Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gwoza: After Liberation

Photo: Nigeria Defense Forces
It’s been a month since the Nigerian Army launched an offensive in Gwoza that freed roughly 400 woman and girls, who had been held captive by Boko Haram militants. Yet, even with the heavy army presence, fear remains pervasive and ever present in the faces of residents.

Boko Haram’s reign in the area seems to have robbed children of their care-free innocence, for none can be found playing in the vast sandy outdoors.

Silence lurks at every corner. Gwoza is virtually a ghost town.

It is here, in the home of her best friend, that 21 year-old Aisha Lawal retells a story she’d rather forget. She speaks in clipped, frightened whispers, like she fears the walls would reveal her story to her assailants.

“They did things to me that were inhumane – things you wouldn’t even do to a goat,” she says with sadness in her voice. “I was in the market buying some foodstuff the day they arrived. We were ambushed, the men slaughtered, then they gathered all the women and girls. Those who resisted were killed without any hesitation.

“Then they went from house to house shooting indiscriminately, before finally taking us to a large compound with several huts.”

Asked if the Chibok girls were in the compound, she says she wasn’t sure, but that there were some women and girls tied to a tree when she arrived.

“I guess they were from neighboring villages, because they weren’t faces I recognized.”

Aisha’s 3 month ordeal began in this compound. She said on the evening she was captured, she and several women in her group were married off to the militants.

“It didn’t seem real at first, until I was dragged into one of the huts and raped. Initially, I resisted, but gave up after he hit me several times in the head,” she mumbles amid tears.

Aisha’s best friend, Miriam, is now holding her friend’s hands. She is one of the lucky ones who wasn’t kidnapped, though her mum wasn’t lucky.

“When they came to my house, I hid in chicken barn at the back. My mom was in the market, and was taken with the rest of them,” she says. 

These are the only words Miriam speaks, and it wasn’t until moments later that her uncle Husein Ibrahim, volunteers that her mom was among the dead found in a shallow well.

“I doubt she believes it, but it’s true,” Husein remarks almost inaudibly, holding back tears. I was the one who identified my sister. Why would anyone do such a horrible thing to a human being?”

So far, some families have reported missing relatives, who may or may not be dead. And with bodies rapidly decomposing as a result of the sweltering heat, the identification process for the dead may take a while.

Life is at a standstill in Gwoza as schools and businesses remain closed, while the market is virtually deserted.

“We can’t teach if parents are afraid their children will be targeted by Boko Haram,” laments Peter Ade, a primary school teacher. “At the moment, I sell drinks and food to the Nigerian soldiers. They are the only ones who have money to spend. I don’t have to go to the market to sell – it’s too dangerous - instead they come to me.”

A government official, speaking under the cover of anonymity, says he is disappointed and frustrated by the administration’s response to the insurgency.

“The Nigerian government abandoned us. They only thought to launch an offensive six weeks before the presidential election. Is that how to govern a nation? This is what I call bolting the stable after the horses have left. It’s all too little, too late. Too little, too late.”