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Residents of Northern Nigerian City Live in Constant Fear of Attack

  • Anne Look

Residents survey vehicles damaged after a bomb blast at a primary school in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state, February 29, 2012.

Residents survey vehicles damaged after a bomb blast at a primary school in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state, February 29, 2012.

Deadly attacks by the radical Islamic sect Boko Haram have turned life upside down for residents in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, since the group's re-emergence there in 2010. Thousands of children are now unable, or too afraid, to go to school after militants set fire to at least a dozen schools.

The women of Maiduguri are taking to the streets with a simple message: "Stop the killing. We have buried enough of our husbands and children."

The far northeastern city has become the violent epicenter of the fight between Islamist insurgents known as Boko Haram and the group's varied enemies, which include security forces, government officials, religious leaders and at times the city's residents themselves.

Tears run down the women's faces as, clad in black, they deliver their message. Local human rights leader Aisha Barrister says she is begging the militants to come out for dialogue. She says this is not funny. She says, please, my children come out.

Boko Haram has responded, through the group's shadowy spokesman Abul Qaqa. He said that no amount of motherly pleas would stop them. Those who are being killed, he said, have been "divinely sanctioned" to die.

Human Rights Watch estimates that Boko Haram has killed more than 1,000 people since its reemergence in 2010.

Boko Haram says it has set fire to 12 public schools in Maiduguri so far this year as retaliation for police raids on Islamic schools. They say they are attacking schools at night to avoid harming any children.

However, the governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, says the attacks have left 10,000 children unable to go to school -- some because their school has been destroyed, others because they are too afraid.

"Even though it is the right of the child to go to school in spite of the situation, as a mother, I live in continuous worry for the safety of my child. If I had my way, my child would not go to school because no one knows from where the next bomb will come," said one mother.

Though Boko Haram claims wide popular support in the North, its presence has radically changed daily life for the three million residents of Maiduguri, its base of operations.

What was once a bustling commercial and cultural center has become a community on edge, confined indoors after sunset and heavy with the knowledge that the next attack could literally be just around the corner.

The government declared a state of emergency in four states, including Borno, in January. More than 5,000 policemen, soldiers, and other allied security personnel have been deployed to Maiduguri.

Piles of military sandbags litter the once neatly-kept streets. Residents must contend with traffic jams at hundreds of checkpoints throughout the city as they hurry to make the most of daylight hours.

A strict curfew has turned Maiduguri into a ghost town after dark. Christian and Muslim worshippers must compress their evening prayers. Nightlife is a thing of the past.

"Residents of Maiduguri no longer look forward to the relaxation they usually have at night. People are now living a regimented life in the state capital. Commercial activities that are usually done in the night are all crumbled. The security situation is still tense. Despite the curfew, people are still killed on a daily basis," said one resident.

Residents say a good two-thirds of restaurant owners, many originally from the south, have closed up shop and fled the city after being attacked by militants. Those who stayed are struggling to survive in daylight hours.

This owner of a fast-food joint says he has lost more than 80 percent of his income. He says he has not fled because his children are in high school and he does not want to disrupt their educations. He says they are waiting for God to restore peace to the region.

Boko Haram attacked a popular market in Maiduguri last month after traders helped police capture a suspected Boko Haram militant. Security forces said they killed eight militants in an ensuing shoot-out. Traders said 30 civilians died in the crossfire.

Residents prefer to shop on the roadside where petty traders with wheelbarrows and push-carts hawk their wares around the entrance to the market. From there, shoppers say they can escape more easily in case of emergency.

As merchants have fled town, the prices of some common items, like yams, have doubled.

Traders who have remained say the curfew has been hard for business. "You open very late and close early because of the curfew in town. Sometimes we used to even have businesses in the evening hours. When people closed from their various places of work, they would come for shopping. But now, everybody will be rushing to reach their various houses and not even thinking of shopping," said one trader.

The government crushed a brief uprising by Boko Haram in the north in July 2009. The five days of fighting killed 800 people. Human Rights Watch says police executed the group's leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and several dozen of his followers outside a police station in Maiduguri.

Boko Haram resumed attacks with renewed vigor the following year. Analysts say widespread poverty and frustration with out-of-control security forces are fueling recruitment.

The group's name in the Hausa language means "Western education is a sin," a reference to what it sees as a corrupt, Western-educated elite that has confiscated power in Nigeria. Much about the group remains unknown, but the militants are believed to want stricter application of sharia, or Islamic law, in northern Nigeria.

Abdulakreem Oleyeimi contributed reporting from Maiduguri, Nigeria.

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