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Rumors Of Boko Haram Attack Send Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Again

Civilians who had just recently arrived in Yola prepare to flee again, this time in a large open-top truck headed to the city of Jos.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton

As Nigeria's military continues to battle Boko Haram fighters for control of towns and territory in the turbulent northeast, fearful residents are leaving — or being driven out of town. More than 200 schoolgirls, abducted by the Islamist extremists in April, are still missing.

Hoisting the black flag of al-Qaida, the insurgents have imposed strict Islamic law in areas under their control, vowing to establish a caliphate.

The deadly insurgency has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, who are ending up in camps around Yola, the capital city of Adamawa, one of three northern states still under emergency rule. Concerned that Yola, too, may be attacked, others are again on the move.

A large open-top truck parked at a gas station on the outskirts of Yola is already overflowing with children and women. Men are hoisting more people, buckets, bundles and spare tires onto the back of the truck, amid much chatter and palpable panic.

The Rev. Ishaya Suno seems to be in charge, collecting money for the fares to Jos, 320 miles away in Nigeria's Middle Belt.

Suno and the dozens of men, women and children climbing onto the truck have been in Yola since late last month, when suspected Boko Haram insurgents seized the commercial border town of Mubi and nearby villages, further north along the border with Cameroon, after clashes with the Nigerian army.

The military says it's now in control of Mubi, but the displaced who found their way to Yola are not returning. Instead, they are fleeing further from their homes. Why?

A woman who had fled to Yola to escape fighting in Mubi, at the border with Cameroon, lifts her son into the truck bound for Jos.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton / NPR
A woman who had fled to Yola to escape fighting in Mubi, at the border with Cameroon, lifts her son into the truck bound for Jos.

"Yola is not safe. We are hearing rumors," he says. "Boko Haram, they prepare [to] come to Yola. We are afraid."

Clutching her baby girl in her arms, and poised to flee again, Liyatu Joshua, mother of five, just wants out of Yola. In a mixture of English and the local Hausa language, she says they they all are scared of the fighting — and of Boko Haram.

"Yes, we're leaving Yola, but we don't know what will happen, where we're going," Joshua says.

These anxieties are not limited to the displaced, says the Adamawa state governor's spokesman, Phineas Pwanohoma Elisha.

"It is definitely worrisome to the good people of Adamawa state. It's worrisome to the government of Adamawa state," he says. "There is no two ways about that."

But the military will not divulge its security plans, Elisha says.

Sort-of assurances from the governor's spokesman aren't enough to dampen the fears of Liyatu Joshua, The Rev. Suno and others, as they scramble to secure a standing-only place on the truck heading out of town to Jos.

Many Nigerians accuse the army — and the government — of failing to counter Boko Haram and end the insurgency. Mohammed Sanusi II, the emir of Kano and one of the nation's most revered traditional and Muslim leaders, this week called on residents in the north to arm and defend themselves — and to not rely on the military or fear the militants.

"Before the soldiers arrive, the terrorists would already have committed their crimes," says the emir. Speaking Hausa, he says some soldiers throw away their guns and flee.

"These terrorists slaughter our boys and abduct our girls and force them into slavery," he warns, adding that people should not sit by idly and think that prayers are the only solution.

"Be prepared, and acquire what you need to protect yourselves," says the emir, who was until recently Nigeria's central bank governor and an outspoken critic of the government.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
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