How Boko Haram captured, turned us to killing machines, camp attendants –Repentant ex-fighters

Thirty-eight-year-old Abdulwahab Usman,  an indigene of Bama in Borno State, said he was forced to join Boko Haram.

He is one of the 601 who graduated on Saturday from the De-radicalisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration Camp of Operation Safe Corridor, in the Kwami Local government Area of Gombe State.

He stated that for five years with the sect, before he surrendered to the military in December 2019,  he couldn’t count the number of persons he killed.

He added, “I was forced into the group for about five years.  I can’t remember the number of people I killed as a Boko Haram member because they are many. Boko Haram people came to our village looking for those who are of school age and that was how my friends and me were forced into the group. Eventually, we escaped from Boko Haram hideout, so soldiers took us to Giwa barracks in Borno.

“I never knew that I wouldn’t be killed because of the various incidents that occurred in the bush. The camp has really changed my lifestyle because I never thought I would still be alive today, not to talk of being useful again to myself and society. We stayed in the bush, looking for people to kill and people too were looking to kill us. I had no peace of mind then but now I have peace.”

Boko Haram has for years been carrying out bloody attacks in the North-East, especially in Borno State, killing villagers, soldiers, aid workers, burning houses and abducting schoolgirls and women.

Usman stated that his expectation was met at the deradicalisation camp based on his experience there.

He said, “None of us was killed during the de-radicalisation process. I really enjoyed my stay in the camp because many of us were not expecting such hospitality from the Nigerian government. We were well taken care of. They taught us different trades. In the camp, we were exposed to skill acquisition such as welding, barbing and carpentry etc. But I chose to learn barbing. When I return to my hometown, I wish to continue with barbing. I  will not go back to Boko Haram.”

He called on his former colleagues to surrender to the Nigerian government,  adding that, “it is the best thing for them to surrender to the government and drop their arms. It will not help them to continue in what they are doing, because they will one day be killed for peace to return.

“We were given the Quran because of our assurance that we would become good citizens. I will not return to that group (Boko Haram) no matter the suffering since the government has chosen to be responsive.”

Usman described his life while with the sect as horrendous, noting,  “Our lives in the bush were in constant danger because every day our thoughts were whether the soldiers would come. Every day, fighter jets hovered over and around us. Some of us were killed while others usually ran for safety.  We suffered an attack at Konduga. There, about 763 were killed. I survive death by a whisker. I will never forget.”

He further advised  the government to show current members of the sect a legal document to convince them of their safety once they surrendered.

“The Nigerian government should  present them (Boko Haram members) a document assuring them of their safety once they surrendered. We surrendered because we saw the document and 601 of us were rehabilitated and now graduating. If the document is thrown to them and they see it, many of them will surrender seeing that we were not killed but rehabilitated,” he said.

Babagana Mairambe is a former staff officer with the Bama Local Government Education Authority. He was crowned the overall best graduating member of the fourth batch of the DRR camp.

Mairambe said life was normal before he was captured by Boko Haram,  adding that the thought of his family safety was a major worry for him in the camp of the sect.

He said, “I am married with three wives and 17 children. None of my children was involved or captured by the sect. I want to tell those still in the forest to surrender their weapons to government.

“I have regrets as a member of Boko Haram because my time was wasted all through the years I spent there. I was a staff officer with the Bama Local Government Education Authority as of 2014. Of a truth, I did not join the sect willingly. I was in a town when the local government headquarters was captured and I was taken away. I didn’t have any opportunity to escape from my attackers.”

Mairambe added that due to his age, he couldn’t advance further to some hotbeds with the sect but was used for other operations.

“It was only God that spared me and made me come out of this. Because of my age, I couldn’t work directly for them. When the chance presented itself, I had to run out to surrender myself to the Nigerian government,” he said.

Twenty-one-year old Saleh Isa was a farmer whose path with the sect crossed while he was farming on his of land.

