Aisha Abdullahi, a 21-year-old mother of two who, along with her husband, narrowly escaped death by whiskers to Lagos from Maiduguri after a gruesome Boko Haram assault that claimed the lives of her entire family all in one day, tells Gboyega Alaka her horror storey. Aisha, who is currently facing significant problems such as feeding her two children and the possibility of eviction from the shack she lives in on the Isolo dumpsite, also talked about how her husband vanished without a trace over a year and a half ago.
•Aisha, Sadiq, and Fatimah
When does a young woman begin to recover from the trauma of witnessing the horrific murder of her father, brother, and two sisters—one of whom was pregnant—among others in one day?
Perhaps never. This could explain why Aisha, 21, from Ismahi Bohel, a small village on the outskirts of Maiduguri in Borno State, is still terrified and suspicious nearly three years later.
Aisha was practically tongue-tied for minutes, searching around for an escape route as this reporter tried to get her to share her storey. If it hadn’t been for the presence of an elderly lady who arranged this reporter’s meeting with her and in whom Aisha later confessed her trust, the mother of two could have called off the interview, despite initially agreeing to it.
Her predicament was first brought to this reporter’s attention a fortnight ago. Then, according to the anonymous Good Nigerian woman, “a Boko Haram victim who had made her way to Lagos and had been making do on the dumpsite in Isolo, was about to be thrown into the streets with two children.” If that happens, I don’t want to think about what will happen to her; please tell her storey. Perhaps she would be lucky enough to receive assistance from well-meaning Nigerians. It’s bad enough that she lives in such a setting with two little children.
“I’m baffled as to why she’s suddenly developed cold feet. If it’s because of what she’s been through. Aside from her experience in the North, which I’ll let her tell you about, her husband has been missing for about a year and a half, with no traces. Last week, it took the collective efforts of a few well-meaning people to collect N12,000 for her, which she used to pay her landlady. You should have seen how much she cried here last week.”
Aisha braced herself and shared her storey at this stage.
Boko Haram annihilated my entire family.
“They came on a Saturday night, the Boko Haram boys. We were all residents of Maiduguri. No, not necessarily. My parents lived in Sumahi Bohel (I’m not sure how to spell it), and I lived in Konge, just outside Maiduguri, with my husband. Previously, they had come to strike in the evenings and at night. All in the village will flee for safety on such occasions. Most of the time, they leave a few deaths and cart away human and material goods. They normally took young girls and turned them into wives or used them to bear bombs and blow themselves up with other people (suicide bomber).
“As normal, they arrived unexpectedly on Saturday night and began throwing bombs and firing. It had been a particularly gruesome night. People were fleeing everywhere, hoping to reach freedom. People were being shot at and dropping, as well as being blown to bits by bombs. Nobody had the time to search for someone. The father was unconcerned about the boy, and the mother had little time to be concerned about her child. Even if you see your brother or sister fall, you must not hesitate to look or help because you could be struck by a bomb or bullet. After they had left and the peace had returned, I discovered that my father, mother, and two sisters, including my pregnant twin sister, had been murdered. It was a dreadful day for me. In reality, I could only tell my mother apart by the ring on her nose. She was severely burned and blown to smithereens.
“The fact that my sister was pregnant and about to give birth was the most agonising. When you are newly married and pregnant with your first child, you are brought back to your parents when your due date approaches, according to our culture. This is done so that you can give birth under their supervision and they can take care of you. That’s why she was back at their house, caught up in the assault. I was at my husband’s place in Konge; otherwise, I might have been a victim as well.
“As we talk, I have no idea where my only brother is. My mother was the mother of two sets of twins. He is the twin of my other sister, who was killed in the bombing. I’ve looked all over for him. Some claim to have seen him in Katsina. I’m not sure whether it’s real or not. When I went to look for him, they told me he was no longer there. I only have one cousin aunty; when I asked if she had seen him, she said no. So, as I talk, I’m not sure if he’s alive or dead.”
But had Boko Haram always targeted their community?
