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There is a place in Africa where the natural order of things has ground to a halt. Life flows on the brink of death, heresy has been elevated to faith, thousands of lives have been crushed by unvarying tragedy, and everything has been razed to the ground. Even words have lost their ontological value to describe what is there, revealing the opposite of what they express. This place, in the north-east of Nigeria is the State of Borno. In the Hausa language Borno means “House of Peace”, but since 2009 it has been home to Boko Haram. In eleven years the African jihadist sect has caused the deaths of 350,000 people and forced almost 3 million citizens into flight and exodus.
Maiduguri is the capital of this state of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, nestling between sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahara, between the sands and the sky, between checkpoints and refugee camps, between life and death. The city has grown to almost 2 million inhabitants, swollen by the arrival of people displaced by the conflict. And you have to come to the city if you want to find a privileged observation point to understand what it means to live where you can no longer expect life to continue without tragedy suddenly striking.
As you leave the airport, you are whipped by the hot north wind, the Harmattan. It raises eddies of dust and the fiery African heat lashes you into a shivering fever. You immediately have a perception of the conflict going on at these latitudes. There are checkpoints everywhere, your documents are carefully and systematically checked; barbed wire barriers and the army’s armoured vehicles fill the streets lined with posters with portraits of the wanted members of the Boko Haram jihadist sect.
The enemy is invisible but they’re here. You can’t see them but you feel their presence. Here, in this city imprisoned in the anathema of fear and overwhelming need, you immediately sense the ancient hatred of Islamist ferocity at first hand, as well as the retaliation for it, in the silent, stubborn and monastic rhythm of those who, day after day, try by every means to put a stop to the totalitarianism of evil.
“Living in Maiduguri is a challenge, because every day you have to cope with fear, danger and threats. But living in Maiduguri is also a blessing, the blessing received of having to bear witness.” With these words Father Joseph Fidelis, of the Diocese of Maiduguri, records and welcomes the presence of journalists in the city. They have the obligation to testify to the truth and the responsibility to be present.
And as he crosses the city in his SUV, the Nigerian priest points to the minarets of the Central Mosque. Then we pass by the place where the Markaz stood, the complex where Mohamed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, first preached. Bit by bit the Catholic priest reveals the city where he lives and works and which the jihadist sect is trying to turn into the capital of an African Caliphate. “Since the crisis created by terrorism began, we Christians have been targeted. To date, 11 years since the start of the violence, we are still being persecuted and threatened. I too have been the victim of threats, but this should never stop us from fulfilling our mission.”
On Sundays, St. Mary’s Catholic church, located in the Polo district, welcomes worshippers from all over the city. Outside the portal, volunteers search everyone present to avert the threat of possible terrorist attacks. Four armed guards protect the entrances to the cathedral. Reading the reports of the Diocese of Maiduguri it turns out that some 100,000 parishioners, 200 catechists, 30 nuns and 26 priests have been displaced by Boko Haram’s activities and over 350 churches, 30 schools and 6 hospitals completely razed to the ground. The Sunday service begins and the faithful dance and sing amid the pews in the nave. It is the word peace that recurs most often during the service. At the end of the liturgy, Father Fidelis explains: “Our help, however, is not only spiritual in nature. In the face of this emergency we try to give concrete assistance with psychological support and humanitarian aid, because the war and then Covid have tipped the balance of an already precarious economic situation. People need food because they’re really going hungry here. And the terrorists are inflicting all sorts of violence on women, not only rape but also unspeakable psychological violence.
“There are cases of girls and infants who have seen their parents beheaded and mothers who saw their children die. We have to commit ourselves to helping the victims of these horrors and this is why, thanks to the Aid to the Church in Need Association, we created Human Resources Skills and Acquisition for Trauma Care, a centre that specialises in helping women and girls who have been victims of physical and psychological violence by Islamists. The centre is nearing completion, but in the meantime we’ve set up a team that works in the tent cities in the town.”
On the site where it was planned to build the secretariat of the diocese of Maiduguri, a camp has arisen for the displaced fleeing persecution by the jihadist militants. The tent city hosts some 500 people, all Catholic refugees who have abandoned their villages, lost their past forever and today live only with the legacy of their sufferings. The only source of survival for displaced families comes from the church, which provides shelter, food rations and guarantees free education for the children.
