This morning, I wake in Damaturu, Yobe State. Exgee and I share the same bed. I couldn’t sleep until 3am, held by worries. Exgee tells me many things that get me worried.
Last night, when we had to stop at the Yobe Line Terminus because it was late and unsafe to go on to Maiduguri, the driver told me to return the next morning as early as 5:30am. Road opens by 6am, he said. I left the two Ghana-Must-Go bags– containing the relief materials I’m taking to the IDPs camps in Maiduguri– inside the bus, and left with Exgee.
5:47am, we are dressed up. Thanks so much, I say, opening my arms to hug Exgee. Oh, c’mon Femi, we are brothers, Exgee says, slapping me gently on the back. We walk out of the Guest House, to the street, hoping for a keke. And soon, we see one coming from afar.
We hop in, and head straight to the Terminus. We ride past the Damaturu Police A-Division. Look at that, Exgee points me at the gate and fence of the Police Station; the hundreds of holes that bullets had left on the fance and gate. Christ! I scream. Hahaha, Exgee laughs. BokoHaram wants too take over all of Damaturu. Even the Governor’s Office, he says.
We arive at Yobe Line Terminus. The driver just left for Maiduguri, we are told. Ha, with my loads?! I scream. Relax, Exgee says. He starts to speak with the men in Hausa. Many times, pointing at me, I hear him refer to me as ‘Aboki.’ You will have to join another bus, he tells me. And when you get to the Bornu Express Park in Maiduguri, ask for Yobe Line’s Chairman. They will get the loads for you. He holds my hand, and walks me to a bus, loading Maiduguri passengers. I peep into the bus. Women. All of them veiled. What if one of these veiled women has some bomb underneath, as recent news has revealed the case to be? The crazy thought comes. I shrug it off. There are only two more seats vacant. N400, the man standing by the steering says. You have cash on you? Exgee asks, reaching for his pocket. I restrain him. This poorly-paid soldier cares so much about me. I hug him. And, I hug him again.
Soon, a young boy, hops in, and sits besides me. And to Maiduguri, we zoom.
My heart is beating faster. We are on that dangerous Damaturu-Maiduguri Road. The boy and I are sitting by the door. We will be the first to get hit by bullets, should BokoHaram attack us, I imagine. We bid Yobe farewell at a village called Wasala. When we approach a Checking Point, somewhere by a local water-melon market, the soldier tells all of us to come down. While we are coming out one after the other, one of the veiled women, coming down, holds a stainless-steel flask. Hold it! The soldier screams, cocking his gun. “Cooler sa abinchi, cooler sa abinchi,” the woman cries out. “it’s a food flask”. And the soldier brings down the muzzle of his riffle. And you, pointing at me, what’s inside the bag on your back? He asks, frowning. A few cloths and a book, sir, I say, flashing him a smile. We are, then, all ask to walk down, to the other side to meet the driver who will slowly drive through the barricades. Almost 1km distance. As we walk, I look left and right; bushes everywhere. What if these terrorists appear from this bush, outpower the soldiers? Oh, I will escape through… oh, I will climb that tree and hide in the leaves… oh, I will hide behind this military tank…The thoughts flow.
We continue with the journey, stopping at every Checking Point. The boy and I are already talking, he does not grab most of the things I say in English. Is Maiduguri still far? I ask him. He looks at me, and smiles. Son, is Maiduguri still far?! I ask again. He looks at me, and waves. I do not get it. I attempt to pick some Hausa words and get him to my question. He starts to speak in Hausa, the one I don’t understand. I nod, as though I get it. He talks on. I nod on. The only thing I could pick is ‘Maiduguri.’
At a point, we start to understand each other; I break my English words into the very simplest form and I gesture along. He tells he his name, Isa Bunu Maryam. He should be 14 or 15. He has been out of school since BokoHaram continually attacked Gwoza village where he lived and schooled. I lost my father in one of the attacks, he says. My heart bounces against my ribs. He says he came to see his brother in Damaturu, and he’s returning to Maiduguri. He asks what my name is. I smile. Sanni, I say. Sanni Lagos. Sanni Lagos? Yes, I nod. Allahuakbar, he says, feeling excited. Things will be fine, I tell him, patting his shoulder. I used to know Gwoza, when Mobile-Policemen in Ilorin return from a training there, and they proudly bounce around town wearing a t-shirt with this printed at the back; I am a gallant mopol! I’ve been to Gwoza Hills!
Let us be saying Asibunalahhi walein… Isa tells me, suddenly. We are approaching Benisheik, he says. My heart almost drop into my stomach. BokoHaram terrorists are always here, he says, his voice, fainting. The night, Exgee has told me about Benisheik, the exchange of bullets they regularly have with the terrorists here. I join Isa, and we silently chant Asibunalahhi, albeit, I chant mine in the biblicall way; Our Father Who Hath In Heaven…
We are stopped, again, at a Checking Point in Jumtulu, a few kilometres to Benisheik. Like we’ve done, we come out of the bus, walk over to other side of the military barricades to meet the bus. This time, however, as we walk past, we are ordered to pull up our shirts|kaftans up to the chest. The veiled women, their hijab. Holding my t-shirt to my chest, as I walk past the many muzzles standing in opposite direction to my head, a soldier moves near me. Stop, he says. Identify yourself. I want to reach for my pocket. Don’t! He screams. I shiver. My passport, sir, inside my pocket. He looks at me. He looks at me again. Move, he says. Thank you, sir. Welcome, sir. I mean, welldone, sir.
We arrive Maiduguri. My friend, a military personal, has been waiting at Bornu Express to pick me up. I hug Isa. I bring out N500 from my pocket and stretched my hand at him. No, Aji Sanni, he says, smiling and shaking his head. Use it for lunch, son, I say, squeezing it in his hand. He thanks me. My friend and I go to get the Ghana-Must-Go bags and we zoom of.
I am entering into the place I’m to stay for a while, and a message drops into my phone. A bomb went off in Damaturu just immediately you left, the message reads. I am speechless.
And now, the news is that, the Damaturu bomb went off at the exact Park where we left for Maiduguri this morning. I call Exgee who is in Damaturu. You are lucky, he says, in a depressed tone. You would have been totally stranded in Damaturu, that is even if you weren’t bombed.
(c) Femi Owolabi 2015