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WITNESS: Fleeing the Islamic sect that lived in our midst
Tue Aug 4, 2009 9:02am EDT
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Ibrahim Mshelizza lives in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, where he has reported for Reuters for more than a decade. His family home is close to the compound of Mohammed Yusuf, leader of the militant Islamic Boko Haram sect. Here he describes how he and his family were forced to flee fighting between sect members who lived in their midst and the security forces during days of unrest in which close to 800 people were
By Ibrahim Mshelizza
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) - It was when the first home-made bomb went off that we realized this was more than just a demonstration by misguided youths.
We knew the young men living in our midst with beards and turbans hanging down behind their heads were followers of Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatic Islamic cleric opposed to everything Western, but we never thought they were dangerous.
At times they would say "Salam Alaikum" (Peace be with you) on the way to their mosque on the edge of our neighborhood in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri but mostly they kept themselves to themselves.
Many were among our own children. We knew their parents, we saw them born and grow up.
When the gunshots started that Sunday night (July 26) we thought it was one of the joint police and army patrols set up last year to fight armed robbery and clashes between herdsmen and farmers.
The next morning at dawn there was an explosion at the first house in our block. Several hours later some of Yusuf's followers came in a convoy of cars, horses and even camels, armed with shotguns, cutlasses and bows and arrows.
Yusuf arrived in a Toyota saloon, dressed in military-style fatigues, with three other men, their AK-47s resting on the car's open windows. All of us were afraid, people came out of their houses to see.
But he told us he was not after us, he was after the government. He told us we should not run away. I went back inside to watch the news on television.
I thought Yusuf was on his way somewhere else, that he was not going to harm us. Other sects sometimes wear military-style uniforms and it was not for us to interfere in his business.
Then an announcement came on state radio. Everybody should leave State Low Cost -- the low-rise housing area originally built for civil servants where we live -- as well as the neighborhoods of Galadima, Abbaganaram, Mafoni, Kumshe and West End within two hours. All are average-income, residential areas.
As I gathered everybody in the house, my wife, three daughters and son, more and more of Yusuf's followers were coming out. Some of them had blood on their knives. Yusuf disappeared and the shooting started again.
When the security forces came, initially they did not want to go beyond Galadima junction about half a kilometer (500 yards) away. Yusuf's supporters usually carried knives and bows and arrows but this time they had shotguns and explosives and the police and army did not expect what they saw. Continued...
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