CHIBOK, NIGERIA – Our host lay down a raffia mat for my producer, Lillian Leposo, and me to share. It was settled: We were spending the night in Chibok. After a cross-country journey of four days, twisting and turning between Boko Haram hotspots, begging and cajoling armed police officers to accompany us, we were finally at our destination.
It had been almost three weeks since the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from here, but apart from the soldiers manning the checkpoint into the town — who flagged us down to tell us how they fought on even as the hope of receiving reinforcements slowly died — the families left behind were on their own.
When we had left the Nigerian capital Abuja, our sense of what might await us in Chibok was fuzzy. Nigerian officials had been reiterating the commitment to the search for the missing girls, counting down the assets being deployed. Special forces, fighter jets, helicopters; all apparently had been mobilized. We had even hoped that we could perhaps ride along in one of the helicopters. It never occurred to us that we wouldn’t find any at our destination.
As we drove along the sealed road from Abuja, progress was painstaking. Every 15 minutes or so, there seemed to be a checkpoint. I would wind down the window and receive a once-over. I’m from Sudan, and Leposo and our cameraman, Nick Migwe, are from Kenya. Given the belief expressed by some in government that the international uproar over the girls’ disappearance was some attempt to disenfranchise Nigeria, I was glad that we were slightly less “visible.” Everyone overtly foreign is being viewed as a potential threat, a trip-up waiting to happen. I pulled over my headscarf every time I rolled the window down and hoped for the best.
As we made our way up to Borno state, the site of a recently renewed state of emergency, a strange thing happened. Instead of increasing in frequency, the checkpoints became rarer.
As the green fields gave way to savanna, I found myself scanning the horizon. Boko Haram are often described as just “appearing,” they know the terrain and are extremely well equipped. They are ruthless, unpredictable and heavily armed.
Against such resources, the Nigerian military and police struggle. They are underpaid, under-resourced and demoralized. They are also dying in numbers. Those who spoke with us off camera called the provision made for the families of dead soldiers almost inconsequential — “an insult” even. This is all while allegations of misappropriation and misallocation of Nigeria’s vast security budget continue to roll in from nongovernmental organizations and activists.
Most of the people we’d told about this trip had said it couldn’t be done. But we thought that, as an African team, we stood the best chance. In fact, a crash nearly did for us — a car that drove toward us sped through a checkpoint and kept going, pushing our Land Cruiser off the road and down a bank. All of which meant a trip to Gombe, the nearest town with a hospital, but also a town heavily infiltrated by Boko Haram.
Thinking it was safer, I told the attendant nurse I was a housewife. She laughed good-naturedly. But we were all more or less OK.
At first light, we headed down to the police headquarters, hopeful that we could arrange a military escort to Chibok. In spite of our experiences, it still hadn’t sunk in that the security forces were not particularly keen to head for the epicenter of the recent Boko Haram violence.
Then we waited and waited. After eight hours, we were told that a shoot-out between police and a Boko Haram raiding party had taken place earlier that morning — on the exact route we’d planned to take. We headed back to the hotel. Contrary to what the descriptions of mass government deployment had led us to believe, it was clear that Boko Haram were not “on the run.” Instead, they were operating with impunity, circling the scene of their most audacious attack. I checked with my team. They still wanted to keep going.
The next morning, we returned to the police station. And waited some more. After six hours, perhaps sick of the sight of us, the police finally dispatched us with an escort.
The distrust between the different arms of the Nigerian security establishment runs deep. Each believes Boko Haram have infiltrated the other. On the road we were advised by our escort to tell the soldiers we met en route that I was an “Oga’s” wife — a “big man” — returning to console relatives.
We moved quickly, until eventually the tarmac came to an end. Diggers and dump trucks stood lifeless on the corner of the track, whatever scheme to connect countryside to city suspended. Then the phone network disappeared again. Conversation evaporated. We drove in silence. We’d been told we’d have no more than an hour on the ground. But after conferring with local police, our escort informed us we were spending the night. At 3 p.m., the road was already too dangerous to attempt.
The last time I was in the north of Nigeria, Boko Haram had brazenly rammed car bombs into the walls of the Kano police headquarters, engaging in an hour-long shootout with police. But Kano felt different from Chibok. There is a state of emergency there too, but in Kano, the largest state in the Nigerian federation, the burden of youth unemployment weighs heavy. The resentment over the lack of choice, the sense that Nigeria is two countries — dusty, underdeveloped Muslim north and oil-rich south — permeates across the north. But in Kano the resentment almost pulsates. The sense that Boko Haram are somehow righting a wrong is as real as it is unspoken.
Chibok has a more mixed populace, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t those serving as eyes and ears for the militant group. Around the corner from a mosque, I found a church being built, crucifixes proudly etched into the outside walls. Along a dust track down from the village pastor’s house, we found another church half constructed. This one, though, was filled with worshippers praying alongside the mothers of the abducted girls. Chibok is really more a town than a village, but everyone in this community has been affected in some way or other by this tragedy. As they prepared to talk to us, one man whispered: “Do this quickly, very soon they will know you are here.”
The consequences of a return attack are almost too horrifying to contemplate. Yet in spite of the fear, people spoke to us, competed to host us and prayed for our safe return. Carrying their words with us.
One man told me: “Boko Haram will try to kill us if they know we’ve spoken and the government try to stop us speaking. But when you live like this, what do you have left but your words?”
Nima Elbagir is a CNN correspondent, reporting on the Middle East and Africa.