We stop at Potiskum for one of the passengers to alight.
Is this driver moving fast? Jash asks me. I nod. The most dangerous part on this road is Damaturu-Maiduguri, she says. A long drive through some very thick bushes. You watch it, when the driver gets there, he will move much more faster. That’s the point BokoHaram had always launched attack on this road. I shiver, a little.
Almost two hours, driving through Potiskum, I notice Jash. She looks worried. We may not get to Maiduguri today, she says. When it’s 6pm and we are not close to Maiduguri, we will have to stop in Damaturu, pass the night, and continue the journey tomorrow. Damaturu? No plan to stay in Damaturu, I say. When I mean no plan, the little budget I’m moving with does not cover hotel and other expenses in Damaturu. I am going to come down in Damaturu, Jash says. I can’t risk it. I shiver, a little.
Her phone rings. It’s her mum. She is calling to tell her that she should stop in Damaturu, and sleep over at a relative’s. Soon, my friend, who is awaiting my arrival in Maiduguri calls me. Are you in Maiduguri? he asks. Heading Damaturu, just leaving potiskum, I tell him. Ha! His voice rises almost to a scream. You can’t get to Maiduguri today if by this time you’re still where you mentioned. Because when it’s 7pm, the road is closed. Even if the driver insists on moving on to Maiduguri, please step out of the bus when you get to Damaturu. As soon as he drops the call, another friend, a military personnel, who has offered to pick me at the City Gate in Maiduguri calls me. Oh, please sleep in Damaturu, you can’t make Maiduguri today again, he says as I tell him we are yet to reach Damaturu at 6:05pm.
I lower my head, a bit worried.
7:06pm, we zoom into Damaturu. The driver veers into a large yard, Yobe Line Terminus. We meet many other buses already parked in the yard. The driver turns off the engine, jumps down and walks off. I help Jash with her luggage out of the bus. We stand in front of the bus, waiting for her relative who’s on her way to pick her.
How do I get to any hotel here? I ask Jash. She does not really know. Commercial vehicles, kekes and bikes are off road when it’s 6pm in Damaturu. But I will ask my relative when she arrives, she tells me.
Soon, a guy, tall, heavy-chested, walks in our direction, the light of the large-screen phone in his palm luminates his face– dark and not too friendly. He had sat at the row in front of us through the journey from Abuja. We figured he’s an officer when, at every checkpoint– from Bauchi– he made signals to the soldiers, and in return, they hail him and beckon us to move on.
Officer officer, Jash, smiling, flags her hand across his face. He stops, and he smiles back.
Are you serving here? I ask, stretching my hand at him, for a handshake. Yes, he nods. His phone rings, he picks and tells the guy at the other end to come pick him, that he just arrived.
Seems you’ve been away for a long time? I ask.
Yes, he smiles. I went for treatment.
Were you shot, are you one of the combatants fighting BokoHaram? I ask.
He smiles. Give me your hand, he says. He picks my index finger, pulls his t-shirt up a bit, and puts my finger somewhere below his chest. I feel it; hollow, hard, roughened skin. Four bullets entered through that place, he says. I, abruptly, withdraw my finger. While we drove past a check-point in a village a Corper’s Lodge-signboard calls Ngelzama, I saw what now remains of the attacked Corper’s Lodge, and I screamed, calling Jash’s attention to it. The building was burnt from the first block to the last. Only the signboard survived, and still stands there.
You see that place that made you scream that time? That was where the attack started, and down to Benisheik. I was shot. Many soldiers died. Many soldiers. I will never forget that day, December 1. I am a gunner. I operate an armour tank. I was out-powered by these BokoHaram guys. I, and a few others, narrowly escaped. He brings out his phone, and shows me the picture of his wounds when they were fresh, the holes that bullets had left on the tank he operates, his friend who died in that battle, and then a truck loaded with lifeless bodies of soldiers.
I shut my eyes! Were these soldiers’ family compensated? I ask, with a teary voice.
Compensate? Some of their families don’t even know that their husband, son, has been killed in this fight against BokoHaram.
Weren’t they given state burial?
For where?! They just dig a wide grave and pack all of them inside.
What?!!! They just die like that?! Why?!
He smiles on, as I rant.
My friend, soldiers are the ones used as sacrifice. No one cares. From Abuja, N150,000 monthly allowance is approved for each soldier here in Yobe and Bornu, but how much do we get? Just N30,000.
