Travels, Uncategorized

Losing and Finding Love in the Time of Boko Haram


Since the Boko Haram insurgency began in 2011, thousands of women and children have been abducted by the terror group. Many of the women recovered from the forests and villages in which they were forcefully held face challenges being accepted into their communities. Here is a story of a couple separated by Boko Haram and how they found each other again


Gunshots echoed and explosions rang out across Bama, the town in Borno State that had come under sporadic attacks from the Boko Haram in the last few months. But the echoes of the explosion this time were ominous. They were those of an occupation force intent on taking full control of the town.
They shot the men and rounded up the women and children. Among them was Maryam Zanna, who was in her early 30s, and her little daughter. They had gone to braid their hair when the attackers came calling.

The women were loaded onto trucks by their captors and driven away. And as Maryam looked back at the burning remains of her hometown, she thought her husband, Zanna Bukar Tombe and the little son she had left at home had been killed.
“I thought I would never see them again,” she said now in Kanuri, sitting on a plastic mat on the floor of her tarpaulin shelter in the Dalori Camp for displaced persons in the outskirts of Maiduguri.
There wasn’t much in the room, just lots of colourful mats, a clothesline on which her clothes, her sons, and some blankets were hung. Behind her, there was a flimsy mattress pushed back against the tarpaulin wall.
There was nothing comfortable here, but it must have been like heaven compared to what she went through when Boko Haram took her and the other women of Bama. They were driven to a village, split into groups and imprisoned in different houses.
Maryam’s good fortune was that among the insurgents, there was one she knew, someone from their neighbourhood in Bama. He recognised her and ensured she was put in a select group of women that enjoyed some level of protection from abuse.
“The ones they maltreat are mostly the ones they caught migrating from their villages on their way to Maiduguri,” she said. “We were kept in a house and were asked to cook for them.”
Eventually, one of the militants set his eyes on Maryam and decided he wanted to take her as a wife. She told them she had a husband already. But deep down, she wasn’t sure her husband was alive. Whether he was or not would have mattered very little to her captors. Maryam’s case was helped by the familiar insurgent.
“It was him who told them to leave me alone,” she said.
And they did. For the six months she was in captivity, cooking food for them and being forced to attend sermons and preaching by Boko Haram commanders. But then one night, the familiar insurgent returned with some urgent news.
“He said they have made plans to marry all the young, unmarried girls and shoot the married ones and those who refused to marry them.”
He helped her with her daughter and two other women to scale the fence of their prison and set off on foot into the wild, running until they could run no longer. So they kept walking in the forest for hours.
But dreams of escape were short lived. The escapees were soon rounded up by another group of Boko Haram insurgents on patrol and were taken to a different camp. There, she was put in another house and locked up alongside other women.
About a month later, soldiers stormed the camp and freed them.
The soldiers drove Maryam and the other women to her hometown, Bama, which at that time had just been recovered by the army and was practically in ruins. They were kept there for a month and questioned by the soldiers. After being screened, a process that took all of one month, Maryam and the other women and children were put into buses and transported to Maiduguri, some 72km away, to the Dalori Camp. As the convoy made its way to the relative safety of Maiduguri, Maryam had no idea what to expect at the camp, but one thing she was sure of was that it would be better than where she had been the last seven months.
As the vehicles arrived the gates of Dalori, Maryam peered out the window to catch glimpses of her new home, the faces that would become her neighbours. But there, among the men guarding the gate, she saw a familiar face, one she thought she would never see again. It was her husband, Zanna.
“When I saw him, my mind was instantly at peace,” she said. She broke down and shed tears of joy as the vehicles drove into the camp.


Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls hom

Maryam Zanna in the tent she now calls home

Escape from Death
Zanna Bukar Tombe, 44, sat on a bench inside the yellow United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) tent at the Dalori Camp. The sunlight seeping through the yellow tarpaulin cast an eerie glow on his face and everything else in the tent. Behind him, there was a poster advertising “Rape is a Crime.”
While he spoke, Zanna kept his head down, massaging his feet all the time. He was now a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF) and was part of the group that helps provide security at the Dalori camp.
When Boko Haram attacked Bama, Zanna took his two-year-old son and fled. He was caught off by the insurgents and couldn’t go back for his wife and daughter as Boko Haram was shooting every man they set their eyes on.
It was sad for him to leave Bama, where he had his family, where he had his own house and two cars he used to transport goods from Bama to Maiduguri, 72 km away. And this time, when he made this trip, it was to escape the Boko Haram rampage and deliver his life and that of his son to safety.
For the first two months after the attack, he had no idea where his wife and daughter were.
“I was anxious to see her, to hear news of her and my son because I didn’t know if they were dead or alive,” he said.
Tired of idling away and feeling useless at the camp, he decided to join the Civilian JTF and contribute to the fight against Boko Haram. Patrolling the streets of Maiduguri and helping to secure the city felt far more useful than languishing in the camp.
He didn’t hear any news of his wife and daughter until after two months, when one of his relatives who had been taken along with Maryam somehow managed to escape from Boko Haram and trekked 34 km to Konduga before she was brought toDalori.
The news should have pleased him, but instead Zanna became more anxious.
“When I heard she was alive I was worried because I thought that perhaps the way we were treating Boko Haram suspects here, tying them up and beating them up, was the way they were treating our own families they are holding,” he said.
But beyond this fear, there was a bigger one lurking in his mind. “I had heard that the Boko Haram boys mostly were infected with HIV and they were fond of raping women, young or old.”
This fear impacted so deeply in Zanna that he worried in what state his wife would return, if she ever returned at all.
With no further news of his wife for months, and with a child who needed caring for, Zanna decided to marry a second wife, a fellow IDP at the camp. Plans for the wedding had advanced when one day, while on duty at the gate, Zanna caught glimpse of his wife Maryam being driven into the camp.

Awkward reunion
With the excitement of the reunion over, reality slowly crept in on the couple. Maryam soon learnt that Zanna had plans to marry another wife.
“I didn’t feel awkward that he was getting married because I wasn’t expecting to see him again,” she said, smiling bashfully. Maryam smiled a lot but when asked if she missed her husband while in captivity, she got really emotional and barely restrained herself from crying. When she spoke after that, her voice was softer, tremulous even. It was easy to see how much her husband meant to her.
But the one time she didn’t hold back her tears was when after her return, Zanna had come to see her.
Zanna narrated that encounter.
“When she returned and I went to see her, she joked that she had heard I was going to get married. I laughed and said, well, it was because I had heard that a Boko Haram Ameer [leader] had married her. She broke down and started crying,” he said looking down at his feet as if he still remembered the anguish those words caused her. He had placated her then, telling her he only meant it as a joke.
“I told her that I had only heard she was cooking for the bastards,” he said, almost apologetically.
Maryam was eventually pacified, but they both knew that a really awkward wedge had been driven between them.
Maryam hadn’t returned in the best of conditions and Zanna described how he had seen her then in sympathetic and affectionate tones. She had rashes all over her face, she was lean and her hair was browning because of poor diet.
Much as he cared,Zanna was reluctant for their lives to resume as normal. He was simply finding it hard to take her back as his wife. He felt she had been tainted by the Boko Haram.

