SPECIAL REPORT: Inside Boko Haram’s routes of death, destruction and humanitarian crises

Recently, two PREMIUM TIMES reporters, Emmanuel Ogala and Ibanga Isine, traveled through territories liberated from Boko Haram by the Nigerian military in Nigeria’s North-east state of Adamawa.

The tour offered a rare peep into how the communities are recovering six months after the troops pushed the insurgents into the fringes of Sambisa forest.

The trip started from Yola, the Adamawa State capital, through the A13 Highway, up to Madagali area, close to Sambisa forest, and later detouring into Mubi, the second biggest Adamawa town which Boko Haram captured and declared its headquarters in 2014.

Our reporters saw, firsthand, how Boko Haram plundered communities, destroyed homes and spread terror.

This is a moving story of deaths, destruction, looting, starvation, humanitarian crises and government’s irresponsibility.

A diary of their trip is published below.

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Yola – American University of Nigeria

We started the journey from the American University of Nigeria Hotel at about 8.am on October 15.

Shortly after our convoy got on the A13 highway linking Yola to Bama on a journey that took us to Song, Hong, Bazza, Michika and Madagali, the lead military escort truck pulled over.

We pulled over too. The escort squad commander approached our driver and looked him straight in the eyes. “Put your tyres wherever we put ours,” he warned, pointing to the military truck ahead of us. “Did you hear me?” he added and our driver nodded.

We were told the warning was to avoid our stepping on explosives or landmines. We were soon on our way and the first major town we entered was Song.

Song

The Three Sister Mountains of Song
The Three Sister Mountains of Song, Adamawa

Song is a beautiful community with awesome landscapes and rock formations. It was the last bastion as Boko Haram fighters approached Yola. Unlike other towns we would later see, Song retained its beauty and infrastructure because Boko Haram never conquered it. We were traveling the route for the first time. As the mountain aptly described as “Three Sisters” came into view with its alluring magnificence, our shutters clapped endlessly as we photographed through windows of our speeding bus. It was indeed an awesome view.

Hong

Hong LGA Housing estate completely destroyed by Boko Haram . Photo: Emmanuel Ogala
Hong LGA Housing estate completely destroyed by Boko Haram . Photo: Emmanuel Ogala

Driving a few kilometers away from Song, we arrived at Hong, the last territory Boko Haram occupied before their progress towards Yola was halted. Here, the destruction was extensive. The sect torched homes, killed several persons and unleashed terror and barbarity on the community.

In Hong, Boko Haram clearly targeted government buildings, churches, schools and shops. The other surprising targets were political offices. Almost all buildings that had party inscription or logo were torched while an estate built by the local government was completely burnt down. The local government office was destroyed, but it has been renovated and workers have since resumed work. Schools were also open.

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The scars of Boko Haram’s onslaught on the town however remained as fresh as if they had only left the previous day. Many buildings bore fresh bullet holes and others were without roofs, having been razed by the rampaging insurgents. Most windows shattered during gun fights are yet to be replaced.

Boko Haram military tank destroyed in Kala, Hong LGA, Adamawa state.
Boko Haram military tank destroyed in Kala, Hong LGA, Adamawa state.

On the outskirts of Hong, in a small village called Kala, we met the first Boko Haram military tank destroyed by the Nigerian military. Its charred and rusting remains lay knackered by the roadside and its once dangerous nozzle pointed downwards in apparent surrender.

The tank laid metres away from a collapsed bridge residents said was blown up by the insurgents to slow down the advancement of the Nigerian military as the sect retreated from Hong in March. At the bridge head, a completely burnt Toyota Hilux truck belonging to the sect laid on its charred wheels, blocking a part of the road.

Villages around Hong – mainly farm settlements and herdsmen camps – suffered the deadliest destructions. In one attack, residents said Boko Haram killed 40 people.

Mararaba Mubi

Shortly after Hong, we arrived at Mararaba Mubi. The battle here was fierce, security officials told us. This town is key because it is located at an intersection of roads leading into territories occupied by the Boko Haram sect – one to Mubi which the insurgent once captured and declared their administrative capital, and the other to Bazza, Michika, Madagali, up to Bama and Sambisa Forest in Borno state.

