MAIDUGURI IS CLOSER THAN WE THINK


The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters to persons dead or living is purely coincidental. It is a portrayal of the harsh realities of the ongoing insurgency in Nigeria's North East as well as our collective vulnerability. 


The commuting time from my home to my office is usually 17 minutes on a good day and 35 minutes on days when the traffic is bad. I drive through the business/commercial district which puts the newspaper vendors within my travel path. As a result of this proximity, I'm able to get a close look at the headlines of newspapers on sale. There are always headlines with boldly written words about the murderous campaign being waged by Boko Haram in Borno and Yobe, and the resulting humanitarian crisis as a result of the rampage. 

Sometimes I'm able to catch a glimpse of some words. At other times when I have to stop at the traffic intersection I get to read the entire headline. The stories are mostly graphic and disturbing so I look away, turn up the volume of the radio and thank God I'm hundreds of miles away from the epicenter of the chaos. 

After a few weeks of catching glimpses of headlines of the worsening crisis in the North East, I noticed an influx of people who usually mill around my neighborhood in droves going from house to house begging for food or monetary assistance. They looked so emaciated and out of place. I discovered they were refugees that had fled the violence in Borno and Yobe states. Sometimes I gave freely when I had some change to spare. At other times I felt they were constituting a nuisance and I turned them away. I even prevented my kids from playing with the children among them as I was afraid they would catch some terrible disease. I would yell at my wife whenever she invited them into the house or gave them some food to eat. I didn't want them anywhere around me. I felt their presence reminded me too much about the violence. It sounds superstitious now but at the time I was afraid being around them could attract the full presence of Boko Haram to Kaduna. I wanted nothing to do with them. I even asked the night watchmen to stop them from sitting under the trees near the gate outside the house. 

Every night while seated in my living room I would look out my window at the high fortified walls with razor sharp barbed wires and infrared security cameras. A feeling of safety and security would settle all over me. In my mind, Maiduguri and Yobe were worlds away from me and I need not bother. In fact, I was confident nothing would happen. After all there were barracks and dozens of checkpoints between Maiduguri and Kaduna, so I felt safe.

As the days went by, my perceived sense of security lulled me into a state of denial. I even stopped bothering to look at the headlines of newspapers on my way to work. I abhorred the existence of refugees around the neighbourhood and started treating them with even more derision. At the monthly neighbourhood meetings we had on the last Saturday of every month, I moved a motion that we enlist the services of the police to get the refugees out of our neighbourhood. Of course I was challenged by most members of the neighbourhood who felt it was unfair. However, knowing their obsession with retaining the property value of their houses I exploited that and argued that the presence of the refugees could turn our neighbourhood into a ghetto thereby driving house prices down. In no time at all I got them on board with my suggestion. Then the issue of who was to supervise the eviction of the refugees came up. I quickly accepted as I felt any delay in choosing a supervisor would hamper the planned eviction. 

The refugees were evicted on a Thursday morning. I specifically took the day off work to supervise and witness it. For most people who were present at the time, the sight was heartbreaking. I on the other hand, wasn't the least bit bothered. They along with their meager belongings were tossed into black police trucks as the women and children wailed while the men bit their lips and stared up at the sky as if calling on God to intervene. As the last batch of refugees were being loaded onto the last truck, an old frail looking man turned to me and said "Allah yayi maka yadda kayi mana." (May God do to you as you have done to us). I shrugged off his remark and carried on as if nothing had been said. 

With our street cleared of the unwanted guests, things returned to normal. Despite my conscience beating me up about what I did, I was pleased that the serenity of the neighborhood had been restored. I drowned out my guilt by telling myself what I had done was for the good of my family and the neighbourhood. After all, when refugees are allowed to loiter about in a serene neighbourhood like ours, crime and disease tag along with them. My wife tried preaching to me about the importance of being charitable and showing concern for the plight of those affected by the ongoing insurgency. In my usual manner, I called her ignorant and naive of the way the world works. 

Life went on in its usual merry way until suddenly there was a shift in the ongoing war against Boko Haram. News reports filtering out of Borno stated that there had been a massive onslaught against the Nigerian security forces and most of Maiduguri had come under the control of Boko Haram. They had succeeded in sacking the governor from the Government House and had hoisted their flag. There were news clips of thousands of people fleeing in cars, motorcycles and on foot. The images were reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide when people were fleeing the violence in Kigali. 

A Youtube clip of Abubakar Shekau surfaced online a few days after the fall of Maiduguri. He was shown with other insurgents chanting "Allahu Akbar" while firing their AK-47 rifles into the air in celebration of their victory. He proclaimed that just as they had succeeded in taking over Maiduguri, so would they march to Abuja and take over all towns in their path. He reiterated that there was no neutrality as far as he was concerned. Anyone, Muslim or non Muslim that was at variance with the ideology of the group would meet a terrible end. 