The tainted “Boko Haram Wives”
The many women who had been abducted by the Boko Haram and managed to escape or were rescued have had to contend with the challenges of stigmatization. Some are rejected by their husbands who are reluctant to take them back.
This is such a widespread problem that Non-Governmental organisations like Herwa Community Initiative in Maiduguri have taken it upon themselves to organise mediation sessions between the rescued people who they call “survivors” and they relatives or host communities.
“There are many cases,” Alh. Muhammad Alhassan, the Executive Director of Herwa said. “From time to time we have mediation sessions in the camps, in the host communities and bring the survivors and the people together.”
“No one wants to be abducted by Boko Haram, and when this happens, they are massively traumatised and people need to know that these survivors need understanding and support.”
They use religious scholars and logic to persuade people to accept their relatives and neighbours who have been freed from the clutches of Boko Haram. They have succeeded with several cases, but they have also had failures as well.
“There is a man, a religious scholar for that matter, who one would expect would encourage people to take back their wives, but this man swore he would never have anything to do with his wife who had been recovered from Boko Haram. We are still working on that case,” he said.
William Ubimago, the Programme Officer of Herwa, is one of the officers at the forefront of the outreach programmes, providing counselling and skill acquisition training for the survivors. He was very passionate about the Zanna and Maryam case.
“There are many things that people take into consideration, some are social, some feel it is a matter of pride and others feel that they can no longer take back women they think might have been used by Boko Haram, but they tend to forget that these people were forced at gunpoint and if they had been in a similar situation, they would have done the same,” he said.
“When we bring people together and have mediated discussions with all parties involved, we are able to open channels of communications some of them have decided to block,” he added.
That was not dissimilar to what transpired between Zanna and his wife Maryam. When Maryam was still in the den of her captors Zanna developed a closed mind.
“I wasn’t even talking to her father then,” Zanna said. “I avoided him.”
And when Maryam was recovered, even though he genuinely had sympathy for her, he said his fears kept him from taking her back.
“I was afraid,” he said, “I was worried she might have been infected with HIV. If she had, I wouldn’t have rejected her outrightly. I would have taken care of her, even if for nothing but for the sake of our son. I would take her to get her ARVs and all that. But I won’t be intimate with her. I won’t let her fall into neglect and end up in a bad state.”
Even if she had been forcibly married to them, he insisted he would care for her. “There are women who are recovered and were impregnated by Boko Haram and we [Civilian JTF] have been bringing them back and giving them the attention they need. I would have taken care of her and the baby but there won’t be any intimacy between us,” he said.
But fortunately, nothing like that happened with his wife. But when she told him she had not been married to her captors nor had she been violated by them, he was still sceptical.
He was unconvinced and asked her to swear by the Qur’an.
“My uncle said that wasn’t necessary,” Maryam said, “He said I didn’t need to swear because even if anything had happened, it was because I was compelled and Islam does not judge people who have been forced to do things and humans shouldn’t either.”
Zanna acknowledged the role of her uncle in the whole saga. He said the uncle who happened to be a religious scholar had spoken to him at length and convinced him of the folly of his belief.
“I was ignorant,” Zanna said, looking down at his foot on the bench. “I was really ignorant but I was made to realise my mistake and now I feel sorry.”
Finally convinced about his misguided stance, Zanna agreed to take back his wife. They went to a military clinic where they were both tested for HIV and other infections. With the results coming back negative, the road was clear for a proper reunion and renewal of marriage vows.
“When he said he was going to take me back, I was happy because rarely do men take back their wives when they have been abducted by those people,” Maryam said, smiling.
Zanna too was pleased with this development.
“Her uncle told me since I was going to take her back, I should give her something valuable to show her that I really appreciated her and I was happy to take her back,” he said. So he handed her the things he had bought for the new wife he had planned to take.
A year has passed since their reunion.
Living in the dreariness of the camp and waiting for handouts from government and international and local agencies, the couple still glowed with happiness. It was evident in the way they looked at each other and smiled. In the affectionate tone they talked about each other. And in the regret in Zanna’s eyes when he spoke of how he thought of rejecting his wife.
“They are the poster couple of our reunion efforts,” William of Herwa said proudly. “They are our reference point and make all the effort worth it.”
The only blemish to this story was the death of their first daughter, months after their rescue from the Boko Haram. The little girl died of measles. It was something that Maryam thinks about a lot. But regarding her ordeal in the hands of her captors, she was eager to put that behind her.
“I don’t think of them at all,” she said,“I don’t think of them since I have my son and my husband. My only regret is the daughter I lost.”

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

Maryam and Zanna living happily in their tent

By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | First published in Daily Trust, Sep 4 2016



Once upon a time, on a fine Saturday, the President’s daughter had a lavish wedding and guests went home with gold-plated iPhones as souvenirs.
But on the following Monday, a bomb went off in the kingdom and killed a hundred people, and then some rascals went and abducted 240 girls from a school!
So incensed was the President by these tragedies that he danced his heart out the very next day at a campaign rally in Kano while there was still grief and shock in the air.
Two weeks later, the President’s daughter is honeymooning and the over 200 girls are probably being raped or killed and those in charge don’t give a damn. Shikenan. End of story…so far.


Stop the killings now!



