The untold stories of journalists working on the front lines of Boko Haram war
By Mercy Abang, Maiduguri
“A 9-year-old boy dressed for school turns to say goodbye, within the twinkle of an eye, a bullet from an AK47 rifle makes its way through his body. I watched him drop dead immediately. His crime? He wore a school uniform and was headed for school.” 63-year-old veteran journalist Ahmed Juba breaks down in tears as he recalls all that happened that fateful day. “That was when I knew this is war. I was headed to the office, running after a story then I held back, I carried the lifeless body of Musa, a story was before me,” he said.
Journalists at the frontlines, from the fringes of Madagali in Adamawa State to the trading communities of Potiskum in Yobe State and of course the internationally renowned Chibok in Borno State where hundreds of school girls where abducted more than 1000 days ago, narrate the tales of surviving Boko Haram and fulfilling the resilience of a society that lost everything except their sense of hope.
In the third Global Terrorism Index, Boko Haram overtook ISIS as the world’s most deadly terrorist organisation accounting for 6,600 deaths, displacing 2.3 million people and forcing 250,000 to flee into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Invariably journalists became the under-reported casualties of the tragic insurgence.
Channels Television Akogwu Enenche and the NTA Cameraman Zakkariyya Isa killed in Borno are popular because of the traction their deaths elicited. However, there are several other reporters whose tales of resilience are only just emerging and who help explain why the North East became a media black hole.
The crisis affected day-to-day activities of media organizations. Jamila Bako said only male casters were asked to work in the evenings as the streets were mostly deserted at that time and considered unsafe for female staff. Journalists were caught in between the volley of military bullets and those of the insurgents.
“As a newscaster, I go on air tensed and in most cases, my voice battles with the sound of bomb explosions and gunshots while on air, we then moved our news bulletin from 7pm to 5pm. The worst part was when our cameraman was killed, the insurgents called us to explain to us why he was killed. They had all our phone numbers,” she said.
Bako, a middle career journalist, also narrated how her colleague was asked to go to the family of the in-law to the late Boko Haram Leader Mohammed Yusuf to inquire the purpose of the then President Olusegun Obasanjo’s visit only for the interviewee to be killed too.
“The reporter immediately fled, he was on the run, left Maiduguri to Bama and later moved to Cameroun for safety. That episode was terrifying. Residents stopped talking to the press and especially NTA, because talking to the media was signing your own death sentence.”
The terrorists also wanted to be known by a particular name and made that clear to the journalists. Roving reporter, Mariam Aaron, said the insurgents were very upset that journalist called them “Boko Haram”, instead of Jamā’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihād, the name they wanted to be identified with.
“I was repeatedly called to stop using the name Boko Haram if I wanted to stay alive with my family members. They were very upset to be referred to as Boko Haram, a name they felt was given to them by the West. We were forced to stop calling them the names they hated,” Ms Aaron, a television reporter says.
Amnesty International frequently issues reports about the detention of children and men at Giwa barracks in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Many of them arbitrarily rounded up during mass arrests, often with no evidence against them. Once inside the barracks, they are incarcerated without access to the outside world or trial, a news reporter’s account gives credence to what the Human rights agency documented.
Bello Gaidam was forced to flee Maiduguri to Adamawa and then Yobe after filing a story that ruffled the terrorists so badly he and his immediate family members were penned for death.
“All that needed to happen for us to be raided is for insurgents to attack anywhere on our street, the Military will ensure they raided everyone’s home, every male child is picked up and detained at the notorious Giwa Barracks, most of the kids were in JSS 1 and Jss 2 and they died of suffocation in the process,” he said.
As he spoke, he struggled to hold back tears dredging up the harrowing experience in itself, “we had to contend with Boko Haram and the Nigerian Military, it was a tough call but we had to, we’ve also asked ourselves, who is the lesser evil?”
Reporting on Boko Haram activities forced him to change his name, identity and looks, “but somehow they still knew me, and told me to my face.”
Maryam Sule, a known radio producer, who presents one of the most popular programs in the region talks about the misrepresentation of the North East journalist reporting the conflict.
“We are not talking about the protection of Journalists, we are not debating the rights of those reporting on the conflict, we are saying we were in it, part of it and in it all, tried to perform the surveillance function. We’ve heard people criticizing Nigerian Journalists from this region, some say we are doing nothing.
“Boko Haram will call me, instructing me on how to file my stories. There was a time I reported the victories of the Nigerian army in Boko Haram controlled territories, I was immediately threatened to rewrite the story or get killed.”
She also spoke about the welfare conditions of Nigerian Journalists and especially those in the northeast region, “I have no insurance at my work place, I have no security protecting me like Journalists who visit here, most of the international journalists are accompanied with more than 10 security personnel. My family is here so at some point I had to listen to them and I was even ready to do what they wanted.”
As if contending with the military and the insurgents wasn’t enough, another journalist, Abdullahi Danlami, sheds light on dealing with Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF).
“The emergence of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) also had its implication. The youths wanted all young boys to take part in hunting for the terrorists. We had sleepless nights, we were reporting all that was ongoing and you get random young men knocking, at some point threatening to breakdown your door to enroll your kids and take them to the bush to hunt for terrorists. And if you fail to allow your 10-year-olds, you’re in trouble,” he said.
“I must commend the CJTF but it was a nightmare knowing that your kids had to be turned into terrorists hunters, those that came back alive were never the same, most of them had to start smoking and drinking and then you are faced with reporting the crisis when you are also the story.”
Danlami said at some point he had to sleep in his station for about six months. “I was waiting for the day the terrorist will come take over the station and force us to put them on air.”
These tales highlight some of the tragic and traumatic instances journalists faced while working to bring stories of the insurgencies to life.