The life and death of a Boko Haram victim
Remembering the 27-year-old victim of a Boko Haram attack – and the many nameless, faceless Nigerians like him.
Yola, Nigeria – Thirty-four people died in a November 17 bomb blast. It was one of many to target the Nigerian city. As we tally the number of dead from such attacks in Nigeria, we rarely get to hear the individual stories of the victims. Al Jazeera looked up the family, friends and colleagues of one of them – 27-year-old Aliyu Mohammed Hassan.
The first thing people asked when they heard what had happened to Aliyu was: and how is Mohammed? The two best friends lived on the same street in Yola North, in the Nigerian state of Adamawa, and were always seen together.
But on Tuesday, November 17, Mohammed Musa had gone home with a headache after a long day of teaching. He took some pills and went to bed.
If not for his headache, Mohammed would surely have accompanied his best friend, who had gone to get the faulty speaker of his phone fixed.
Aliyu had just dropped off his mobile phone when a bomb exploded in the crowd. He didn’t survive the blast.
“My headache saved my life,” says Mohammed.
The primary school teacher still cannot believe that his best friend won’t be waiting for him after work any more.
The night before the blast they had watched a Premier League game together at a neighbourhood viewing centre – although the friends were Real Madrid fans, they didn’t mind watching British football when it was on.
Aliyu had teased Mohammed that night when he bought Tom Tom sweets and neglected to offer his friend any. “Am I not your friend?” he had said mockingly. “Are you not supposed to share everything with me?”
The next time Mohammed saw Aliyu, he was dead.
Aliyu Mohammed Hassan was born on Saturday, December 12, 1987. He was the first son of Mohammed Aliyu.
The 65-year-old sits on an orange and blue mat in front of his single-storey family house clutching his son’s students’ registration record.
The faded blue folder has Aliyu’s portrait photo stapled to it. In it, he frowns at the camera, as though well aware of the seriousness of his studies. Also in the folder is a copy of the English language certificate he obtained in 2013, which enabled him to start his studies.
The fact that Aliyu was studying English education at Adamawa State Polytechnic was his father’s greatest pride. He was the first in the family to go beyond secondary school.
Education for all
The businessman had high hopes for his son. He wanted him to get a degree.
“I was even willing to sell the house to make that possible,” he says in Hausa, stroking his silver-white goatee. In fact, he wants all of his nine children, girls and boys alike, to have a proper education.
READ MORE: Inside the Nigerian city targeted by Boko Haram
Mohammed Aliyu owns a shop at Jimeta Modern Market that sells rice, sugar and other foodstuff. In the 1990s, when business was going well, he could afford to send his children to the Aliyu Mustafa Academy, reputedly Yola’s best school.
He drove them to school himself and little Aliyu used to beg his father to let him get behind the wheel. But when the economy suffered the car had to be sold, and Aliyu would never learn to drive. In 2000, he and his siblings were withdrawn from the expensive school and sent to one with lower fees.
The most frustrating period in his son’s life, his father thinks, must have been the five years after secondary school, when they could no longer afford to pay for his education.
During that time Aliyu worked at a bakery to make ends meet. It took until 2012 for them to save up enough money to send him to Polytechnic. But he never complained, says his father.
He rarely had to scold his son, he remembers. But when he did, it was usually because he had been sent out on an errand but failed to return for hours. Aliyu liked to socialise and joked with everyone, he explains, and that sometimes made him forget the time.
Ishaqu Tahir, the skinny 16-year-old boy who lives across the street, still giggles when he talks about Aliyu. The older polytechnic student used to call the boy “malam”, an honorary title usually reserved for a senior, and had nicknames for all the neighbourhood kids.
Tahir remembers how Aliyu came out of his house on the morning of his death carrying a plate of rice and beef. When a friend jokingly asked if the food was for him, Aliyu laughed and handed it over, before going back inside for more.
His generosity is what his younger sister Habiba remembers most about him. At the last Salah festival, the occasion that marks the culmination of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Aliyu came home with a piece of cloth just for her.
The 17-year-old goes inside to get the dress she had made from it.
Aliyu had a way of making you feel special, she says.
Habiba is the daughter of Aliyu’s father’s second wife, but that didn’t make a difference. “He treated me equally, even though I am not his full sister,” she says.
Zainab Mohammed, Aliyu’s mother, is not at home. She had to travel to Cameroon to visit her sick mother. His stepmother, A’isha, is in her room. Since Aliyu died, she doesn’t feel like coming out.
“He was the same to me as to his mother,” she says. “He was a son to me.”
She sits in the doorway of her bedroom. Every once in a while the breeze lifts up the portière and the curtain brushes her face.
A’isha says she still expects to hear Aliyu’s voice in the morning, when he used to come and greet them all. And she can’t believe that she won’t be preparing his favourite meals, spaghetti with tomato sauce or pounded yam with stew, for him any more.
When Aliyu wanted advice, he would come and talk to her rather than his mother, his stepmother says. As he did about the pressure he felt to finally get married. At 27, he was considered a little too old to still be unmarried.
But, A’isha says, “he wanted to finish school first”.
“So I told him to let people talk. His education came first.”
Every weekend Aliyu would put the blackboard in the backyard and teach Hausa and English to his younger siblings and some of the neighbourhood children.
