Editor’s note: Ladi Yohanna is an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) living in the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) camp in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, since 2014. This repor finds out how she survived the several Boko Haram attacks and became a displaced person.
Women from Atagara and Agangera villages in Borno state in the North-east on a daily basis lament their horrible experience with Boko Haram insurgents.
One of them, Ladi Yohanna, a mother of 11, while narrating her story during the video screening of Uprooted, a film about the lives of displaced persons produced by the PAGED Initiative, a non-governmental organisation that fosters inclusiveness and equity, said it was by the grace of God that she wasn’t killed.
The distraught Ladi said women by themselves had to dig graves and bury dead bodies littered over the village, a task carried out mostly by men over the years, because the men had either been killed or had fled during the attacks.
She also said they slept under a hill without food or water for days when they got information that the village was going to be attacked, yet this didn’t spare the lives of some of the villagers.
She said: “For almost a week we were sleeping under the hill with our livestock. We, the women, would go out look for water and bring to our men and our livestock. When Boko Haram eventually attacked, our men ran away leaving us, the women, with children: Me and my neighbour’s children and my own baby strapped on my back also ran for safety.
“It was by the grace of God that we were not killed. We will be running and hearing bullets sounding ratatatatata; I was in front and a woman behind me who also had a baby strapped on her back was hit by a bullet and she fell down.
“We were running, but I could not keep running with all these children; also I could hear the cry of the baby whose mother was shot behind me, and there were my neighbour’s children and my own children too, but we persevered and ran to Antufa.”
She further said after running a great distance, they got tired and decided to hide in someone’s kitchen. “It was at a small kitchen belonging to one woman and we all struggled into it. There were elderly people and babies that were born two days back, we were all in that kitchen.”
She said the terrorists started saying some things in Kanuri language, asking for their husbands who had fled, but that they didn’t believe their stories, but left them and threatened to come back to get their men.
“In order to protect the few men amongst them, according to her, the women disguised them so that the terrorist wouldn’t recognise them since most of them hiding in the kitchen were women.
“One of the women amongst us was scared because some men were amongst us and she asked what we would do. I had a veil that I kept under this child of mine, so I tore the veil and used it as a head gear for the men that were there, for the other man there were bags of beans shaft in the kitchen, so we squeezed him between the bags.
“When the Boko Haram terrorists came back standing in front of us with their guns and threatening to shoot us if we didn’t tell them where our men were, we kept saying that ‘we don’t know, they have fled, and they said we must tell them where they fled to.’
“We had a new born baby amongst us and I had children, our bodies were just shaking; then as you know there is the main room and then the kitchen, with a shed in between them. So, they set the room on fire, but by the grace of God the kitchen did not catch fire, even the shed was completely burnt, they were saying ‘by Allah we are going to finish you, you must become Muslims, you have hidden your husbands, abi,’ but we said we did not hide them.”
Ladi said the woman that had the newborn baby and the elders were told that they were going to be killed, they continued to beg the terrorists to spare the lives of the children.
“We begged them not to kill the children; the elderly too were begging even as there were gunshots and people were shouting Allah Akbaru.
“The town was covered in flames, and people were all shivering and sweating due to the heat from the fire until 4pm that day; fortunately the children were not killed, but they were separated from us.”
Continuing, she said: “We could not hear very well because of the gunshots, smokes from the houses that were burnt. When we eventually came out we went round the town and everywhere were up in flames, we were the ones left with the children as those with the means had already left. So, we that were left with these children were wondering which way we would go.
“The children and I, including my neighbour’s children, decided to follow the footsteps we saw. Along the road we saw corpses until we arrived at Gaba on the Cameroun border at 9pm.”
The women (natives of Atagara and Agangera) had no time for sleep; they took a hard decision to go and look for their husbands; so they left the children in Gaba village and got to their village by 1am to look for their husbands.
During the journey back home, the women saw many corpses and could not hold back their tears, they also took courage to bury the men instead of letting them litter the streets.
“We came back to look for our husbands, but instead we saw corpses. We cut leaves and placed on them; we had left the children in the Cameroonian border. In the morning, we asked ourselves what to do with the corpses? They were so many corpses, some on rocks, and some on the ground; that was how we women started burying the corpses in Agangera.
“We were digging graves and putting them inside until we were tired. We kept burying the dead till evening, yet we had not seen our husbands and we began to cry.
