The terrible incident that happened to me on February 1, 2015 at my house in Maiduguri, Borno State, has refused to go away from my memory. This is despite the fact that I witnessed more depressing, countless and unbearable traumas during my six years of covering the dreaded Boko Haram insurgency.
On that day, out of confusion, fear and helplessness, I observed the dawn prayers (Subh) around 12.30am instead of 5.10am.
My trouble started when hundreds of Boko Haram terrorists, armed with rocket launchers and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) attempted to take over Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, from four different fronts.
Though the attack, which began with a thunderous sound of blasts around 12am, did not succeed, many civilians, including women and children, were rattled as soldiers from the Maimalari Barracks, Giwa Barracks and the 333 Artillery Brigade battled the daring terrorists.
The temperature in Maiduguri at the time was over 35 degrees, and beside the curfew imposed on the town, Maiduguri had been without electricity for over four months and, therefore, sleeping indoors was nearly impossible.
Worse still, you couldn’t afford to keep your generator on at that hour because anything could happen…,the wicked may tiptoe and eliminate you.
Therefore, left with no other option, most residents with perimeter fences around their homes took to sleeping outdoors.
On that day, the moonlight was as bright as daylight. And while I was deep asleep, alone in the house, (I had relocated my family two years earlier), when the cracking sounds of rockets, accompanied by the chants of the Takbir (Allahu Akbar – meaning Allah is Great – from both the advancing terrorists and the horrified residents, who were seeking Allah’s intervention), woke me up.
Deceived by the glowing moonlight, I concluded it was already 7.30am, which meant I had overslept. I told myself: “It is better to observe the morning prayers and think of an escape route, so that even if I’m killed on the way, I have relieved myself of the obligatory prayers.”
I performed ablution and hurriedly observed the prayers.
But when I checked the time on my iPad and wristwatch, I discovered that I observed the dawn prayers in the dead of night (Inna Lillahi Wa’inna Ilaihi Raji’un – (From Allah we came and to Him we shall return).
From the time the Boko Haram launched its campaign in 2009, thousands of people have been killed in their sleep, some praying in mosques and churches, many others in the markets, farms and on the highway; when they least expected death, and therefore robbed of the opportunity to reconcile with their creator.
My pain was, if I had died asleep that fateful day, the transition would have been the same as for those poor souls. Thank God I escaped without a bruise and I am still alive.
More troubles, more escapes
I have written over 2000 stories on Boko Haram that were published in Daily Trust, and many of them have landed me in trouble with either the security forces, especially the army, or the dreaded sect.
My first encounter with the Boko Haram was in January, 2011 when I did a report for the then Weekly Trust about the killing of the gubernatorial candidate of the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Modu Fannami Gubio.
The newspaper ran the story with the picture of the slain Boko Haram leader, Mohammed Yusuf in handcuffs and wearing only trousers, a development that angered his successor, Abubakar Shekau and members of his Shura (Supreme Council).
About 6pm on the day the article was published, I was rattled by a phone call from the group’s spokesperson and operations commander, called Abu Dardaa.
Dardaa declared that my action – publishing the story and the picture that portrayed them in bad light – had made it halal (legitimate) for my blood to be spilled.
Shaken and unable to stand on my feet, I quickly called our editor, Malam Mahmud Jega, and relayed my blood-curdling encounter with Dardaa to him. A few minutes after, Malam Jega sent a text to me that read: “Hamza, move, move out of Maiduguri and go far, very far until you get assurance that all is well.”
But my predicament was that my wife and daughter were in my house at Bolori and there was no way I could either find my way out of Maiduguri at that point in time or even go home. Boko Haram fighters were not known to miss their targets when they wanted to get them. And once they issued you a threat, it meant they knew all your movements.
Our marketing officer at the time, Aminu Ado, who joined me around the Post Office area, where I was taking refuge, could not also go to my house to evacuate my family because he may be mistaken for me.
We, therefore, resolved that his wife should use his car and pick my wife and daughter.
All of us passed the night in his house and fled Maiduguri very early in the morning, which was a Sunday. But I returned later and continued with my work.
