It was a day of grief and mourning as soldiers of the Nigerian army filed out in front of a mass grave, now turned monument, to remember 144 fallen officers and soldiers that lost their lives in a single swoop about three years ago.
The Gudumbali attack was considered one of the deadliest single surprise attack suffered by the Nigerian military in the ongoing Boko Haram war.
The victims were among a battalion of 750 soldiers who suffered the shock reprisal attack after fighting for four days through a heavily fortified rank of Boko Haram.
At the peak of the Boko Haram territorial conquest, Gudumbali, the headquarters of Guzamala Local Government Area in northern Borno State, became one of the strongest forts of the insurgents near the Nigerien border.
It was believed that Gudumbali town, about 200km from Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, was one of the hideouts where Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, hid at that time.
When Gudumbali fell to Boko Haram fighters in 2015, residents recalled how houses were burnt, properties looted and many people killed and injured.
From Gudumbali, Boko Haram continued to expand its frontier of killings while dotting the routes leading into the town with deadly landmines buried under cratered highways to wade off any intrusion by government forces.
In September 2015, troops of the Nigerian military commenced an operation to liberate Gudumbali. An operation that would later cost the lives of nearly 200 gallant patriots.
Attacking from the air and on the ground, troops fought gallantly for four days with Boko Haram gunmen fighting back and mounting heavy resistance.
Finally, on day four, government forces were able to subdue the enemy as they matched over corpses of insurgents to chase the remnant fighters towards the borders.
Victory was declared in Gudumbali as soldiers went ahead to secure the western flank of the town from where they were to coordinate other mop up operations to ease the area of total Boko Haram control.
However, a battalion of 750 officers and soldiers came under a heavy surprise hostility in the night of Wednesday, November 18, 2015, during which Boko Haram attacked from all flanks, holding up soldiers who fought for four hours.
At the end of the battle, at least 144 corpses of gallant soldiers who stood their grounds and dared the enemy with their lives, were picked from amongst the numerous shattered remains of Boko Haram.
Days after the battle, access to Gudumbali still remained difficult, hence surviving troops had to carry out a mass burial on the battle ground which had become a base of the disbanded battalion.
Honouring The Dead
To engrave the memories of the gallant soldiers in Nigerian history, the military command recently decided to secure the expansive battle ground and graves of the soldiers by building a perimeter fence around the area. The military named it one of the monuments of the Nigeria armed forces.
Commissioning the adorned cemetery which still has carcasses of destroyed military vehicles and equipment, the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, said he hopes the grave site will one day become a national monument.
Mr Buratai, a lieutenant general, was on June 30 in Gudumbali, to flag off cleaning of the liberated town for return of displaced residents.
His visit was also part of activities to mark the 2018 Nigerian Army Day Celebration (NADCEL)
Mr Buratai said the sacrifices made by the fallen heroes would forever remain green in the hearts of Nigerians and the army in particular.
He described the carnage that befell the soldiers as an unfortunate surprise attack.
He said Gudumbali was occupied by Boko Haram since 2014 during which efforts to reclaim the agrarian community met stiff resistance from the Boko Haram.
“From 2013, 2014 and 2015 it was difficult to enter Gudumbali from the eastern axis,” he said.
“The routes were heavily mined and fortified therefore several attempts of the joint task force and the 134 battalion to enter this area (Gudumbali) was not successful. Similarly, the unit 157 also made a first attempt to enter Gudumbali but it was heavily resisted; so they had to withdraw, because so many mines were laid along the line.
“At last when the final directive was given, we were able to muster courage and then successfully we entered Gudumbali and crossover to harbour here.
“It was at this point, after harbouring, that late at night, the Boko Haram came and surprised the troops. And the rest is history.
“We lost quite number of soldiers and quite number of equipment as could be seen of the carcasses of the vehicle within the precinct. The major cause of the destruction of the vehicles was as a result of the heat on the logistics vehicles that further ignited the fuel, the ammunition and other items and throw the whole camp into confusion.”