The destruction here was extensive and resulted from both Boko Haram assault and Nigerian Military air raids. The first major destruction we met in Mararaba Mubi was the headquarters of Eklisiyar Yanuwa Nigeria, EYN, an indigenous orthodox church. It was completely destroyed by the insurgents. Its walls were ripped with bullets, even before it was bombed. The EYN church, we were told, suffered the highest casualty, partly because it is the most popular Christian community in the territories captured by Boko Haram.

Meters away from the church, as we headed towards Uba, we galloped over a burrowed patch along the A13 highway. We were told a Boko Haram tank is buried underneath after it came under aerial bombardment from a Nigerian Army gunship. As the gunship pounded the tank into the earth from the sky, its components flew off destroying nearby houses.

As we proceeded to Uba, ruined houses, with burnt roofs and bullet-riddled walls laid on both sides of the road. Interestingly, a lot of houses in some of the communities we passed were not torched. Even locals can hardly tell the criteria the insurgents used in selecting properties they destroyed.

Hildi

In Hildi, we met the fourth Boko Haram military tank destroyed by the Nigerian Military. It was thoroughly charred and its main gun pointing to the ground in humiliating surrender. Destruction in Hildi was minimal, at least from what we could see. But we were told that villages around the area were served heavier destruction.

Uba

Uba is an interesting town made up of one tribe, two governments, and two traditional rulers. It is just like Kansas City in USA. The town is separated by the A13 Highway. As you head up north, the turning to the right takes you to Borno state, while the left turn leads to Adamawa state. One can visit the two states a thousand times in one day by merely walking across the highway.

The Borno side looks more developed. We were told it has more amenities and got electricity two years before the Adamawa side.

The town did not suffer major damages after it fell. Only the primary school on the Borno side was destroyed. The town was bustling on both sides when we visited, and appears filled to the brim, as if no one fled when Boko Haram descended on the area.

Kudzum

Kudzum Bridge, Adamawa
Locals fixing the Kudzum Bridge destroyed by Boko Haram.

As we went deeper into the territories that were under the control of Boko Haram for longer periods, checkpoints manned by more of local vigilantes and less of soldiers increased. The local vigilantes brandished locally-made guns but depended largely on charms to fight the sect members. They are believed to have supernatural power to identify members of the sect who dare travel the A13 highway. Their checkpoints were longer than those manned by the military and consists of mainly logs positioned on the road in a way cars would have to snake through at very low speed.

Soon, we reached the Kudzum Bridge. It is longest on this stretch of the highway and suffered the worst damage.

Before our arrival, the Catholic Bishop of Yola, Stephen Mamza, had mobilized young men to the bridge to help push our cars across in case we get stuck. Like many other bridges destroyed by Boko Haram, they bombed the central pillars forcing the bridge to cave in midway. Weeks before our arrival, we learned the bridge was totally unusable by cars because it steeped at a very tight angle. After the area was retaken by the military in March, villagers started reconstructing the bridge, sand-filling the acute angle created by the collapse to create a curve.

Bishop Stephen Mamza donates to Kudzum Bridge workers
Bishop Stephen Mamza donates to Kudzum Bridge workers

A steep drive by our excellent driver saw us race into the curve and crossing into the other side.

One would have expected government engineers to be deployed to reconstruct the bridges, but that’s not the case. Only villagers are working on them.

On the other side of the bridge, we stopped to take pictures and hail the local workers. The Catholic Bishop offered some money to the workers and they cheered him. Many other travelers made similar donations to keep the work ongoing.

A few kilometers from Kudzum, we arrived at the Dilchim Bridge, also destroyed. We, however, learned the Nigerian military blew it up in an attempt to slow down Boko Haram’s march to Mubi in 2014.

Bazza

Bazza, the hometown of Bishop Mamza, was badly hit by the insurgents and occupied for six months. As we drove into the town, the police station on the outskirts of the town was open. It had two buildings, the one in front was still in ruins; a sad reminder of Boko Haram’s footprints.

Deeper into the town, we saw razed houses without roofs and those with bullet holes all over their walls. Most shops were still closed. Boko Haram had an occupation strategy for Bazza. They inflicted minimal damage on the buildings in the beginning of their occupation. They shared the buildings among themselves after sacking most residents. Most of the damage on the town was caused by Nigerian Military’s aerial bombardments, we were told.