Following the incessant killings by Boko Haram , I asked Nigerian writers home and abroad for their reactions and here they are. Eloquent, moving and they are unequivocal about their demand for an end to the horror.

First published in Sunday Trust



Helon Habila

“I think it is past time every Nigerian of conscience begins to speak out about what is going on not only in the North East but also in Plateau and Kaduna States. We are witnessing an unprecedented spate of violence perpetrated by a sick and lunatic group, all in the name of religion. There is another motive for this, but it is certainly not religion. No religion will sanction the killing of innocent children in their beds.  

So far the government has failed to realize the magnitude of this threat to the future of the country as a whole. It has been fighting a half-hearted war, in the process many of our military personnel have been killed needlessly. We need to know the full number and names of the military casualties, and the full number and names of every victim.  

Politicians keep pointing fingers at one another, trying to score cheap points. Some of them see the chaos as an opportunity to continue their looting and misgovernment, since all eyes are focused on the North-East. Meanwhile, a whole generation is being wiped out, in front of our eyes. The government needs to do more than it is doing. The Nigerian people need to stop acting as if all is well, it is not. We must speak out and force the government to take this seriously. You do not fight terror with kid gloves.”

Habila is the author of ‘Measuring Time’



Remi Raji

“There is no other better way to imagine the affairs of our state than to admit that we are gradually slipping into the crucible of darkness where intrigues rule above reason, and where the spillage of civil and military blood is almost equal to the spillage of oil on a daily basis in our country. The latest disaster of massacre where students were gunned down by religious or political Boko Haram fundamentalists must not only be condemned in strong terms; it must be met with the adequate and intelligent force that the federal government can muster. We should not make any mistake about it. We should desist from waxing political and politically correct in the face of these organised irresponsibilities all over the country. The impunity of disorder and banditry must be stopped in its track, and quickly too. No one will gain from this bloodletting except those who are too self-centred and fixated on the spoils of office, and those who want to hang onto power by all means necessary.

The federal government of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan will do better to stamp out these obscenities, once and for all.”


Raji is a poet  and professor of English and African Studies, University of Ibadan



Eghosa Imasuen

“I admit with shame that I had almost become inured to the daily news of killings in the North-east, but this one struck me particularly hard. Coming so soon after the kidnap of 20+ girls, it spoke to someone’s utter incompetence. For hours afterwards, I kept asking, how do you leave a Federal Government College, a symbol of our commitment to unity, to education, how do you leave one unguarded in a region where you are at war with a group who thinks that education is haram? What was that about a checkpoint near the school? What was that? The school should have been garrisoned! My outrage has since become tempered and is herein replaced with pleading. Please end this. End it, my government. You can not be allowed to be stupid about this. You cannot be anything but brave and resolute. Just end the killings.”

—    Imasuen is the author of the novel Fine Boys


Chika Unigwe

“As a young girl, I was a boarder at a Federal Government College for six years. Before going to FGGC Bwari, Abuja, I had never been to the northern part of the country. I had hardly met any Non-Igbo Nigerian. The only Muslim I knew was a man who was considered eccentric because he was Igbo and Muslim. I remember being so excited I could not wait to leave. I remember that when the day finally came, I cried for a long time in the car that my mother threatened to have the driver turn back. She’d register me at one of the state schools near our house and I’d be a day student, she said. I thought of the biscuits and powdered milk and milo packed in my suitcase. I thought of the pocket money in my purse which I would have to return, and I stopped crying. However, even though I cried at the beginning of every term from missing home, I always looked forward to going back to school. Those six years at FGGC Bwari, Abuja, were some of the most glorious years of my childhood. Living with fellow students drawn from all over the country and across religious divides, I learned tolerance and open-mindedness. Before meals, we said both Christian and Muslim prayers. Whatever our parents believed in, at school we were one. And as one, we obeyed the bedtime bell at 9 PM daily. Whatever happened during the day, whatever petty squabbles we had,  we never feared for our safety. It would never have occurred to us that we could wake up to men in our hostels butchering us in the name of religion. When I heard of the Yobe attack on students ( and students in a school designed specifically to foster unity) , I could not imagine the horror. Boko Haram seems intent on ruining Nigeria. Sadly, the Nigerian government seems to be doing precious little to halt them.”

