Days of Their Lives

Stories From A Summer in North-East Nigeria

Abba in The Great Trek1

The Great Trek

Between ‘Big Tuesday’ 15th February 2012 and ‘Black Sunday’ 14th September 2014, Abba Mamman had the privileged misfortune of witnessing twelve different attacks by Boko Haram insurgents seeking to overrun his hometown and forcibly install an Islamic caliphate.

The thirteenth, which commenced at 5am was the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back and sent the 43-year old father of six scrambling for his dear life.

At the time, Mamman was an irrigation farmer who also dabbled in animal husbandry, leaving his diploma certificate in Sharia & Civil Law from the Borno State College of Legal & Islamic Studies to gather dust at the bottom of a travelling box. The other Boko Haram attacks had been targeted at military installations in the city and government buildings only, so he figured he and his household were safe. The general rationale in town was that the terrorists were fighting against the state and not private citizens, so there was no immediate threat to their lives if they stayed indoors during the routine raids.

Until the Fourteenth of September.

So that morning as he prepared to go about his daily business with the usual spring in his step, the rattle of gunshots in the air and multiple screams of ‘Allahu Akbar” halted him in his tracks and woke up his sleeping wife who in turn woke up the rest of the family.

“We came out of our house and saw people running helter-skelter; confusion everywhere. So all of us started crawling on the street because of the stray bullets.”

After crawling over 200 metres, his wife advised that they split, sensing that the insurgents would in all likelihood kill the men in the town first. So while he moved towards the barracks for safety with other men and a few teenagers of both sexes, she and their children fled in the opposite direction towards the gates of the town.

“On our way there, we saw soldiers pulling their uniforms and flinging their weapons in the bush. Everyone was running. Someone told us trucks of young men dressed in camouflage were heading towards the barracks and burning houses on their way. So we changed direction again.”

Mamman claims that two fighter jets were also bombing the barracks at this point so he knew the takeover of the town would be complete soon. Abandoning the body of a thirteen-year old girl – the age of his first daughter – who died in his arms from a stray bullet, he too realized that journeying towards Maiduguri was his only option.

Four hours later he was there and within a week, he was reunited with his wife and their youngest child. “She told me that the other children had split from her while they were running and she had no idea where they were.”

Their hopes of finding them soon turned into despair as weeks turned into months but poor Mamman kept on searching. His faith was rewarded when one sunny day as he was walking back from a fruitless search two months in, he heard “Baba, we are here”. It was the voice of his exhausted thirteen-year old child who had led her four siblings for three days trekking over 75km through inner villages to Maiduguri. They had hidden in the town for two months before escaping when they ran out of food supplies.

“I knelt and cried with them for minutes before remembering that I had to take them home. Losing one child is never a good thing, not to mention three. The memory of seeing that thirteen-year old die in front of me is still with me. And that could have been my daughter.”

These days, he is a 200-level student of Public Administration at the University of Maiduguri, scrapping off funds being donated infrequently by well-wishers including the former provost of his old school, for catering to the needs of his family.

“We want to go home”, he laments. “I miss my source of livelihood and being able to take care of my family.”

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