They came for me
I had another close shave with death in 2013, when four Boko Haram foot soldiers came to our office in Maiduguri, with guns hidden under their flowing gowns.
The gunmen asked for me and three of my colleagues – our manager, Malam Hassan Karofi; the marketing officer, Aminu Ado and the audit officer, Mr. Auwal.
I think the problem had to do with a story we didn’t publish.
Luckily enough, all of us were not in the office, and when we heard of the ‘visit’, we all fled and stayed away from Maiduguri for over two months.
And soldiers too
In 2014, after we published a story in the Daily Trust about soldiers refusing to go to Bama and Bulabulin in Damboa because they had no weapons to confront the Boko Haram, the then JTF spokesman, alongside some soldiers, stormed our office along Baga road, looking for me.
I was not in the office at that time, so they whisked away Ado and the newly employed regional manager, Jamilu Dayyabu, to the Maimalari Barracks.
They were asked to explain the source of our story and retract it.
But our Editor-in-Chief, Malam Mannir Dan-Ali, issued a statement, saying we stood by our story because we ran it after interviewing some of the soldiers that refused to go to the battlefront.
The two members of staff were allowed to go some hours after stories of their “arrest” began trending in the online media.
The soldiers came again looking for me when the Daily Trust online platform published the story of soldiers’ revolt at the Maimalari Barracks, when they shot at the vehicle conveying the GOC, in protest over the killings of their colleagues by the Boko Haram around Kala-Balge due to lack of fighting equipment.
Unknown soldiers besieged our office because of the story, but lucky me, I had already fled.
As journalists covering the Boko Haram, we were targets for the security agencies, locals and the sect, because there was no single story that could be seen by all the sides as well balanced.
At the height of the crisis, when you reported that the Boko Haram was soundly routed, their commanders would simply call and accuse you of lying and favouring the Nigerian authorities.
The security agents would also call and accuse you of doing propaganda for the terrorists whenever you wrote a report indicating that the insurgents “had an edge” during an encounter.
The allegation was the same when you did not report an attack in a certain community, as the elite would accuse you of “conniving” with the authorities to kill stories on the plight of their people.
So stressful was covering the Boko Haram that many journalists had no option but to relocate their families out of Maiduguri.
At one time in 2013, I had to rush my wife and daughter out of Maiduguri around 6.30am (which was the last time they stayed with me there) after sporadic attacks at a church near my house.
By then, my daughter Umma Rabi, who was barely two years old, had known the sound of bombs and could scream and lie flat on the floor as a precautionary measure whenever she heard the first sound of a blast.
The thought of a “nameless” woman who was picked by the Nigerian troops in the wilderness of northern Borno, makes me cry till date.
She was found deaf, dumb, pale and visibly sick, a pointer to the fact that she must have passed through traumatic experience.
With no way to verify her identity, the woman was simply kept alongside multitude of other women who were in detention in military facilities over links with the dreaded Boko Haram group.
Few days after, she was found to be pregnant, meaning that she was probably abducted, raped and impregnated by the ruthless insurgents and thereafter abandoned.
The nameless woman and her newborn baby were among the 182 people that were released to Governor Kashim Shettima at a ceremony by the Nigerian Army in Maiduguri, after it was discovered that they had no links with the Boko Haram sect.
It was, therefore, a huge relief when my employers transferred me to Abuja in July, 2015.
However, the credit of my perseverance goes to my father, Alaramma Malam Idris and my mother, Umma Rabi.
At every distressful moment, when I thought of seeking for a transfer or tendering a resignation, they kept consoling me to remain strong.
“Don’t ask for a transfer until your employers ask you to leave. There’s a reason why God keeps you there and there would be a huge reward for reporting the plight of the Boko Haram victims,” my father once said.
I recall that soon after the transfer, a white friend who works in an international humanitarian agency jokingly said, “Now that you are done with the Boko Haram terrorists, you must develop a thick skin to deal with political terrorism in Nigeria.”
-Daily Trust August 28, 2016