The camp for evacuees in the diocese of Maiduguri hosts some 500 Catholics who have fled from persecution by Boko Haram militants. In this makeshift camp, where homeless families crowd among sacks of sorghum and maize, we meet Mary, who lives with her children and sisters and remembers the day she fled from her home. “The men of Boko Haram arrived in our village, there were people fleeing everywhere. They killed my father and mother and for days I wandered with my sisters in the mountains. We ate whatever we could get, we drank water only when we found it. We fled to Cameroon, but the terrorists came there too. And so we fled again and now we’re here.” Mary, sitting in a small hovel where she lives with her younger sister and her children, tells us the jihadists are ruthless. Their policy of destruction and violence persecutes not only “the infidels”, but also strikes at Muslims.
To fully understand what she has told us, we have to go to another building used as a shelter for the displaced. This is the old Maiduguri train station. Here live 500 more refugees , almost all of them Muslims, having found a precarious haven on the old railway sidings.
A desolate scene appears to our eyes. The platforms and waiting rooms of what used to be a station on a railway line connecting the north and south of the country are now filled with bedding. Mosquito netting and mattresses are scattered everywhere. On the platforms and in the old ticket office, small fires are lit where the refugees cook their handfuls of rice.
Mohamed is one of those who live suspended in this place of perennial waiting. For seven years and three months, ever since the jihadists attacked his village, he has been staying alone in this station, where the clocks have all stopped, telling a time that is past, with no today or tomorrow. “Since I escaped I’ve lost everything. Everything. My business, my family, and all I can do is to stay here. All around the city there are rebels and this is the only safe haven. The Boko Haram soldiers are not real Muslims, they’re terrorists. They make no distinction between Christians and Muslims, they kill everyone. They’re murderers, nothing else.” Boko Haram’s history in recent years has been tortuous and riven by internal feuding. The jihadist sect arose in 2002 from the preaching of Mohamed Youssef. Then, in 2009 it passed from delivering violent sermons to inflicting violence with weapons. In that year the group made international headlines for carrying out attacks and massacres across Nigeria. In the Hausa language, the name Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”. The term haram indicates whatever is forbidden by the Koran and boko is a distortion of the word “book” as the concept of knowledge.
Following the death of the founder Yousuf, power passed on to Abubakar Shekau, the group’s sanguinary leader. He is even opposed within the jihadist movement for his indiscriminate ferocity. He introduced the strategy of using children as kamikaze attackers and made blind violence his tool for imposing Islamist power. A radical change in its ranks took place when Isis established itself in the galaxy of jihadist internationalism.
With the rise of the Al Baghdadi group, an internal split occurred in Nigeria and today there are two Salafist groups. One is JAS (Jama’tu Ahlis Sunna Lidda awati wal-Jihad), numbering between 1500 and 2000 men. It is active in the Sambisa forest and in some areas of Borno State. It carried out indiscriminate attacks, kidnappings, even murdering Muslims who refuse to support it, and is headed by Abubakar Shekau. On 20 May 2021 he was said to have been killed, but there is some uncertainty about this since his death has been announced three times in the past.
The other group is the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), led by Abu Abdallah Al Barnawi, linked to ISIS and nearly 5,000 strong. It has set up a veritable Islamic state in the region. The areas under the control of the African branch of the Caliphate extend from the State of Borno to the shores of Lake Chad. The group has imposed taxes, built infrastructure, schools and hospitals and taken control of a large part of Nigerian territory in the absence of the government in Abuja, which has abandoned the populations of the north-east to hunger, poverty and epidemics. According to the OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), in the three states most affected by the war, Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, 7.7 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance and half of them are children.
Boko Haram flourishes every day in the absence of the state and gains strength from poverty and ignorance. This is confirmed by Micalel Hameth, a teacher at a Koranic school in Maiduguri. I met him in the sangaya (the term for a Koranic school in Nigeria), where he teaches surrounded by young pupils who learn to read and write by reciting the suras engraved on the loox, the Koranic tables used in the Sahel. He says: “We give the children an education and we also give them something to eat and forbid them to beg. On the streets you will see many children begging for alms, but they are all children from the refugee camps. Koranic students are forbidden to beg. And Boko Haram swells its ranks because of those kids, the poverty they live in. It buys them by giving them money and then indoctrinates them with false Koranic precepts.”
He goes on to add: “It’s true, we’re all Muslims, we and they. But how many Muslims are there in the world? We’re the ones who teach children to read, write and count, while they train them to be murderers. We’re not the same people. Sometimes the members of Boko Haram live concealed among us, which is why our work is important. Providing education means creating a barrier and preventing the very young from being lured by terrorists and deceived by their words.”
This report has been funded by the readers. Here below are all the reporter's receipts of the expenses