Type “Maiduguri” into a search engine and the name of this north-eastern Nigerian city appears alongside reports of explosions, suicide attacks and Boko Haram. Violence has driven more than a million people into Maiduguri from the surrounding Borno state, doubling the population.
When I visited, I expected to find a ghost town, where people ventured out only when they had to, and headed home as quickly as possible. Instead I was greeted by a colourful, bustling city, with a wonderful sense of order. Schoolchildren emerge at the end of the day in immaculate white uniforms. Traffic obeys the hand signals of a white-gloved policewoman. Even the fruit and vegetables being sold by the side of the road are lined up in neat rows and pyramids.
But I soon discovered that fear was never far away. Though Maiduguri is ringed by roadblocks and protective trenches, Boko Haram persists in seeking to send in suicide bombers. The day after I arrived, there was an attack at a displaced persons’ camp near the city. I was told that two young girls had been deployed. Their bombs exploded as they tried to climb the fence into the camp.
The Islamist movement has taken to using female suicide bombers, aiming to spread mistrust and undermine social cohesion. Since women run many market stalls and small business enterprises, these sporadic attacks have slowed down development and robbed families of a better future. Another symptom of underlying fear is the way people avoid using the name Boko Haram, instead speaking of “BH”, or “the boys”, and alluding to a violent attacks as “incidents”.
“Safe travels,” says Hassan to a family member leaving their compound in Maiduguri. “We do not know when or where the next ‘incident’ might be,” he tells me. Though the family cattle farm is just outside the city, it is not safe to go there: Hassan lost three of his sons when Boko Haram attacked.
A leading figure in his home district, Hassan has taken in a local family who were trapped in the same assault and spent months under the militants. As Yana, a member of the rescued family, describes their ordeal, her youngest daughter giggles and plays peekaboo, but her teenage daughter bites her nails and stares off into the distance.
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