While Boko Haram spared the houses, their short reign left a devastating humanitarian crisis. We were told the highest military officer killed in the insurgency died in Bazza. After they took the town, they sealed it, ensuring no one left. A boy who survived the terror said Boko Haram prevented residents from going to the market, farms, schools, and churches.

“If you were caught going to farm, they will cut your throat,” he said.

The sect looted homes for food, furniture, and electronics. Children were conscripted into their army and forced to convert to Islam.

At the centre of the town is the St. Mary’s Catholic Church, established in 1958. As we turned into the church, naked high tension electric cables hung loosely across the entrance.

As our bus approached the cables, we screamed at the driver to stop, fearing electrocution. The driver screeched to a halt inches away from the cable. The Bishop laughed as he turned around to explain that since Boko Haram invaded the area, there had been no electricity. A combination of airstrikes and Boko Haram destruction brought down almost all the electricity cables from Mubi to the area.

While the Bishop was still explaining, four men ran under the cables and lifted them with their bare fingers to enable us drive through.

At the church, hundreds of villagers including Christians and Muslims had gathered, each clutching an empty sack. Since the insurgents took the town, residents have been faced with severe food shortage with majority starving. Immediately the town was liberated, the Catholic Church in Yola began shipping food and drugs to them.

On the day we visited, Bishop Mamza had come with trucks-load of food and medical supplies. Since Boko Haram took the town, there’s been no medical personnel in the town. Only the military is providing medical assistance to residents.

“A military doctor visits from Mubi once in a while since the town was liberated,” Bishop Mamza told us.

Before sharing sacks of maize and sorghum, Bishop Mamza and the Secretary of the Islamic Council of Nigeria, Adamawa state chapter, Dauda Bello, addressed the women who had waited under the scorching sun for the food aid.

The bishop also handed over trucks-load of medical supplies to the military health workers and we were soon on our way to the next town, Michika.

Michika

Michika is a bigger town. As we approached it, the signs that Boko Haram once ruled the area grew stronger. All the way from Bazza, signposts and wall paintings visible along the A13 highway had been defaced. Boko Haram did not permit the use of English alphabets in Michika. Almost all signposts were defaced – some with black background and a large red dot in the middle. Others were defaced haphazardly with any paint color they could get. Even MTN logos on kiosks were blacked out.

Boko Haram had an occupation strategy for Michika. After invading the town September 7, 2014, they destroyed churches, libraries, party buildings, shops, markets, and anything that did not align with their belief and government. They, however, spared the nicest houses and shared it among themselves.

A resident told us how his house was used as clinic by Boko Haram’s medical team. Other beautiful apartments used by the insurgents as residents bore Arabic inscriptions and large black paint dots.

When we entered the St. Annes Catholic Church in Michika, it was full with residents – both Christians and Muslims – who had come to receive food aid from their beloved Bishop. Most of the buildings in the once expansive church complex were totally destroyed. The main cathedral was torched but it still stood because it had a steel roof. Inside, the walls were smeared and darkened by Boko Haram’s attempt to burn it down. The altar was desecrated and burnt.

The wood and zinc-roofed residence of the parish priest located behind the church suffered greater damage. Everything it had was burned to the ground and so were other buildings in the compound.

Again, the Bishop and the Imam prayed for the victims who had gathered to receive aids inside the church, and handed out few of the half-full sacks of cereals that lined the premises to kick-start distribution. The Bishop also handed out medical supplies to the volunteer health workers from the town.

Like Bazza, the story in Michika is of deaths, starvation, looting, abduction of young women, incarcerations, and forced conversion to Islam.

Just outside the city centre, the Mohammed Bu Amaiwa Library – the only library we saw during the trip – laid in complete ruin. Every building within its premises was destroyed. On the other side of the road, shopping complexes, markets and political party buildings were torched. Party logos on office walls were also smudged with black paints.

On the outskirts of Michika, we met a crane seating on the back of a haulage truck. Both were burned completely. The crane belonged to the American University of Nigeria, Yola. The university had leased it to the Nigerian Military to repair a tank. After the repairs, as they made their way back to Yola, Boko Haram ambushed them. The crane engineer, the truck driver and one other person were killed and the vehicles burnt.

American University of Nigeria crane. Leased to Nigerian Army. Attacked by Boko Haram. Three died.
American University of Nigeria crane. Leased to Nigerian Army. Attacked by Boko Haram. Three died.

