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#Pulse36 Day 31: The road to Maiduguri

11am, July 31, 2017.

“Where can we get a bus going to Maiduguri?”

The man I asked looked at us for a moment.

“Go to the park,” he said, “but don’t pass Damboa Road. That place is too dangerous because of those people.”

“The car will pass through Damboa Road,” an old man at the park explained to us in his best English possible.

Our biggest challenge since we entered Mubi, Adamawa, has been language. In fact, l had an interesting conversation with a food seller the day before.

“Give me rice,” I asked

“gdhd jdudhd mana,” she replied.

“How much is it?”

“jkdhks abinci.”

That’s how screwed we were, language-wise.

A man who I learned was the driver spoke with so much urgency and the only English I could pick was “escort”.

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“He will pass Damboa road, and he has to quickly beat time to meet the Escort,” was how my brain interpreted what the old man said.

One thing we all understood was that we had to move, quickly.

And so, we moved. I sat in front with Chris, my colleague.

When we entered Mubi from Yola the night before, we pass through at least 15 checkpoints. The Road to Maiduguri looked like it would have more.

“Where are you going,” the soldiers at every checkpoint asked our driver.

“Maiduguri.”

And they’d pass him quickly, like we were a hot bowl that had to be passed to the next hand quickly.

“This guy can drive,” Chris said.

To us, he was the kind of driver you’d take to the Dakar Rally. To him, it was a race to life we didn’t fully understand at the time. Even worse, we couldn’t ask him to explain to us because we didn’t understand Hausa.

My Hausa is better than Chris’ and all I understand is “Ya dai (how are you), and Ina Jin Yuwa (I’m hungry).

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The only way you know you’ve entered Borno is the small signposts on the side of the road. There are no “Welcome To Borno” signs. All those aesthetics are long gone.

We passed through Askira, a small town where not much seemed to be happening.

But in May, Boko Haram launched an attack here, killing a few people and looting after the villagers had fled.

Chibok.

When we reached Chibok, an uneasy calm seemed to hang in the air. Like a fog. I’d never been there before now, in person. But I’d been there several times in stories. In news headlines. In silent prayers.

Chibok is a village, and it helps you understand why Boko Haram attacked this place.

The people we saw are mostly poor, and harmless. It looks like Boko Haram attacked this place, simply because they could.

The other kinds of people we saw were mostly soldiers, men trained to fire at anything that looked suspicious.

At Government Secondary School, there was a checkpoint we had to come down and walk across.

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The driver would go ahead and wait after the checkpoint. Us passengers would walk through the mud to meet up in front.

I wanted to take photos so so badly, but using phones aren’t the most friendly things at military checkpoints.

We walked past a sign that read “Government Secondary School, Chibok”.

And it was in those moments it settled in, that at this very place, Boko Haram showed up one night in April 2014, and left with over 300 girls.

The road to Maiduguriplay

The road to Maiduguri

(Pulse36)

Now, when we moved, the driver would wave at any coming cars, and yell something at them. The only thing I could pick out was ‘escort’. I took that to mean he was asking about the escorts.

Every time he spoke to a driver, he drove faster, weaving through the mud road like a rally car driver.

He had to beat time.

“If you he misses the escorts,” the old man at the park had said, “you’ll have to sleep in Damboa.”

“What time will the escorts leave,” I asked.

“Three to four.”

The time was past-two.

Every checkpoint we reached waved us to move quicker than the last.

We reached a village and it seemed the river had overflowed its banks. Little boys, maybe 10 years old max, stood by the road, showing us the what part of the water to drive through.

In no time, we were moving fast again.

Our driver was leaning forward now, clenching his steering, as if somehow, this would make the car go faster.

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We reached Damboa, a small town buzzing with life and heavy security.

It was already three-thirty.

At every turn, there was a young man holding a locally made gun. They were the Civilian JTF, a coalition of vigilantes fighting Boko Haram.

We reached our last checkpoint just after the town.

The driver told the soldier we were heading for Mubi.

The soldier shook his head.

“Catch up,” the soldier said as he waved his hand.

The driver leaned forward again, stepped on the throttle, and pushed the engine till it cried.

Then we saw a small crowd of people and cars.

Three-Forty.