Once the insurgents heard us crying, they came to us and said ‘if you people are not careful we will gun you down too, you wives of unbelievers; you must repent, you must become Muslims like us.’
The woman said the terrorists were not moved by their tears instead they began to kill their livestock since they couldn’t show them where their husbands ran to.
“Right before us they started slaughtering our cows and taking away our livestock; if we said anything they flogged us. In the evening we went back without seeing our husbands, we went to check on the children. Then in the night after we had checked on the children, we would go in search of our husbands again, some of them had fled to the hill at Gaba, some at Apopo, and other areas.
“We spent two days burying corpses, we could not continue, so we went to Zangali, but still we were not safe (we made house with stalks), we were there with our children and we were suffering; there was no food, so we ran away from there again on foot with these children even with their legs swollen, we ran to Mazago.”
Seeking refuge at the palace
The women trekked to Mazego where they spent three weeks because they were under the protection of the emir’s palace, but the solace they found was again cut short.
“We spent three weeks at the gates of the emir’s palace in Mezago, but the Boko Haram found out that we were at the emir’s palace. They told the emir of Mazego that if he did not get rid of the displaced people (us) in front of his palace they would come for him.
“They threatened the emir to the point that we saw the wives of the emir running out of the palace in the night. When we asked them what was going on, they said we could stay, but that the emir had been told that if he did not chase the displaced people away in front of his palace, they would come for him.
“So, we said we should not displace an emir and that was how we started looking for another way, this time we decided to come back to Nigeria but there was no road, so we kept going ahead.”
They and their children had to leave the palace carrying two bags of red millet the Emir gave them which they shared to make it easy to carry.
“It was the millet powder (ground millet) we shared that became food. Anywhere we get water we will mix it and these children will drink it until we were pitied and brought to Mubi.”
Leaving the emir’s palace, it was raining but fortunately the driver of a lorry stopped to give them a ride, and they followed him to Mubi because it was raining heavily.
They got to Mubi drenched yet had no other clothes to change into; this made some of them sick.
“The lorry brought us to the camp located in a primary school in Mubi we were wet but had no clothes. They gave us food to eat, we spent the night, the next day at about 12 o’clock my son that was helping me hold the younger ones said that he was feeling stomach pains and his chest was also paining him. I was also feeling feverish.
“I was feeling feverish, I could not even get water to give these children, it was the other women who were going to get food for them. I was given injection, but I did not know the feverish feeling was a sign that my son was going to die.
“I was not familiar with the camp, but I couldn’t watch my son suffer; so I decided to look for a hospital while some people at the camp looked for a chemist for us.
“James was sweating and vomitting, when the owner of the chemist saw the boy he said he couldn’t handle the case, so he called someone; the person he called gave him two injections and they were fanning him and then he stopped vomitting, then they took us to a big hospital.”
Unfortunately for her, it was only one doctor in the whole of Mubi; by then James was in a critical condition, vomitting blood and was put on drip.
“We spent the night in the hospital and he kept vomitting and had diarrhoea. My son requested for nunu (fresh cow milk), but I am not familiar with the town so couldn’t get any. So, I got him water and we were like that till about 4pm when he passed away.
“I didn’t have a phone, I don’t know anyone, I was just there in the hospital, I told the people in the hospital that I wanted to go and look for some people, but they said I couldn’t go that day until the next day.
I spent the night in the hospital close to my son’s corpse; early in the morning the next day, they opened the gate for me, I was going round Mubi town from one camp to another until I eventually found our camp. I told them what happened and they came and buried the body.
“It was after my son was buried that we were put in another vehicle to Maiduguri. We spent three days on the road, through the night and through the day without food. Worse still, the vehicle developed fault, we were scared but they assured us that they weren’t taking us to Sambisa, so we just left everything to God. I have lost a grown-up child talk less of small children; that was how we came here.”
Following the several journeys they made on foot with children, Ladi fell sick for months and was treated at Nakowa Clinic, yet tragedy continued to strike them.
“Now in this camp with our children, we are entitled to N9, 000 worth of food monthly; we buy firewood from this, we buy soup (ingredients) from it, we are still suffering,” she decried.
According to the PAGED Initiative Managing Director, Ummi Bukar, the documentary is being screened to reveal untold stories of survival by underrepresented citizens, particularly those affected by the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigerian villages and communities.
Osang is a Senior Reporter with Blueprint Newspaper with specialisation in women issues and human angle stories.