Meters away, we galloped through another small bridge bombed by the insurgents.

The plains on the outskirts of Michika were green and dotted with farmers. Pockets of herdsmen led their cattle in the outstretched grass plains. The cattle spotted in the area were exceptionally plum and bigger than the ones in cities.

The Bishop explained that Fulani herdsmen suffered severely during the insurgency. He said Boko Haram raided camps maintained by the herdsmen; killed the rearers before rustling their cattle and taking the Fulani women hostage.

“Their sufferings were mostly unreported,” the Bishop said.

Shuwa – Madagali

The Catholic Church took its greatest hit is this community.

Shuwa is a few kilometers away from Madagali which lies ahead on the northern flank, with the Republic of Cameroon located beyond some spiky mountains on the east. Residents spoke about a Boko Haram camp located less than 10 minutes drive to the community. Sambisa Forest, considered Boko Haram’s last stronghold also lies further west.

The St. Pius De 10th Catholic Church, Shuwa, has a very large compound which housed a cathedral with a parsonage, a clinic, an event centre, and a farm. These were destroyed completely. The church was bombed and the altar desecrated.

On our arrival, more women – both Christians and Muslims – had gathered, all the way from Madagali town, Gulak and surrounding villages to receive food aid from the church. According to Bishop Mamza, at least 1000 families are on the list of his food aid programme in Shuwa. He said the church conducted screening to identify families in dire need of food. The Bishop also left medical supplies with the local church.

The Catholic Bishop is the only source of humanitarian aid to the communities we visited. Residents told us they’ve never received aids from anyone else, not even the government or international donor agencies. According to Bishop Mamza, the German-based Catholic Charity Organization, Missio, provide the largest chunk of aid to victims of insurgency in the state.

However, the food aid is clearly not enough. Each family gets about 20 kilograms of maize and sorghum, barely enough to last for a few days.

“It is God,” Joseph Jidda, a teacher in Madagali who had come for the food aid said when asked how they survive. “We are in hardship here,” he said.

Joseph Jidda walking beside the destroyed residence of the Parish priest of St.Pius De 10th Catholic Church
Joseph Jidda walking beside the destroyed residence of the Parish priest of St.Pius De 10th Catholic Church

Mr. Jidda lost his wife and home to the insurgents. He fled Madagali to Jos, Plateau state, with his 10 kids shortly before Boko Haram conquered the town. Having returned barely two weeks before our visit, Mr. Jidda said Madagali is still unsafe. He recounted how the insurgents made a surprise comeback but were halted by the Nigerian Military.

During the past three years, farming had come to a standstill in Madagali. Residents recounted how Boko Haram sneaked into the surrounding villages at night with bicycles and wheelbarrows to steal food and kill villagers.

Two weeks before our visit, the insurgents raided Barkin Dushe, a nearby village and killed seven people, including three women, after looting their food and properties.

We found out that Boko Haram uses starvation as a tool of warfare. Farmers in most villages they conquered were killed and others prevented from farming. In Madagali, the farmers are scared of entering their farms to avoid walking into landmines planted by the insurgents.

Apart from farms that have been abandoned, schools have been closed down in Madagali for over a year. It was only three months back that the Nigerian Military volunteer teachers began organizing classes for primary school children, said Mr. Jidda.

In most villages and towns we passed along the way, we found a people eager to get back their lives. Many had already returned to farms while a few schools have reopened. We saw boys and girls in uniforms returning from school while a few shops were opened for business.

With the presence of troops and their soaring popularity, residents said they feel safer than ever before. The only missing part in the healing process is the government. The apparent government neglect that contributed to the escalation of the insurgency still exists. There are no attempts to provide aid to victims. No attempts to restore damaged power lines, rebuild bridges, roads, and pay compensation for houses destroyed while the battle raged. There’s no sign of the government beyond the soldiers we met at checkpoints.

We could not continue into Madagali town because the day was far spent and it was unsafe to travel the routes at night.

Two days after our trip, Boko Haram attacked Darin Madagali, a village close to Shuwa, killing 12 people.

We returned to Bazza where Bishop Mamza had arranged lunch for every member of our team. But the clergyman did something that brought tears of joy to our eyes. He offered his bedroom to the Muslims in our team to perform ablution and offer their afternoon prayers.