Unigwe is the author of the novel ‘On Black Sister’s Street’


Ismail Bala Garba

“For a long time in our country now blood has been flowing almost ceaselessly. We have become disillusioned and can’t seem to avert the cycle of death that has so blithely marked our country. It is time this madness should stop. Enough is enough”

Dr Garba is a poet and lecturer at the Bayero University, Kano


Wale Okediran

“With the recent revelation that at least 136 students have been killed in separate attacks on schools in Yobe State in less than a year, it is now very obvious that the Boko Haram issue has reached very worrisome dimensions.

The development has also confirmed that rather than an all-out military exercise, a combination of dialogue, intelligence gathering and provision of poverty alleviation measures in the affected areas should be undertaken.

If need be, Nigeria should also not shy away from requesting for foreign assistance especially in the area of intelligence gathering, border patrol and surveillance including the use of drones.

In view of the observations by some of the residents of the recent Yobe attack that Military checkpoints in the area were removed a day before the attack, it is very important that a thorough shake up of the military officials in the area be undertaken. This is to discover and remove possible moles in the military who may be working hand in hand with the insurgents.

Finally, it is important to heed the recent advice given by the Borno State Government for the Federal Government to improve the current morale and fire power of the military which in the governor’s opinion are far lower than that of the insurgents.”

Dr. Okediran, author of ‘Tenants of the House’, is a former national president, Association Of Nigerian Authors.


Chinyere Obi-Obasi

“It is very unfortunate that this is happening. Never in this country have we witnessed anything of this magnitude. We appeal to government to bring this under control. We also entreat the members of this sect to desist forthwith from further attacks.”

Mrs Obi Obasi was shortlisted for the NLNG prize for her children story ‘The Great Fall’


BM Dzukogi

“This Boko Haram thing is becoming a known mystery in the sense that what used appear like a bad joke with a short lifespan has now turned into a general death fertilized by ineffective, inefficient military operations supported dutifully by an unwilling government that is ineptly unserious securing the citizens. The totality of these suggests what Governor Nyako said that the whole thing may not be unconnected with the Nigerian army, Federal Government and some Western countries to have a grip on national resources. Don’t be surprised if the bloodletting stops immediately after the 2015 elections.”

Dzukogi is the DG, Niger State Book Development Agency


Ahmed Maiwada

“There was a time in the past when human life was said to be brutish and short. It was the time when only the fittest survived. Then man witnessed the evolution of government, which is an individual or a group of individuals vested with legitimacy to control the conducts of the strong and weak, etc, with society. And, government has come a very long way since then; the best of them rising up against any individual or group that threatens the lives or limbs of other members of society, and the worst of it being one that raises no finger against such wickedness in its area of jurisdiction. Nigerian government, in exhibiting nonchalance regarding the consistent massacre of defenceless Nigerians clearly mirrors to us the horrific fact that the worst government ever known to man is the one that currently sits at the helm of affairs of this country, Nigeria.”

Maiwada is a lawyer, poet and author of the novel ‘Musdoki’

Gimba Kakanda

“I have been emotionally defeated by the activities of the Boko Haram. The killings of innocent school kids in Yobe, just a few days after 20 school girls were reportedly abducted in Borno, is a reason for every thinking Nigerian to understand that this country is a disaster. Yet our policians are playing politics  with the security of the nation. More heartbreaking is the vulnerability of Nigerians to political polarisation, such that no citizen is even willing to stand up to demand explanations, and also ask the government to account for how such a huge security vote was used and yet the war against terrorism is obviously only being prosecuted in propagandas.

I listened to the President’s responses to the happenings in northeast during that stage-managed show called “presidential media chat”, and his indirect concession of defeat in another of his promises to “prosecute (the) war against terror.” It dampened my spirit. His ‘threat’ to withdraw soldiers stationed in Borno to prove a point to Shettima was an extraordinarily dumb wisecrack, because I don’t think Shettima was actually being ungrateful; I think he was only crying, that the soldiers are exposed to undermined danger, yet ill-prepared.

