UBA — With the milling crowds of people, this could pass for a small country market. But the people walking or sitting on the ground, some buying and selling tiny quantities of vegetables or petty domestic objects — a farming tool, a loincloth — have traveled much too far for that.
Instead, they have reached this small town of Uba, in northern Nigeria, as part of the steady tide of men, women and children who have fled the horror of the area controlled by Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist organization.
Just a few hundred meters from this shuffling crowd begins the zone in the northern state of Adamawa that is considered under the group's control. Those who have crossed out of the area have lost almost everything, too often even their loved ones. The only satisfaction they have is to be alive, though the fear remains that the rebels could catch up with them in this chase across a state that is as big as Switzerland and, in this rainy season, almost as green.
Nearby, on this day in late October, at Uba’s secondary school, more than 5,000 people are sleeping on the ground and are trying to find essential products — soap, a mattress. Women are boiling beans given out by the local authorities. Children are playing. Fathers are exchanging bad news.
Suddenly, four men arrive, dripping with sweat, their jackets filthy, their shoes torn. Before even sitting down or seeking water, they start to tell their story. They left Gwoza five, no, seven days ago. They need to count again to be certain. Seven days walking from that town, about a hundred kilometers as the crow flies, more to the north, and now “capital” of the caliphate proclaimed by Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader whose death is regularly (and falsely) announced by the Nigerian army.
The men first broke out of this fake caliphate which is actually nothing more than an open-air prison. They snuck away in the night, following a path in the Sambisa forest. That’s where Boko Haram hid some of its camps and where the schoolgirls from Chibok, abducted on April 14, were believed to have been held for a time. But the forest is huge. To cross through it, the escapees had to use byways, in the middle of the vegetation, where other dangers lurk. One evening, these men saw their friend Hammassaleh Eliyah getting bitten by a black snake — and watched him die.
Abandoned cities, public executions
Their words come tumbling out. They talk of Gwoza, where the “kingmakers” had named a new emir in June, after his predecessor was killed by Boko Haram. They recount how the town was taken after three days of fighting, then the hell that followed. More than 70 executions. Men's throats slit, men shot like hunted animals. The growing number of Islamist insurgents, some of whom come from Chad, Niger, Cameroon, have taken firm control. The frenzied flight of part of the population to the Mandara mountains, on the border with Cameroon. And the bleakness of life in this mockery of a caliphate.
Refugees arriving on the Niger side of Lake Chad — Photo: Eleanor Whitehead via Instagram
“In the city, there’s nobody left but accomplices of Boko Haram and some elderly people," recounts Mohammed Bello Guduf, one of the four new escapees." He says that the fields in the surrounding countryside have been abandoned as the women and children fled to the mountains to escape Boko Haram patrols.
"They want the girls to serve as wives, and they force the boys to fight for them,” he says. "There are families who’ve been stuck in the mountains for three months, without medicine, without food.” He speaks in long bursts, and at certain moments seems about to pass out, or to start crying.
Then there is Nuhu Gajere, who had secretly gone to bring back his dying father in Michika, another city held by Boko Haram. Gajere is pushing the old man, whose eyes are rolled upwards, in a wheelbarrow.
As much as they would like to believe it, none of these people are in the clear. The area controlled by Boko Haram hasn’t stopped expanding since June, especially in the wide corridor between the Sambisa and the Cameroonian border.
In Uba, on Tuesday, this insurgent zone was supposed to start, in theory, on the other side of the bridge, just outside the town. But some are more skeptical, like this soldier in charge at the entrance of Uba. For him, Boko Haram members are already inside the town, invisible — and he’s prepared for the worst.
The sound of mortar fire in the distance confuses the soldier. “These are our forces, right? We are pushing the insurgents to the other side of the bridge, outside the town.”
But right before our eyes, the government forces’ defense is falling to pieces. In just a few hours, everything is blown away. Boko Haram men enter Uba and raise their black flag. They continue driving in their Hilux pickup trucks until the next town, find no resistance there, and so continues until the next one, Mubi.
Hours later, our friend, the soldier, answers his phone one last time from his speeding car, as he drives away from the front. He shouts that “there are dead people everywhere along the road,” then hangs up.
In the hours that follow, Mubi falls. The battalion that used to defend the second biggest town in Adamawa vanished into thin air. Some of its men went as far as Cameroon. Boko Haram fighters no doubt simply walked into deserted barracks and loaded their pickups with weapons, ammunition and freed prisoners.
Leaving Mubi — Photo: cyclo_ne via Instagram
In the Nigerian capita of Abuja, nobody seems to grasp the importance of the demonstration of force that just took place. Boko Haram can seize a city of 200,000 inhabitants with a state university, and withdraw undisturbed after stocking up on ammunition, even though the forces posted there have armored vehicles and the backing of warplanes from Yola, the capital of the Adamawa state.
One local Christian leader is reached later by phone. “They could have massacred as many people as they liked, if they had wanted to,” he says, having spent the last few hours trembling with fear that they might murder him in his home.
Despite the battles raging on the ground, talks between the insurgents and the Nigerian government have been held in Chad. A ceasefire was even announced on Oct. 17 by Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, whose hometown is located just outside Mubi. A second round of negotiations is ongoing. The agreement, which was not validated by Boko Haram’s leaders, also plans the liberation of part or all of the 219 schoolgirls abducted in Chibok, 40 kilometers from Uba.
These negotiations have however been made possible thanks to the connections of a Nigerian politician, the former head of the Borno state, Ali Mody Sheriff. In exchange for the return of the “Chibok girls,” Boko Haram’s delegation demanded an important liberation of their own troops held prisoner. With some security officials in Nigeria opposed to this principle, the talks remain blocked — and meanwhile, Boko Haram marches on.
Villages around Mubi have been under continuous attack over the past few weeks. Foreign Minister Aminu Wali assures that these assaults are the work of “dissidents” inside Boko Haram.
“Negotiations are still ongoing and we’re still waiting on major progress,” he says. “And we are also trying hard to bring back those who have been abducted.” But exactly which factions of Boko Haram the negotiators represent is impossible to say.