Zabarmari is a Hausa settlement in Borno State and its peace was shattered on Saturday, November 28, 2020, when Boko Haram terrorists attacked and killed farmers on their farmlands. The Village Head, Zabarmari, Zanna Bukar, recounted the incident in the interview with DOGARA BITRUS
How long have you been staying in the area and how old are you?
My name is Zanna Lawan Bukar; I am the village head of Zabarmari. I am 53 years old and I am married to four wives and I have 17 children and grandchildren too. I was born here in Zabarmari to the late Lawan Bukar Bello.
Before insurgency, how was life in the community?
Life in this village was very exciting and interesting; we had fun growing up here. Being an agrarian community, we were engaged in farming activities right from childhood. We grew up watching our parents till the land to grow food, which was used to carter for us. In those years, we had large farmlands, which were mainly used for rice and maize cultivation. Some of our parents were into fishing too. So some of us children, after our Quranic classes, would run to the river to catch fish and swim in the dirty water. We did it for fun; little did we know we were training ourselves to make a living from such activities. It was really fun as everywhere was calm and peaceful, no chaos, no crisis, nothing.
Even, we used to sleep in the farms, while some of us would play at the river bank till late in the night when our parents would come searching for us. At such times, we would receive spanking from our fathers for staying late but the next day, we would still go back there. There were no cases of killing, banditry or stealing. We knew each other in this community; when a visitor came into the village, we knew whose compound he was visiting. We knew every household by the names of their first child or the trade the parents were engaged in. Our parents used to eat from the same plate when they got back from their farms or the river where they went fishing. So, it is with this tradition and culture that we were brought up and we also kept to the culture when we took over from our fathers until this madness called Boko Haram came and stole our pride and joy.
In what year did the people leave the community at the height of the insurgency?
To the glory of God, we never had that experience that pushed us out of this place since the inception of the insurgency in 2009. Though on two occasions Boko Haram attacked us and forced us to flee for safety; we all came back immediately after the fighters had finished their operation and left. We didn’t stay more than 24 hours outside of our village. The first attack happened some six years ago, while the second attack happened two years back. The Boko Haram insurgents came in and started shooting indiscriminately and the people got scared and fled, but nobody left because of the insurgency.
Where were the people, who fled, relocated to?
Those that left went to the Madinatu Camp and Maiduguri, but almost all of us returned the following day. We never left this village to live as IDPs on those two occasions and we have been carrying on with our normal activities ever since.
When did they return to the community? Did the state government bring them back?
No, the government did not even need to tell us to come back, because we were not stranded. Those, who had to pass the night outside this village, came back the next day. They slept outside because they thought the insurgents might likely come back. This is a farming community. We survive purely on our farm produce, so we cannot afford to stay away for so long. Our people have a lasting affinity with this village because of the unique features we are known for. We are the largest rice farming community in the entire Borno State. We fish too. Anybody you see in this village is either a farmer or a fisherman, and we have invested so much in these trades; so, how do you expect us to let these investments go down the drain just like that?
Is it true that the villagers did not get military clearance before returning?
Military clearance you say? Well, whoever made that statement is ignorant of happenings around this village. If you do a fact-check on Zabarmari, you will discover that we have been living in peace and tranquility despite the challenges of insurgency around us. Though we have had instances when the terrorists burnt our farmlands, killed some of our brothers and even stole our cows, which we use for farming and transporting our produce, but we have never had any security threat that would make us seek security clearance to go about our daily activities, except of course, when the Army is going on patrol or they feel it is not safe, they will tell us to hold on for them to go clear the bush before they can let us go to the farms, but if not so, we have never been stopped from going to our farms on the ground of security clearance.
We are peace-loving and very accommodating people; as you can see, this is a settlement of Hausa from Zamfara, Katsina and Kebbi states; we also have Kanuri and Shuwa; we settled here for farming and fishing, so we have conducted ourselves in such a manner that we don’t let any person with questionable character live among us; anybody who will constitute a threat to our means of livelihood will never be tolerated.
Can you describe the incident of Saturday, November 28, 2020?
Yes, you know that Saturday was local government election day in the state. We were all at the polling units trying to cast our votes. Before then, it was announced that there would be no movement on Saturday because of the election. So, those slain on the farms had been sleeping on the farms to harvest their produce. It was around 11am that some of our villagers came and told us that Boko Haram were arresting our people on their farmlands at gunpoint and taking them to an unknown destination.
Not long after that, some youths, who escaped, came and told us that their brothers were being slaughtered at an empty building in Kwashebe village. They said they were released by the insurgents after many had been slaughtered with the instruction that they should come and pass the information to the villagers. It was at that point that we mobilised our youths to go into the bush to see what was happening.
According to information reaching me from the head of the vigilantes, 45 youths, mostly within the ages of 13 and 28, were slaughtered and their heads completely severed from the body. It was when the terrorists got tired of slaughtering that they allowed 12 of them to escape. Out of the 45 slaughtered, only seven did not have their heads completely cut off as the heads were only hanging by a string of their skin. So, we had to pick the dead bodies and the heads separately and place them by the bodies. That was how we got a truck, loaded the dead bodies and brought them to the village. Meanwhile, the state governor, Prof. Babagana Zulum, insisted that he wanted to witness the burial, so we bathed the corpses and waited for the governor, who came and witnessed the burial on Sunday morning.
Did the community or anybody reach out to the military to rescue the victims?
You know the whole thing happened in a jiffy, so we had no time to begin to follow those procedures, because we were already tensed by the development. We only mobilised our vigilantes and went into the bush to recover the dead bodies. But the military were aware of the whole scenario.
There has been controversy about the casualty figure, so how many people actually died?
Well, on that Saturday, we discovered 43 bodies; during subsequent search another 34 bodies were recovered and brought to the village for burial after the Sunday mass burial; other bodies were also discovered at different locations, including wells, and because the dead bodies had stayed long, we buried them at the locations where they were discovered. Up till now, we still have not finished recovering the bodies. What we do is when we don’t see any one, we call his number, if it rings, then we know the person is alive, but if it doesn’t ring, then we know the person is dead; so, we set out to search for the dead body. But to the best of my knowledge, we have recovered almost all the dead bodies and they are up to 78.
Do you know some of those who were killed? Were any of your people killed?
Of course! I know almost all of them. I am the village head; it is incumbent on me to account for every human being living in this village. Most of those killed were youths. Some were bachelors; some had just weded, while others had young families. There was this boy, Usmanu, who wedded about eight months back and had no child. There was also one Tijja whose wife was delivered of a baby the previous day without any foodstuffs in his house and he went to the farm to help someone harvest rice so that he could get some money to feed his wife and kid, unfortunately he couldn’t make it back alive. The situation is so pathetic I don’t wish to recount please.
What advice do you have for the government?
As it stands, the government invested so much in rice production in this village. It’s been long since we had this bumper harvest, but as it stands, we may not be able to bring our produce back home because of this unfortunate situation; so, my plea to the government is for it to provide adequate security cover for us so that we can bring our harvest home. We have been dogged and resilient over the years and we are not ready to slow down, but our lives matter a lot to us. So, we plead with the government to increase the number of security personnel in Zabarmari so that we can be able to bring our produce home. As of Thursday morning, we learnt that the Boko Haram terrorists had burnt almost all of our rice fields around Kwashebe.
There is this neighbour of mine who harvested about 50 bags of rice but had yet to transport them home; the terrorists burnt down those bags of rice. There are so many of such losses. So, we call on the government to please look into our situation and do something about it, because farming is the only business we know and it is our source of livelihood.