“Checkpoint,” he pointed with one hand. You could hear the relief in his voice.

When we reached there, we saw at least 30 vehicles.

The road to Maiduguriplay

The road to Maiduguri

(Pulse36)

There was only one car behind us.

At the head of the convoy was a Police Patrol armoured car. `

In another corner were two army trucks, one There couldn’t have been less than 20 soldiers there.

They were talking and laughing. We, tense. They, relaxed.

This was their way of life, the life they chose.

Time to move. We got there 10 minutes before deadline.

The road to Maiduguriplay

The road to Maiduguri

(Pulse36)

Fast and Furious: Damboa Road.

The soldiers signalled that it was time to move. Engines revved. People ran back into their cars.

By the time we got back to our car, the driver was clenching his steering.

And we moved. All of us. Together, bumper-to-bumper.

I’ve travelled on several Nigerian highways, day and night. I’ve been robbed. But no highway is as intense as Damboa Road. The stillness of the trees on both sides is terrifying. The stories you’ve heard about Damboa Road made it even more terrifying.

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In June, Boko Haram attacked a police and military convoy on this road.

It was also on this highway that policewomen were kidnapped.

All the vehicles huddled together, driving as closely as possible, while also trying to be the closest to the escorts.

10 minutes after we got on the highway, a car broke down, and the speed with which the driver jumped out and got working, you could tell he was F1 material.

Damboa Road is paved with potholes caused by bombs, empty bullet shells, burnt vehicles. And death.

When you’re heading towards Maiduguri, to the right is an access point to Sambisa Forest. Somewhere beyond where our eyes could see, Boko Haram was plotting their next attack, while holding hundreds, and perhaps thousands captive.

So Damboa road is a frontline of this war. But here we were, driving through with the military as our only protection.

Another bus broke down in front. Overheating. No one stopped. This was the road to Maiduguri. The only Samaritans here, the soldiers, weren’t even stopping.

The road to Maiduguriplay

The road to Maiduguri

(Pulse36)

Then the entire convoy stopped. Shots were fired. More shots. Quiets that lasted forever. More shots. Boots were on the ground. More fire.

We were moving again. We didn’t know if they were warning shots or code. It didn’t matter which it was. We had no choice but to trust these soldiers with our lives.

The bus that broke down earlier caught up with us. Other drivers congratulated him. It was worth it.

We drove again, but this time, something was different. Our engine was making a funny sound. There was a strain in the way it roared. There was worry on the driver’s face. We worried too. Heck. We had to.

We didn’t want to get left behind. But he kept, pushing the car. You could feel its struggle. You could feel his too. He kept nonetheless.

Another stop.

Shots. More shots. More shots.

Next thing, the military trucks turned. And bade us farewell. They were going back to Damboa.

This meant two things for us; we were probably now closer to safety. On the other hand, it might just be a small window for Boko Haram.

Perhaps, all the drivers were thinking the same thing. The only form of security left was the police patrol truck. Every vehicle huddled around it like chicks would huddle around mother hen for fear of a hovering hawk.

About ten minutes later. We reached a checkpoint.

To be honest, it was a relief to see soldiers with guns again.

A short distance from the checkpoint to the right, we saw the first building.

Even though it was riddled with bullet holes so massive, a fist could fit in, it was a greater relief. Especially since there were soldiers literally chilling on an armoured tank.

To the left further ahead, were trenches.

These places, the soldiers stayed watch. If they leave their posts for a moment, Boko Haram would flood Maiduguri and the other villages.

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When we passed this checkpoint, drivers started to go with less speed. We started to see farms on either side of the road. We were now in safe territory.

The driver stopped now. He carried a bottle of water and I knew he had to pee. I had to too. We all peed. The good, long piss.

The road to Maiduguriplay

The road to Maiduguri

(Pulse36)

When we finally reached the park, I called my friend, Musa. He’s a student at the Teaching Hospital.

“Where are you?”

“Monday Market,” I read from a sign somewhere.

He laughed. He laughs at everything. Then he said, “that’s where most of the bomb blasts happen”

We left there in no time, and headed for the Teaching Hospital.

Read previous episodes HERE

*All photos were shot on the Samsung Galaxy S8+.

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