by Eromo Egbejule
You hear a lot of stories about North-East Nigeria, a slice of the country that has been at war since 2009, at the hands of Boko Haram. But we have largely only heard a single story. Sending a reporter across 7 cities, we tell a more complete story – personal tales of survival and recovery – that speak to hope, to strength and to faith. Stories that speak to life. Across 20 narratives over the next 3 weeks, you will hear the most inspired and touching stories about Nigerians – at their best, even when they have only just recovered from their worst.
In 2011, Sandra Bernard was a sixteen-year old freshman studying Economics at the University of Port Harcourt and staying at an off-campus apartment with a fellow undergraduate. Her parents had separated when she and her twin brother were five and after what seemed like a lifetime of growing up with different relatives, she had gotten seamless admission to study the course of her choice.
It seemed like everything good had finally come.
But when a chance visit to a friend in town saved Sandra from certain death at the hand of her roommate who thought she was an informant to her cousin in a rival cult, she had to flee for her dear life.
The very next day, she took a direct bus to Maiduguri to stay with a friend and start her education afresh. A few months after, she wrote the Joint Admissions Matriculations Board (JAMB) exams and was eventually admitted into the city university to study Accounting.
In her sophomore year, she came close to death again. This time, a member of Boko Haram, the insurgent group that had begun waging war against the Nigerian government in 2009, threatened to kidnap her and three of her friends because of her tomboy fashion. And because she was a musician (the insurgents had brutally butchered Halima, an extremely popular female rapper for similar reasons in September that year).
“We had to go to my pastor who called soldiers to go and pick him up because he was insisting that ‘they’ were coming back to abduct many girls”, Sandra remembers. This was in 2012, two years before the kidnap of the Chibok girls.”
Her pastor ensured that her attacker was picked up by men of the Joint Task Force (JTF) in Maiduguri and all seemed well again. The Kashim Shettima government decided to intensify its efforts in protecting students of the university even during holidays. It would provide shuttle buses to convey them from their different states of residence all over the country to and back again during holidays.
“Then every student’s ID card was their ticket home. The Rivers state government under Rotimi Amaechi also sent buses to pick its indigenes, then we were given tokens after the drivers dropped us in our respective houses.”
Then Black Friday – March 14, 2014 – came along.
As students in the hostels were preparing to attend 7am lectures that morning, the sound of gunshots disrupted the peace and continued almost till midnight. Boko Haram had attacked the Giwa Barracks, which was not so far away, seeking to free some of its members imprisoned in the infamous guardroom. Stray bullets spilled into the university premises, killing two students and leaving many others wounded.
“My friend who was going to write a test was hit by a bullet, right in her left breast. She survived but left the school after and never returned. There was another guy who jumped from a two-storey building and broke his leg. I was lucky that I had slept over in a friend’s house in 303 Housing Estate.”
The Nigerian Army had to send for two jet fighters from Yola in the neighbouring Adamawa state; the lead was a notable lady pilot who had helped the military secure crucial victories in the fight against Boko Haram.
Lectures resumed the next Monday but from 8am onwards. After the kidnap of over 200 schoolgirls in April from Chibok, two hours away from the capital, rumours surfaced that the insurgents were coming for the female undergraduates in the university.
Sandra remembers that everyone became super alert. “Girls were ready to commit suicide rather than be abducted like the Chibok girls. Then in UNIMAID, every girl was sleeping with only one eye closed and wearing jeans or leggings. We were carrying one small bag packed at every time of the day; inside your ATM card, ID card, credentials and spare underwear.”
“At night, if you walked through the female hostels you’d hear people praying loudly for forgiveness of sins in case they were killed at night. Muslims would be chanting Allahu Akbar while Christians would be praying: “Lord give me the strength not to deny you tonight”. It was a scary time.”
Sandra graduated early in 2016 but has come to love Maiduguri and is staying behind. “I want to work in development. I’ve seen too much in this life that I just want to help others.”
*The next installment will be published at 10am WAT tomorrow.