“I’m still perplexed as to how the whole thing got underway. We didn’t have anything like it when I was younger, but something changed all of a sudden. They will simply show up and threaten and kill innocent people in our villages. And they typically left a trail of dead people in their wake. Even soldiers fled from them because it was too terrible. We still have troops who have joined them. Some have links to Boko Haram and collaborate with them. In exchange for money, they will often give them their uniform and weapons. So you can’t always tell the difference between real soldiers and Boko Haram.”
As the conversation progressed and her confidence increased, it became clear that the mother of two, who said she had never attended school, spoke adequate English. Even if it wasn’t flawless, she communicated well and even managed to put together accurate sentences. In reality, she rarely spoke a sentence of Pidgin English, prompting this reporter to inquire further about her past. Her reaction:
“In reality, I didn’t go to school until after I married and had my first child, Sadiq. He is now three years old. Before that, I just went to Islamic School, but after I got married and saw some young girls going to school, I decided to join them as well. Really, it was just a lesson, but I learned a little bit before the attack dispersed us.”
She also chose some English words and sentences from the rented house in Konge where she and her husband lived: “In my husband’s house, where I lived before Boko Haram people dispersed all, there were many people, co-tenants.” We had Igbo and Yoruba among them, and they typically spoke with us in English.
The influx to Lagos
“Aside from my own parents and family, who were killed in that attack, there were probably a hundred other people who died, some of whom I met when they were alive. It’s as if they’re still on the lookout for places where there are a lot of people and then go throw bombs there. I’m not sure what they get out of throwing bombs and murdering people who haven’t offended them. And they normally don’t come during the day when people can run to safety; they come in the evening or at night and scatter everywhere. When my husband, Uthman, saw how close death had come to us and the destruction these bad people had left behind, he wanted to move us to Lagos. I had nothing to say about it. All I recognised as family was nowhere to be found. They were either dead or had fled to unknown locations. The good news was that he had already travelled to Lagos for work, so it wasn’t as if we were entering a foreign country.
“When we first arrived in Lagos, my husband and I stayed somewhere near the Mass Burial Site at Oke Afa, near the Canoe Bus Stop. He worked as an Okada rider, and all was well until one day when my husband went to work and never returned. That was around a year and a half ago. I was pregnant with Fatima, my one-year-old daughter. When I called his phone, he did not answer; when I called again, it said switched off. I searched everywhere for him, but there were no signs of him. I even returned to Maiduguri to search for him, but no one had seen him. I went to beg cattle trailers to take me to the north after weeks of fruitless searching for him. They agreed. I sold some of my belongings to collect funds for the trip.”
Were there any squabbles on the day he left? ‘No,’ she replied. Is he really alive? She has no idea. But, judging from the look in her eyes, she hasn’t given up hope on him returning.
When asked if he could have gone to join Boko Haram, she shook her head confidently. “Never, ever. I’m familiar with the man I married. It’s excruciating that I can’t locate him. Apart from my son, he was the only family I had in Lagos.”
When she was asked to speak about her housing situation, which had resulted in her temporary eviction, she became taciturn once more. Clearly, Aisha is someone who is proud and does not want to be labelled as destitute, but if there is a worse term…
“Yes, I had a minor squabble with my landlady last week, but I’ve resolved it for the time being. I live on the waste dump in Isolo, but because I couldn’t pay my rent, she locked me out and threatened to throw away my belongings unless I paid. In all honesty, she made an attempt. I had to beg mummy here and some other generous people around me for money, N12,000 for me, with which I paid her.”
She mentioned that the N12,000 was for a period of six months. She did, however, admit to hunger and a persistent lack of funds to care for her two children, Sadiq and Fatimah. She currently works menial jobs such as sweeping, mopping, cleaning, and general laundry to supplement her income and pay her bills.
Her elderly mate, on the other hand, maintained that she was not telling the whole storey. “She would always rush to me to lament that her children had yet to taste anything, even as late as mid-day. At times, she would rush to me to lament about one of her health problems or another.
My worry is about her welfare and that of her children; I don’t want them to grow up on that dumpsite, it is not a good place to train a child. The other day, she told me how some people came to offer her N50,000 for her child. That tells you the level of danger she is facing.
As if to corroborate her elderly friends, she spoke about how some Hausa boys pester her for sex. “Some Hausa boys come to me, but I know that all they want is sex and I’m not ready for that. As it is, my two children are my love and life.”