff with one of the NGOs in Borno and her meagre earnings support the entire family. Ibrahim himself has no job but is willing to do anything, he says.
Back in Gwoza, he learnt how to make and fix drums from goat skin and is looking to take it up as a profession. “I am doing this for free for the church but if anybody brings new skin for me to make drums, I can do it in a few days.”