Thursday, 5 November 2015

How I escaped death in the hands of Boko Haram

Meet 33-year-old Nigerian woman taking on Boko Haram 

Hafsat Mohammed uses hope to counter hate, but the activist knows the threats she faces are all too real.

On a long, barren road in northeastern Nigeria, Hafsat Mohammed, squeezed into a public minibus, saw the gunmen materialise from the bush like a mirage. 

The 33-year-old was on her way to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency, when two Hilux pickups swerved onto the road ahead.

The minibus stopped. Men in combat fatigues and balaclavas emerged from the first pickup and aimed their guns at the windshield. They ordered the passengers out onto the hot tarmac. The second pickup sped off towards a nearby village.

The men beat the passengers with their guns, jeering and calling them names as they did so.

A former radio journalist-turned-civil society activist, Mohammed wasn't usually afraid to speak up; she thought she might shout or scream, but, instead, she found herself mute.

"I was praying in my mind," she recalls. "I did not dare pray out loud."

Then they opened fire.

Mohammed remembers how the dead body of a woman fell on top of her and how she lay there, beneath it.

She heard the screams of two women as they were forced into the pickup. Then the gunmen were gone, leaving tyre marks behind in the dirt.

They had killed five passengers, but Mohammed was unharmed. She and the other survivors, including the driver, got back into the minibus and drove off.

I first met Mohammed in January 2014, just weeks after the attack. She was back at her office in a nondescript high-rise in Kaduna city, the old political capital of the north, gearing up for initiatives to tackle religious intolerance in Nigerian schools.

For the past year, she had been working at the grassroots, community-led Interfaith Mediation Centre, founded by a Muslim imam and a Christian pastor to address interreligious violence.

In sentences often punctuated by a loud, raucous laugh, Mohammed spoke about her work and the attack.

"It motivated me to go back to the northeast," she said. "It was something that kept on bothering me: 'What do you do to conquer this [violence]'?"

Her answer to that question has been to try to counter violent extremism by engaging young people at the grassroots level, getting them to imagine a different future and their individual ambitions for it.

"I was in that bus and I saw hell," the mother of two reflected. "But it motivates me to work for peace."

Lifting our voice above theirs

When we meet again, at a bustling salon in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in September 2015, Mohammed is sitting quietly getting her hair woven into braids. When they are done, she pulls the slinky hood of a lilac abaya over the neat, steamed rows and scrolls through Facebook updates on her phone.

There has been a bombing in Yola, where people fleeing attacks in Borno are living in IDP camps. "Why would they do this?" she questions out loud.

"We have to make sure that our voice is lifted in such a way that we counter those violent messages and ideologies, our voice is heard above theirs," she later says.

The following day, she posts a video on Facebook, taken on her phone, her face obscured by a dark niqab, speaking through tears about the bombing in the camp.

"I have something that's really bothering me today and I want to talk about it," she opens. "How the Boko Haram insurgents went into an IDP camp in Yola, in the northeastern part of Nigeria, and detonated a bomb, in a camp for crying out loud!"

She cannot comprehend what would make somebody commit such violence against people who have already lost everything other than their lives.