Where’s the remaining N120,000?
Well, I am a soldier. I will fight on. It is a vow I have made. I was trained as a killer. I was also trained to die. I have embraced death many times.
I am already in tears, how could these soldiers go through all these and yet they are not properly taken care of?
I tell him why I’m going to Maiduguri. I tell him I do not even know how to get an affordable hotel to sleep this night in Damaturu.
Oh, that’s not a worry, he says. One of my guys should come to pick me, you can join me so we pass the night at his place. I don’t want to go to our base, until tomorrow. I have actually overstayed the time I was given. So, even when I show up at the Division tomorrow, I might be dismissed.
But you went to treat yourself! I scream. You don’t know how these things work, he tells me, smiling.
It is getting darker. Jash’s relative arrives. Jash introduces me as a friend she had met on-board. The relative, kind woman, asks that I join Jash, too, to spend the night at her home, since I know no one in Damaturu. While they move towards the car, I stay with the soldier. My spirit has already allinged with his. Jash returns, and we agree I stay with the soldier. This soldier tells me his full name. For security reasons, however, let us refer to him here as Exgee.
Exgee brings out a packet of cigarette, and offers me a stick. The things wey BokoHaram don do this town ehn, he says, puffing hard at his cigarette. There was a time in this town, for about three days, the people you will see on the streets are either BokoHaram members or soldiers. It was an everyday openfire. I can’t count the numbers of the terrorists I killed. He says this, with a bit of excitement.
It is getting to 9pm, and the person coming to pick us isn’t in sight. He tries calling again. Let’s be walking down, he says, patting me on the shoulder.
As we walk abreast each other, he continues to tell me of their many operations; how they flushed BokoHaram members out of some villages, their patrol of Chad and Cameroon boarders. We walk through Bayan Tasha. Everywhere is silent like a mortuary. The streetlights are on and I see New Dubai Market, I see the Izala Mosque and then we turn into a dark narrow path. As we walk though this path, I notice people seated in groups, muttering. I dash my foot against something I couldn’t see, and instantly, Exgee grabs me from falling. We come out at Gashua Road, and the streetlights light our path again. A military truck speeds past, and a soldier on top of it, seeing Exgee, shouts his nickname. I mention not for security reasons.
They call me that name because I operate the General Purpose Machine Gun, Exgee tells me, with a sense of pride.
We walk on, and come out at Gwange Ward. This place was another base for the terrorists, Exgee tells me, as he shakes his head. Even us soldiers go first run to go re-mobilize.
Except for a few men in Kaftan that walk past, everywhere is so silent that the drop of a pin is audible. We approach a Roundabout, and two boys, armed with sticks, hail Exgee. They are my boys, Exgee tells me. They are members of the Civilian JTF. The two boys join us in the walk.
Maybe this guy can’t come again, Exgee says, as he stops, turning at me. If not for you, I would have found my way, he says, resting his heavy hand on my shoulder. Come, let’s go use one Guest House.
We walk through a series of dark narrow paths and eventually arrive at the Guest House. I can’t see the Street name. And I can’t see the Guest House name. No light anywhere in the Guest House. Thorugh the dark corridors, we are led to a room. I ask Exgee to allow me pay, he says no way, he’s paying. It’s nothing, he says. He asks one of the Civilian JTF boys to go get food for us. I want to give the boy money, and he puts a restraining hand on my hand. It’s nothing Femi, haba, he says. You remind me of a former colleague. His name is is Femi. He has left the service, he couldn’t cope anymore.
As I tear the loaf, Exgee puffs his cigarette. He promises to take me back to the Terminus early tomorrow to continue my journey. I can’t take my bath. We have just one bucket of water and Exgee suggests we reserve it for tomorrow morning.
When we scale through that deadly Damaturu-Maiduguri Road, I will return with more stories.
As we relax into the bed, I take a shot of the footwear of a freelance journalist and that of a gallant soldier. The difference is clear?
PS: I was to share this post yesterday, but there is no GLO network in Damaturu. I use GLO for my internet. When I asked Exgee, he said BokoHaram had destroyed almost all the telecoms masts. Only a few, like Airtel, came back to re-fix things. GLO didn’t. Ironically, it’s on this deadly road that I find signal to share this. And kindly spare any grammatical errors in this post, I’m a bit tensed to edit, just thought I should give you an update.
(c) Femi Owolabi 2015