Of course, I’d be similarly devastated and even suspicious, aware of how trillions of naira were obviously cornered in Abuja without me. The Borno issues were badly handled in that chat. They gave away Mr President’s wicked sense of humour. For that, he shouldn’t make any more effort to be funny outside his bedroom. There’s no honour in chuckling at a funeral!

Yet Nigerians remain in their bedrooms and offices tweeting at perceived injustice and incompetence, and expecting such cyber-venting to change the system.  This is how we’ll keep watching the ruins of a section of the country from the sidelines until bombs begin to land in our backwards. We don’t learn. We really need to study the middle-east to see how some of the most beautiful countries and cities in the world are now dominated by the apparitions of terrorism.  It’s either we begin to prepare for many funerals in our towns and cities as soon as the insurgents are done with our brothers and sisters at the remote towns and villages of the northeast, or we must come together, with our demands harmonised in the quest to reclaim the country even if by crying for foreign interventions. There’s no excuse to be political or bigoted in times of such national tragedies.”

Kakanda is the author of the poetry collection ‘Safari Pants

Toni Kan

“For about one week now, scores of lives have been lost daily to marauding Boko Haram terrorists. The time to say enough is now!

The brutal killings have assumed a whole new frightening accent; the murder of children, school children sent to school and thus in contravention of what these blood thirsty terrorists refer to as ‘haram.’

But is it not ‘haram’ for these monsters who operate under the cover of darkness to spill the blood of the young, the innocent and the defenceless?

These modern day worshipers of Moloch are committing crimes that even the most hardened Sicilian Mafioso would baulk at because it is a time honoured truth that combatants sheathe their swords when women and children and even the infirm are involved.

But not these ones, men whose blood thirst can only be sated with the blood of innocents. We say no more!

President Jonathan as Commander-in-chief must rise up to the challenge. Nigeria is under siege. Today, the theater of war may be Borno and Yobe states but what happens if and when this madness is exported down South? And must we wait that long to act?

And this is for the elders and Statesmen from the north; we cannot play politics with human lives. Speak up! Condemn this bloodletting in the strongest terms.

And the military; why do you run when Boko Haram approaches? Are you well armed and equipped and motivated or are the funds allocated to fight Boko Haram ending up elsewhere?

The time to say enough is now. It is time to rise up with one voice and condemn this madness for what it really is. Boko Haram is an affront, a misnomer, a blood thirsty dance that must not be allowed to continue.

As a father, a Nigerian and a writer who values human life and dignity, I lend my voice to this campaign; Boko Haram must be condemned by Muslims and Christians alike because who is this GOD THAT DELIGHTS IN THE BLOOD OF INNOCENTS?”

Kan is the author of ‘Nights of the Creaking Beds’


Letter to the 20 Abducted Girls of Borno

Dear sisters,
My thoughts are with you, the 20 abducted girls of Borno, daughters of the absent country. I wish I could reassure you that your country will not rest until you are found and your abductors are brought to justice, but that would be a lie. Your country will pray for you, that is a certainty, waiting for angels to come rescue you. That will most likely not happen so you will be forgotten, like the abducted daughters of Yelwan Shendam who spent years in slavery, in the heart of this country, in this age, being raped and bearing children for the men who killed their husbands and sons. And the government denied such barbarism was happening under its watch when we all knew.
What can we do for you, daughters of loss? Our outrage is inane. We will rant, and make demands that those monsters with big guns will ignore, and our government too will ignore, or threaten us with a seven-year jail term for saying this is not right, for demanding that things should be made right.
In the final analysis, sisters, you are a minor inconvenience to our overlords. You are getting in the way of the looting and cavorting and posturing for the next elections, and our government knows it’s priorities. You are not it. Your lives, beautiful and promising as they are, are not it.
In the final analysis, we, the children of this blighted realm, are even more lost, imploding with our outrage that will do you know good, that will not prevent the perpetuation of such savagery being done in the name of God. Don’t ask me what God, sisters, for they say it is the same God you serve, the one who made you and lovingly breathed life into you. That God. The ways of men confound me, I tell you.
I have no consolation for you, sisters, I have no reassuring words. And this rant is just another expression of my impotent rage. Just another inconsequential voice in the cacophony of your loss.
Eternally baffled