He said, “I feel happy and grateful to our leaders and the Nigerian government. I learnt how to sew at the DRR camp. When I get home, I will continue with sewing. I promise to honour my parents, loyal and faithful to Nigeria.”

Isa added that he was not taken directly to Sambisa but to another part of the forest.

He said, “Boko Haram caught us on the farm and took us to one of their camps. They took us to another part of the forest.

“I was in the outer part and we stayed with some of them. I stayed with Boko Haram for three years undergoing training and rudiments but I didn’t get to the stage of carrying a gun.

“However, others and myself understood their ways. When there was a chance to escape, we did. In fact, I willingly raised my hands alongside others to surrender to the military. We didn’t stay too long with them at their camp before they took us away and taught us useful skills that will be beneficial to us and our people.”

Another ex-member of the sect, Amadu Auwal, also known as Muhammed Auwal, provided medical services for the group.

According to Auwal, he was involved in treating gun wounds and ailing members of the group especially after a tough encounter with the military.

He said the only choice opened to him was to join the Boko Haram sect and stay alive, adding that any other choice meant death.

He said, “I’m Auwal Amadu also known as  Muhammad Auwal depending on the location. We were living in our village peacefully. I am from Madalaka Local Government Area of Adamawa State. I lived in Bulak village under Madalaka local government.

“2014 was when Boko Haram attacked us there.  We didn’t know what was going on and they asked us to either join them or the soldiers. If we joined the soldiers, they would kill us but they spared our lives when we decided to join them (Boko Haram). They took us to Sambisa Forest immediately and we realised that was not a good thing. There was no experience in Sambisa because there was nothing good there. All I know is that they usually force us to do some things and if one refuses, that signals the end for one.

“I was like a nurse. I only administered injections and gave medications. If they go somewhere and come back wounded, I treat the injured and sick members of the sect.”

He added that he was a student prior to his forceful enlistment with the sect, noting that his English improved while at the camp.

“I was a Senior Secondary School student. The DRR camp provided me with a pleasant experience.  I am a tailor.  We are the ones who sew the clothes we wore and we also made shoes. It is level by level. For instance, if you are learning tailoring and you master it, you will be transferred to another area.”

Auwal, who appealed to others still involved in killing to retreat and surrender, said that he felt like an entrepreneur based on the skills he acquired at the DRR camp.

He added, “I desire to open a tailoring and laundry shop. The soldiers already told us that we would be taken to Gombe DRR camp to spend six months. The soldiers didn’t capture me. I surrendered myself. I have a wife and two children. I want to advise those still in the forest to desist from the act. It’s a bad thing. They should leave that forest for rehabilitation.”

Twenty-year-old Yusuf Ali, an indigene of Borno State, Bama council area, said he was forced to join the sect on his way to Kano after the bus he was travelling in was hijacked by the sect.

He stated, “I was travelling to Kano to buy some materials for I work as a computer repairer when Boko Haram arrested me and took me into a bush. On their camp, there are several areas of specialisation based on members’ competence. Boko Haram gave me computer work to do along with photography. I worked on computers.  My work involved surveillance. I took pictures of areas they wanted to go for operation for them to be familiar with the terrain.”

Ali said surrendering to the Nigerian government was made possible by his mother.

He said, “My mother asked me to surrender to the Nigerian Army. I surrendered in Banki, but the Nigerian Army took me away from Banki and kept me in Giwabare. I spent two years and seven months there. They told me they would take me from Giwabare in Maiduguri to Gombe State.

“It was November last year that I came to the camp. There are differences in my life now. I was in the welding section. I didn’t know anything about welding before now. But now, I am first out of 16 people. I look forward to establishing my own welding shop,” he added.

He recalled one of his operations as a surveillance officer with the sect.

He said, “Many people died during the operation. I remember that about seven people died then at Dina village in the Cameroon area, a border between Nigeria and Cameroon.”

