6 May 2019
It was on a chilly morning in October 2011 that Hajja Gana Suleiman’s world began to unravel.
The news came that her son had been arrested by military men. Mustapha “Saina” Abdulkareem had been saying his morning prayers at a nearby mosque when he was taken away.
The soldiers were conducting raids in the area and claimed to be arresting Boko Haram members. Saina, 25, was arrested together with 30 other men that day. It would be the last time Suleiman saw her son a free man.
Not knowing Saina’s whereabouts torments the 55-year-old mother. “I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. I’m old and tired. He helped me when his father was not well,” Suleiman says, sitting on a mat in her breezy compound in Gwange, a suburb of Maiduguri.
Two years ago, her pain drove her to help establish Jire Dole, a network of women who have missing relatives, and who campaign for justice.
Since 2009, Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency in Nigeria’s north-east has resulted in thousands of people going missing – either kidnapped or detained, or just disappeared. These include the 276 Chibok girls, whose abduction from their school in April 2014 sparked a global outcry.
But it is men and boys who have been largely unaccounted for. In a largely overlooked tragedy, thousands of men of fighting age have vanished in the conflict. Many have been killed by Boko Haram terrorists or forcibly taken as fighters.
Conversely, thousands more have been arbitrarily detained by soldiers on suspicion of being Boko Haram collaborators. Amnesty International estimates that, since 2009, about 20,000 men, including boys as young as nine, have been rounded up and detained without trial or due process. About 1,200 men have reportedly been killed.
Time has stood still for Suleiman and hundreds of mothers like her.
Efforts to free Saina prove futile. The day he was arrested, his wife, pregnant with their first child, asked where the soldiers were taking him. She was slapped and sent back to their home.
In the days that followed, Suleiman visited Giwa Barracks, a military detention centre in Maiduguri, anxiously trying to find her son. One week after his arrest, she saw Saina briefly. He wore red overalls. “This place is not good to stay,” he cried to his mother, distraught. “Please get me out. I’m suffering.”Advertisement
Several military men promised to release Saina after Suleiman paid 500,000 naira (£1,060) as a bribe. It was not the only time she paid out. “I’ve spent up to two million naira since they arrested him. I’ve sold my property and jewellery,” she says.
But her son has not been released, and she doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead. At one point, she was instructed by soldiers to wait at a morgue in case Saina’s body was among the dozens of corpses loaded into an ambulance out of Giwa Barracks every day. Suleiman waited to dig her son from the dead in vain. His body was not there.
In February 2012, Suleiman led a protest to the governor’s house in Maiduguri. She was assaulted. “Look at my body,” she says, lifting her clothing to show scars on her thighs. “The soldiers beat me and started shooting in the air.”
A top commander, Colonel Hassan, had promised to help. “He took my number and said he’d call me whenever they prepare the men for release. I never saw him again.”
As well as helping to form Jire Dole, she joined up with other groups, including the Knifar movement, an organisation of women seeking justice for sexual abuse they experienced at the hands of soldiers while in displacement camps.
Suleiman figured a collective fight would yield results. She began to announce her mission wherever women gathered – at meetings, weddings and child-naming events. “If you have this type of problem, please come to me. I will register you,” she would tell the women.
The response was huge. About 3,000 women have joined Jire Dole, Suleiman says, all looking for missing sons, husbands, brothers and fathers. The women have organised several protests. Although many of them are old and have little education, they attracted the attention of rights activists, who now amplify Jire Dole’s voice on social platforms.
The women have become each other’s support system. They donate money to members who need it and visit each other for companionship.
“Since I joined, my heart has been a bit calm,” says Fatima Al-Hassan, whose sons Ibrahim and Musa were arrested in a mop-up raid after a bomb exploded in the area.Advertisement
“They were eating in the parlour,” Fatima says, pointing to a spot in her Maiduguri apartment.
It seems the military is finally taking notice. Recent protests caught the attention of a top military commander. Jire Dole has been invited to the military headquarters for talks for the first time, although a date for the meeting has not been set.
It is unclear how many men are being held without charge in Giwa Barracks, or even how many are alive, says Isa Sanusi, Amnesty International’s media manager in Nigeria. In March 2014, Boko Haram attacked Giwa Barracks, freeing their members and other detainees. But in a reprisal attack, Nigerian troops hunted and killed hundreds of suspected escapees. More than 640men were killed.
“[The authorities] have to do something. We want to know whether they are alive or not,” says Suleiman, her voice cracking with emotion. “We want the truth.”
By Shola Lawal. This report first appeared in the Guardian.