After taking a brief rest at Bazza, we continued to Mubi through Vimtim, hometown of former Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh.

Vimtim

As we made our way back to Kudzum, before making a left turn towards Mubi, Bishop Mamza explained that at some point, Boko Haram felt so comfortable ruling the occupied territories that they began importing iron rods to fix bombed bridges in the area.

As we entered the Kudzum-Mubi Road, the pattern of destruction was the same. schools, churches – mostly EYN – and some homes were selected and burnt.

On this stretch of the journey, we drove on the worst road since we began the journey. Boko Haram did not destroy any bridge on this stretch, perhaps, there was no need to slow anyone down – one can hardly run faster than 10 kilometers per hour on the road. At a point, flood had washed away up to 80 percent of a culvert, forcing drivers to circumvent through the nearby bushes.

Burnt trucks littered the road as we got into Mubi North local government area. Just before we reached Vimtim, home of Mr. Badeh, we met what seemed like a Nigerian Army convoy that had been attacked by the insurgent. A heavy duty delivery truck with Nigerian Army registration number, carrying ammunition and its escort trucks knelt on their wheels, completely charred. Burnt bullet casings littered the ground. It is unclear how it happened, but it was apparent the Nigerian Army took a fatal blow in the attack.

Meters ahead, we met another Boko Haram tank destroyed during an air raid by the Nigerian Military.

On reaching Vimtim, we found that the most outstanding building – a duplex belonging to Nigeria’s former defence chief was destroyed.

When Boko Haram conquered Vimtim, we learnt they occupied Mr. Badeh’s beautiful home and used it as an operational base. The house was, however, destroyed by Nigerian Military fighter jets targeting insurgents who occupied it. Its charred walls and collapsed roof was visible from outside the locked gates.

Interestingly, Mr. Badeh had evacuated his kins and valuables from the building one week before Boko Haram arrived. The villagers suspect he had foreknowledge of the insurgents’ arrival, an allegation to former army chief has repeatedly denied.

Mubi

EYN-mubi
As we approached Mubi, there was minimal destruction. Life seemed normal. We met the first police checkpoint in our journey.

In many villages along this stretch, young boys gathered around billiard tables and snookered away. It appears snooker is the most popular game around the Mubi area.

In Lira, everything looked normal. It was market day and trading was in full course.

At the entrance to Mubi, we met a major Nigerian Army checkpoint. It had a functional tank and looked like a small base.

Mubi is a big city, the second largest in the state. How it fell to Boko Haram is still puzzling to many locals. The story among residents is that only about 15 Boko Haram fighters took the town and no shot was fired in the operation.

They sacked the city’s Emir from his palace and appointed a Boko Haram Emir to govern the town. They also took over the city’s main mosque and appointed an Imam to oversee the delivery of sermons, based on the sect’s deadly ideology. They destroyed the EYN church in the city. They also destroyed five banks – Diamond Bank, GT Bank, First Bank, Union Bank, and United Bank of Africa – and looted whatever they could find. Only two of the banks have managed to re-open since the city was liberated.

Residents said they got forewarning from Boko Haram before the invasion. Boko Haram invasion strategy included writing residents with dates of planned invasion – a strategy that also worked for them in other towns we visited.

In those letters, residents were asked to surrender to the authority of the insurgents. Before Mubi was taken, residents said they received letters from Boko Haram announcing the date they would arrive to take over the town. Residents said the city was unusually full to the brim at the time as the insurgents had taken over the surrounding villages forcing those villagers to flee to Mubi. Many residents attempted to escape the city, to Yola – the state capital and the only safe place at the time – but were prevented by Nigerian soldiers.

On the forewarned date, 15 Boko Haram fighters reportedly arrived the town. Residents say after the insurgents arrived, soldiers guarding the town boarded their trucks and fled. “They were the first to run,” a resident said.

We traversed the rough Mubi Road back to Yola at night. It was dangerous and some of our team members were scared but we were lucky. We didn’t run into any ambush by the insurgents.

Some of us became even more afraid after locals kept warning us that we risked attacks by the insurgents, a situation which might have warranted our military escorts not to return to Yola through the A13 Highway we used earlier in the day.

But we arrived safely in Yola, thanking our stars, and disappearing into our hotel.

Mubi-Yola highway
Mubi-Yola highway

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