The government in its usual propaganda spreading manner went on the air via its Minister of Information and assured citizens that everything was under control and the government was fully prepared to contain the situation. We were asked to go about our normal business. How someone faced with impending war is expected to go about his/her normal business is something I'll never know. For days i couldn't sleep. It is bad enough to be on the brink of war when you're alone. When you've got a family, it is worse than can be imagined. 

Days turned to weeks and all seemed to be calm. I soon settled back into my normal routine which was re-enforced by the thought that perhaps the government had succeeded in containing the situation. Late one night around 2am I heard a loud sound like nothing I had ever heard in my life. The ground shook, the windows creaked and the ceiling trembled like it was going to come down on our heads. It was followed in quick succession by another loud explosion and the unmistakable sounds of small and heavy arms fire. Then I heard loud chants of 'Allahu Akbar" interspersed with the gunfire. I froze for some seconds and told myself I was dreaming. That was the only explanation. I did not want to believe that my serene neighbourhood with massive beautiful houses was under attack. I wondered why there was no prior warning from the government and nothing was done to fortify the state.

I did not have a lot of time to think. I quickly jumped out of bed, told my wife to lay down on the floor to avoid getting hit by stray bullets. I ran to the kids room where I met them standing wide eyed looking confused and scared. One of them had already urinated all over himself. I didn't blame him. I was close to doing the same thing. I grabbed them both and ran back to my bedroom. The explosions and the shootings continued unabated. Then we heard people screaming outside. It seemed they were running out of their houses. I looked out the window and called out to the night watchmen. There was no answer. I guess their urge for self preservation had prevailed over their sense of duty and they had fled. I called my next door neighbour. He answered frantically, telling me he had managed to grab some personal belongings and had run out of the house on foot. He specifically warned me not to attempt driving out as the insurgents had rocket propelled grenades and were blowing up cars that had attempted to flee. What on earth was I to do? How could I be expected to protect my family against such insurmountable odds?

I grabbed a few belongings and we ran out of the house. On the way out I looked at the high walls with the razor sharp barbed wires and infrared cameras and wondered how all of these things had not come to my aid in my greatest time of need. We cautiously ventured out of the gate and for a minute we were lost. We could not recognize the neighbourhood. The houses on the far left of the street were on fire and seemed to be spreading to other houses. In the distance I could make out the silhouette of a truck driving at top speed through the street with people on the back shooting in all directions. We quickly ran across the street where there was a narrow passageway between the walls of two houses. We ran into the passageway with no thought of what could be lurking inside. The sound of gunfire gets louder and the hissing sounds of bullets ricocheting off the walls can be heard. Never in my life have I felt so helpless. The shootings stopped as suddenly as they had begun but people could be heard for miles screaming. The kids are screaming, my wife can barely breath. I'm having a hard time running and dragging them along with me. One way or the other, we all have to get through this. I CANNOT. I SHALL NOT leave any of them behind. As we ran I noticed a neighbour of mine who was a retired army general running barefoot in his pajamas with his wife and eldest son running along with him. Oh how the mighty have fallen, I though to myself.

We ran for what seemed like ages when we along with others spotted what seemed to be a group of soldiers up ahead. I advised that we proceed with caution as it is common for insurgents to dress in army uniforms. We ducked down and watched them. They stood for a while, just watching, doing nothing. I could not understand how the government could have been caught unawares. What is the security budget being used for? I did not have time to mull over the answer as I noticed the soldiers advancing towards our direction. We all froze and I could hear my wife trying to muffle her sobbing by placing her hands over her mouth. I put my hand over my son's mouth as I recall he had a proclivity to scream at the slightest things. As the soldiers got closer I closed my eyes and said my last prayer as I was certain we were going to be shot. In what seemed to be our final moments, I tried to find optimism in our predicament. "At least we"re all together as a family and we're leaving the world as a family", I thought to myself.

When they got close enough, just as I expected to feel the heat of bullets sinking into my skin, one of them said "We're from the 44 barracks, we're here to help you. Is anyone hurt?' We all heaved a sigh of relief. We followed them to the safety of the barracks where we spent what was left of the night there. From the massive crowd at the barrack it seemed most neighborhoods had been torched during the night. Due to the large number of refugees in the barracks and the inadequate facilities, we had no choice but to leave in the morning. We bumped into a neighbour of ours who informed us that not a single house on our street was left standing; they had all been razed to the ground. We lost everything.  "At least we're alive I said".  We decided to walk back to our neighborhood to see our destroyed home one last time and check if other neighbours had survived the carnage. 

As we walked, my wife told me we had to stop and rest. The kids were exhausted. We sat under the shade of a palm tree in front of an impressive looking mansion. Perhaps it was due to exhaustion or relief, I fell asleep in a few minutes. After what seemed like ages, I felt a hard nudge on the leg. I opened my eyes and a burly looking man was staring down at me with apparent disgust. "I be the mai guard for this house" he said, while pointing at the mansion behind us. "Oga say make I no dey allow beggars dey siddon here, so abeg make una waka dey go."

Tears streamed down my eyes as I recalled the words of the old man I had forcefully evicted along with the refugees. "May God do to you as you have done to us". 


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