Rehabilitation of repentant B’Haram fighters

The Chief of Defence Staff and Chairman, Operation Safe Corridor, Gen. Abayomi Olonisakin, called on communities of repentant Boko Haram members to welcome them warmly, calling on others still with the sect to lay down their arms.

Olonisakin, represented by Director of Education, Real Admiral V C Okeke, noted that the 601 members of the sect surrendered before a 12-man quasi-judicial committee to take the oath of allegiance.

He spoke during a speech delivered at the Batch 4, 2019 clients from the DRR camp in Mallam Sidi, Kwami LGA of Gombe State.

He said, “I’m glad to inform you that the clients have been fully reintegrated and, wholly accepted by their host communities. Since 2017 when the first set graduated, there has not been any negative report concerning anyone of them.

“My expectation, therefore, is that they are discharged from Operation Safe Corridor to their state governments through the traditional and religious institutions to see they are well reconciled, resettled and reintegrated in the interest of peace and love for our dear nation.

“Let me seize this opportunity to advise members of Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province still lurking around in the forests  to lay down their arms, embrace peace and join the de-radicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programme in their own interest.

“To this end, the armed forces in Nigeria and other security agencies operating in the North-East will provide safe passage for them to lay down their arms for good.

I have observed steady progress of the scheme and no doubt it is a working strategy complementing other efforts of the Federal Government to restore peace in the North-East.”

Also speaking, the Coordinator, Operation Safe Corridor, Maj. Gen. Bamidele Shafa, noted that the repentant members had shown positive signs of patriotism to the country.

He stated, “Today, we are witnessing a major achievement of the Federal Government of Nigeria at ensuring lasting peace in the North-East. Since the commencement of Operation Safe Corridor in 2016, a total of 914 clients have undergone the deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programme.

“Among which 280 including two Chadians have been successfully transferred to their state authorities for reintegration. I am glad to inform you that these clients have been fully reintegrated and wholly accepted by their host communities. Since 2017 when the first set of 29 people graduated and reintegrated, there has been no negative report concerning any of them. Today, the largest set of 601 is graduating for reintegration to their nation and state.”

He added that on arrival at the camp, the clients went through documentation processes to yield vital background information after which they were subjected to comprehensive medical screening to determine their health statuses.

“Their DNA samples were also collected while their biometrics were captured on National Data using the National Identity Management Commission, facilities for future references. The background information serves as a guide for the experts, the Local Treatment Team, to properly place the clients for treatment therapies and vocational training. The LTT are specialised experts in various fields of deradicalisation and rehabilitation therapies drawn from the Nigerian Correctional Service,” he said.

The governor of Borno State, Prof. Babagana Zulum, represented by the state Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Kaka Lawan, expressed optimism the programme would bring respite to the region.

He said, “Bringing out over 600 fighters from the bush to lay their arms, rehabilitate them to denounce membership of an illegal sect and to proclaim the citizenship of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is a great job. I’m highly delighted.”

He denied that some residents of the state protested against the impending return of the ex-Boko Haram members to their respective communities.

He added, “I am not aware of that but rejection by the community cannot be ruled out because of the trauma and what they have found themselves in over the years. But with enough advocacy and sensitisation and the report that we are presenting to the government for implementation, they will be welcomed.

“During their screening, we discovered that 80 per cent were innocent from 2009 to 2020. It’s about 11 years. We were witnesses to the bombings and sporadic shootings. To criminals still fighting in the bush, they have an option of laying down their arms and embrace peace. The Federal Government and Borno State government are willing to accept them, rehabilitate them and allow them to live peacefully. But if they refuse, I can assure you that their days are numbered. Sooner or later, the armed forces will nip their activities in the bud.”

Presenting starter packs to the former Boko Haram members, the representative of the North-East Development Commission, Abba Musa, said the aim of the presentation was to support the ex-fighters to be self-employed and useful to their various communities after their training on camp.

He said, “I want to urge beneficiaries to use the items for the purposes they are meant for and to become employers of labour in future.”