It is no longer news that the Boko Haram terrorist group has held the city of Maiduguri, which happens to be my hometown, captive for almost 2 years now. Having turned it into their centre of operations, they have made a city once reputed to be the most peaceful in the entire North into something closer to a city in Afghanistan or Iraq: bombings, drive-by shootings, random killings, road blocks and curfews by soldiers, etc.
Despite the innate ability of man to adjust to almost any situation in which he finds himself – as long as it doesn’t kill him – I still haven’t quite found myself used to the situation in Maiduguri. Anytime I think I am getting used to it, a calamity happens that jars me back to the reality of our situation. I would either learn that a relative of someone I know is killed or that there is a threat of fresh attacks. These sorts of news keep me up whole nights.
Whenever I am away from Maiduguri, which is a lot of times, I have a certain apprehension whenever I see my phone ring and it is a call from home. I begin to pray silently that the call is not bearing bad news. Most times, the calm tone of the caller puts me at ease. Early last week I received one of such calls. But halfway through it, my mum dropped the bombshell on me that a friend, someone I have known since childhood and a cousin to a very close friend of mine, had been killed that morning. It was first shock, then disbelief. I called another friend and he confirmed the sad news.
I kept thinking of this young man, only a couple of years or so older than me, who was now no more. I kept remembering the last day I met him, on New Years’ Day in his house and all the banters we exchanged. I tried to imagine the sorrow of his parents, losing their first child on their wedding anniversary. I tried to feel the pain of his girlfriend, losing her love a day to his birthday, possibly after planning how she was going to make him feel extra-special the next day. I tried and tried, but I failed miserably. It was as if empathy for me had reached its limits. One cannot truly know how another feels about a situation unless one walks in the person’s shoes. One can only attempt.
It is said a tragedy is not a tragedy until you know someone affected by it. The killing of my friend made the Boko Haram situation a fresh tragedy. I began to take stock of how many people I know personally who have been lost to these continuous, seemingly unending acts of terrorism. From my home church that was destroyed during the first crisis in July 2009, to a church member who went missing during the first crisis and was never found again apart from his car, to the younger brother of a family friend who was slaughtered in his house, the list continued growing. I remembered my own close shaves: how a deadly bomb had exploded near a busy roundabout a few minutes after I had driven past the spot, how I came home one afternoon to see the words ‘They are Infidels’ in Hausa scrawled in charcoal on our wall, and how we could barely sleep even after reporting the incident to the Joint Task Force.
This is not one of my usual articles where I attempt to understand the crisis and try to offer my own little advice on how best to solve the situation. This is a human angle story, on how much life for Maiduguri residents has altered in this crisis. A city with a proud history of being the capital of the great Kanem-Bornu Empire, which withstood the Fulani Jihad; a centre of Islamic and Western education and a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups has now been reduced to a shadow of itself.
Curfews of 7pm have eliminated all nightlife; people go out only if they have to; large crowds are avoided and there is an air of insecurity that hangs permanently over the city. Parents no longer long for their children to come home to visit, while checkpoints have made traffic hellish. Church services have numerously been ended suddenly mid-way, while a tradition of hospitality has died as suspicion towards unknown people is very high. Young children are growing up getting used to the sight of guns and the sound of gunfire. This isn’t life.
All we have been resigned to now is to pray and keep hoping that one day and soon, all this will come to an end. We cannot undo the lives lost, and the city will carry a scar for a very long time. We just pray that more lives are not lost.