He was always carrying around his well-thumbed copy of the Oxford Dictionary. It is now in the room he shared with his brother Abubakar, lying on top of the TV, his proudest possession, which he bought from the money he earned at the bakery.
|In the room he shared with his younger brother Abubakar, Aliyu’s proudest possessions: the TV he bought from his salary at the bakery and his copy of the Oxford Dictionary [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]|
‘Time would pass faster with Aliyu around’
Even his colleagues at the bakery would sometimes enjoy his lectures, remembers Mohammed Ibrahim.
He started working with Aliyu at AAMD Bakery three months ago. Aliyu was the only worker there with more than a secondary school education.
“When we heard words we didn’t understand, we would ask Aliyu to explain,” remembers his colleague as he takes freshly baked white bread out of the pan and places the loafs in neat lines on a large table in the dimly lit bakery.
He and his colleagues say they miss Aliyu and his continuous chatting. Time would pass faster with him around, they reflect, because he would always make them laugh.
After work, Mohammed Ibrahim and Aliyu would sometimes go and sit at the nearby container kiosk on Banshika Street and have a cold soft drink. They’d talk about what they wanted to do with their lives. Aliyu wanted to become a teacher, and his colleague dreamed of one day owning his own bakery.
They’d also discuss politics – Aliyu loved the country’s new President, Muhammadu Buhari, because he believed he wasn’t corrupt.
And every once in a while, the topic of women came up. Not that there was anyone in particular for Aliyu, though he did say he wanted to marry an educated, pretty girl – after his graduation.
It was impossible to stay mad at him, remembers his boss Idris Adamu, the production manager at the bakery. Aliyu was supposed to start work at 6am, but sometimes he’d show up late. When Adamu threatened to send him home, he would say: “Oga [boss], please let me stay. You can cut my money instead,” after which he would do something to make Adamu laugh. And, sure enough, he’d let him stay.
“Such a waste,” the production manager says now, shaking his head.
Back at his family home, Abubakar remembers his brother’s final moments. It was he who took Aliyu to Bamaiyi Hospital after the bomb blast.
That Tuesday night, he was walking along Jimeta bypass when he heard the explosion.
Arriving at the site, he immediately recognised his brother’s favourite red-and-white polo shirt with the yellow stripe in the middle. Aliyu was lying on the floor, unconscious.
A friend helped Abubakar carry his brother. Together they took him home, where his father arranged for a keke napep, a motorised tricycle, to take him to hospital.
“Because of fuel scarcity, the keke didn’t have enough fuel to get to [the] state hospital,” Abubakar says, his frustration resonating in his voice.
They decided instead to head to the nearest private clinic. On arrival at Bamaiyi Hospital, the nurses told them that there was no doctor around. They were on their way out when Dr Emmanuel Yakubu arrived.
The physician was at home when he heard the explosion. “When I realised it wasn’t a busted truck tyre, like someone suggested, I got in my car and rushed to [the] hospital,” Yakubu says. He is standing in the theatre, beside the operating table on which the wounded Aliyu was put that night.
When he examined Aliyu, his heart was still beating, but he wasn’t breathing. The doctor, who has experience in treating victims of explosions, knew that blood loss was the most immediate problem in such cases.
But he had only seen the wound on Aliyu’s arm and didn’t understand how that could cause such haemorrhaging. For five minutes they performed CPR, but it was of no use. The physician only discovered the large shrapnel wound in the back of Aliyu’s head after he had already declared him dead.
In his neighbourhood Aliyu was known as “Turakin SPY”. The SPY stands for State Polytechnic Yola and “turakin” is a traditional title. Some simply called him “Prof”. The younger children looked up to their schooled neighbour and his friends tried to compete with his academic success.
Maybe that is why he didn’t tell anyone when he kept failing his courses. Nor did he mention it when he was finally kicked out of the polytechnic because of his low grade average.
But his father knew. Aliyu had told him about his problems at school three months ago. So, his father had gone to the polytechnic to speak to one of his lecturers. He left with the impression that Aliyu’s problems could still be worked out.
He couldn’t know if his son’s English was good enough – after all, he didn’t speak the language – but he was confident that they’d find a way to get Aliyu back into school.
“He is my son and I will always be proud of him,” he says. “My son was a good boy. He was generous and made everybody smile. He deserves to be remembered for that.”
Of course, Aliyu wasn’t the only person who died in that bomb blast on November 17. And he isn’t the only one who deserves to be remembered. So, too, does 18-year-old Abubakar Isa, who never let his older brother wash his car. “Let me do that,” he would say whenever he saw Aliyu with a bucket of water.
Then there were Amina Gidado’s daughters – Fuziya, Halima and Bilkisu – who were all still in school. And Mohammed Allaramma, the water carrier who lived in the same compound as the Gidado sisters. Or any of the other 28 people who died that day. Or the 32 killed in the mosque on October 23. And the six victims – four of them children – who died when a bomb exploded in the Malkohi camp for for internally displaced people on September 11. Not to forget the 32 who lost their lives in the bomb blast at Jimeta Modern Market on June 4. Or the 20 killed on November 27, in the bombing of a Shia procession in Kano. Or the 14 killed in the same city a week and a half before.
The list of Nigerians who have died in such attacks seems endless. In fact, no one is sure of the total number.
For them, there are no state burials, no national days of mourning, no international displays of solidarity. We hardly know their names, let alone their faces. And least of all, their stories.
|The street where Aliyu Mohammed lived most of his life [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]|