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Nigeria: A tale of survival in Gwoza town

31 Oct 2016


Ali puts his life and home back together after the Nigerian Army drove Boko Haram out of his town.

Gwoza town, located south of Maiduguri, Borno’s state capital, was overtaken by Boko Haram in 2014. The militia group pillaged the town, setting homes and property on fire and causing thousands of people to flee in terror. The militia kidnapped young boys and girls, killed with impunity, and caused mayhem in a town that was previously peaceful and relatively prosperous. 

About two years later, on 10 April 2016, the Nigerian Army drove out the militia. Since then, former residents have begun returning home to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The returnees are arriving to find critical infrastructure, schools and clinics destroyed. The few medical facilities available are run by UN agencies or international NGOs, but they are so overcrowded that doctors are treating people on the floor. A make-shift trolley is serving as the town’s ambulance. Some returnees have moved into organized camps where aid workers provide materials to set up temporary shelters. Others have settled in the burnt-out shells of former homes whose owners are yet to return.

In one compound, Ali Mohammed is trying to put his life and home back together. He is one of the few people who stayed behind in Gwoza during the Boko Haram occupation. A retired school teacher, Mohammed narrates his story of the terrible violence that Boko Haram inflicted on communities. 

Ali Mohammed. Credit: Washington Post/Jane Hahn

I was born in 1949, 12 kms from Gwoza. I was the only one out of 45 boys in my village to receive further education. I attended teacher training school between 1969 and 1971 and went off to Zaria in Gombe to work. I returned to Gwoza in 2006.

I want to tell my story, I think it’s important. I am an old man, and when Boko Haram came to Gwoza I decided to stay. Where else was I to go at this time in my life? I told them: “Kill me, no problem.” I don’t know why they didn’t kill me. One of them wanted to but the other said: “Leave him alone.” So I survived.

Boko Haram came to Gwoza one Tuesday evening. Everybody in the town ran for their lives. We were trapped in the house. We were 30 people inside this house and one by one they escaped to the mountains. I was terrified Boko Haram would find my son Abbas, who was hiding in the attic when they came to the house several times. He hid in the attic for 12 days before he escaped.

Boko Haram came to our house many times and checked to see if we were hiding anybody. They came with guns, and the first time they arrived they asked us to recite the Koran.

Food is the top priority for people displaced by the conflict in north-east Nigeria. Credit: OCHA/O.Fagan

At one point we were held captive and were not allowed to even slaughter the animals for food. One of our captors indicated that the food was for the Boko Haram leader when he said: “This is for Sheaku.” Sheaku is the feared leader of Boko Haram, reported to have been killed many times, but he was recently seen in a video and looked very much alive.

Our grinding machine was broken, so food was hard to come by. It was difficult. Water was available when it rained, but we struggled during the dry season. We couldn’t farm for two years and those who had money paid inflated prices.

Our wives couldn’t go outside unless they were totally covered. We were 10 people all confined to the house. People were buried on their property when they couldn’t get to the graveyard. I saw old men slaughtered by Boko Haram; one man was 83 years old. These people are not human beings.

Damage to Gwoza town was extensive when Boko Harma took control. It was recently recaputred by Government forces, but the biggest task is to restore basic infrastructure such as medical facilities, shelter and water supplies. Credit: OCHA/O. Fagan

Before, all the response was centred in Maiduguri [the state capital of Borno], but now we have IOM, UNICEF and (international) medical NGOs working with the people in Gwoza. Food is still scarce. Food items that once cost ₦50 (about 15 US cents) now cost ₦300 (nearly $1). We are thankful for the assistance, but we will need so much more to get our lives back together.

Gwoza is slowly coming back to normal. A heavy military presence ensures security for its residents. Food, health, shelter and protection remain the primary needs of the people in Gwoza, just the essentials as they try to rebuild their lives.