The army chief said the high casualty on the side of the soldiers in the battle should not be considered a defeat.
“It was not all that a defeat,” he said. “To us, the incident that happened was as a result of the attack on the Boko Haram terrorists. We will continue to pray for the repose of the departed soldiers.”
“Today we are going to formally commission this cenotaph in the memory of our fallen heroes, especially those (who) paid the supreme price here in Guzamala local government and indeed the entire northern Borno. This cenotaph will forever remain in our memory as a symbol that will be associated with by anyone that comes here.
“We don’t want to forget them or the sacrifices they have made for this country. We are going to have their names inscribed here on the monument and each and every one of them that died here will be remembered always.
“We are going to ensure that the place is maintained all through, and with time we hope it will become a national monument for all to remember that the Nigerian army is an institution that is the pride of the nation, and some of its men are fallen victims of the insecurity that have bedevilled this part of the country, and have been paying the supreme price.
“They will be remembered always in our memories; and those they left behind will be adequately taken care of,” he said.
Returning To Gudumbali
It was an emotional moment for the people of Gudumbali, who were returning to their reclaimed community about four years after Boko Haram forced them to flee to Niger republic and other safe locations of Borno State.
Most of the returnees said they were grateful to the troops of the Nigeria military.
The returnees sang praises for the army chief and the soldiers.
Ya-Para, a 25-year-old mother of five kids, said she and her husband fled to the neighbouring village near Kirenowa about three years ago when Boko Haram came visiting.
“We lost everything after the attack, but thank God our lives were preserved,” she said.
“I am happy that the soldiers have helped us to reclaim our village back; though we have nothing to start with but there is no place like home,” she said.
Ali Musa, a 54-year-old mason, said he had to flee to Niger Republic after Boko Haram took over Gudumbali town.
“We saw hell, we saw death and pain when Boko Haram took over our town; they held us for sometimes before we finally escaped the town three years ago.
My family is in Niger presently; but life has not been easy for us. We could barely feed, the children were out of school.
“But today is a day of joy for us seeing the soldiers coming to help rebuild our community. We hope this is the end of our misery,” he said.
The District head of Gudumbali, Zanna Arjinoma, said he has come to stay in Gudumbali to supervise the clearing of the town as well as coordinate the return of his people.
“We are grateful to the Nigerian government and the soldiers for liberating our community after we thought we had lost our ancestral home to the insurgents. We thank the soldiers who had sacrificed their lives to protect our land here in Gudumbali.”
He said since the opening of the route to Gudumbali mid-June, over 2000 members of the community had returned and commenced their commercial activity.
“We just had our cattle market some days ago and over 1000 cows were sold among other livestock,” he said.
The Speaker of the Borno State House of Assembly, Abdulkarim Lawal, who is also a native of Gudumbali, said the return to Gudumbali is a victory for government and the Nigerian military.
“We have been displaced for five years and most of us were forced to take refuge in Maiduguri and some in Niger Republic. It was a difficult moment for me as the Speaker of Borno State who could not visit his constituency for over four years.
“The reclaiming of Gudumbali signifies an end of Boko Haram for us, because Gudumbali, a border community, was regarded as one of the strongest base s of Boko Haram after they chased our people out.
“But here we are today returning to our homes and even holding market sessions. We cannot but say thank you to the chief of army staff and other security chiefs who contributed in making this happen,” he said.
The Cenotaph Of Victory, Sorrow
The residents said the cenotaph built in Gudumbali in honour of the 144 soldiers that lost their lives will shape the future of the community.
Sugun Mai-Mele, a commissioner for land and survey, and a native of Gudumbali, said “the cenotaph built in honour of the fallen soldiers that died here in Gudumbali will continue to remind us of the sacrifices made by our gallant soldiers.
“And we, as a people, will continue to ensure we help in preserving it.”
The high point of the event was the commissioning of the cenotaph and laying of wreath beneath where the names of the 144 fallen soldiers were engraved.
The army chief also officially flagged off the street cleaning and farm clearing exercise alongside the Borno Assembly speaker.