Timothy Olanrewaju, Maiduguri
It ought to be a desolate place like every other graveyard, but the casualties of the deadly war against insurgency entering its 10th year would not let it be. The Nigerian Army 7 Division Cemetery in Maiduguri, Borno State, is sadly a busy place, no thanks to the activities of Boko Haram.
Scores of mourners and sympathizers accompanied five caskets being pushed along a pavement at the army cemetery. It was a familiar movement for the pavement as more than 1,000 people mostly families of troops killed in battlefield, as well as serving army personnel have walked on this sideway which thrust into an expanse land, to bury their beloved officers, soldiers, breadwinners and colleagues this year alone. The surface of the pavement is gradually becoming pale.
“These are the big casualties of this war,” a military personnel in the middle of the mourners echoed as they filed into the burial site for fallen troops of the Christian faith.
A thick cloud suddenly enveloped the sky. The leaves on the trees at the graveyard appeared yellowish though it is rainy season in Northeast Borno State. Earlier in the day, there were signs the rain was set to pour down in torrent, but it ceased as if the god of rain held it.
Change in burial tradition
The cemetery located at the outskirts of Maiduguri was demarcated over 20 years ago by the army authorities as a burial ground for personnel in the cantonment, a military officer familiar with its history said. The facility was not used until few years ago.
Sunday Sun gathered that in the past, army authorities often released corpses of troops that died in operations to their next-of-kin and relations, but the tradition changed few years ago. Sources said some logistics challenges experienced in the course of moving the remains of deceased personnel and their families especially from theatre of war like the Northeast, to a place of their choice for burial, forced the army to change the established tradition and now bury their personnel at the service cemetery. However, the army has continued to bury its late personnel in the burial ground since 2015. Sources at the cemetery said hardly does any week pass without army burying one or two of its personnel killed in operations in different parts of Borno at the facility. “Sometimes one or two in a week, sometimes they are more than that. In some cases, it could be after two weeks of last burial,” a source told Sunday Sun.
Army spokesman, Col Sagir Musa could not be reached on his telephone for comment on the issue as at press time.
The funeral piles
Dozens of officers and soldiers killed either in Boko Haram ambush, by explosives threw on troops’ convoy, mines laid on the highways or near their base are the real casualties of the bloody Boko Haram war, former governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima once said. The dozens of slain army personnel that have been buried at this cemetery say it all.
Sunday Sun observed that more than two-third of the burial ground have been filled with remains of departed troops. From mid-December 2018 when the 23 officers and soldiers of Metele Boko Haram attack were buried at the cemetery, the burial site has doubled, a clearer picture of the huge sacrifices military personnel are paying in the Northeast. “We are almost reaching the peremetre fence in the roll of the burial points,” an officer who would not want his name mentioned in the report said.
A signpost containing the names, service number and causes of death with locations of incidents, is erected on each of the graveyard either in both Christian and Muslim sites within the expanse area. There are very few cases of deaths caused by sickness as most of the signposts on the graveside indicated Boko Haram related incidents. From Bama bomb attack on troops to Gwoza, Konduga, Mafa, Damboa, Monguno, Malam Fatori, Kangaruwa, Kukawa, Baga and lately Kaga, soldiers are buried in scores! The burial ground is becoming filled with more slain troops brought from the battlefields.
Their soul liveth
Again, an officer and four soldiers fell by Boko Haram bullets on a major road in Borno State recently became the new arrivals at the cemetery last Friday. Col Kenneth Elemele, Lance Corporals Dimos Daniel, Oguntuase Ayo, Ajibola Sunday and Private (PTE) Akinola Ayoola were killed during an ambush by the terrorists between Auno-Jakana along Maiduguri-Damaturu highway on August 17. “They were on official duty in the area when Boko Haram ambushed them. They fought gallantly, but paid the supreme price,” Deputy Director, Army Public Relations and spokesman, Operation Lafiya Dole, Col Ado Isa, said in his introductory remark at the burial.
The citation read for Col Elemele showed that he hailed from Rivers State. He was a lieutenant in 1997 after his enlistment into the army. He bagged a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering before he became a Colonel in 2016. He has held many key operation and administrative positions in the army before he was killed. But the army insisted his bodies and that of the four soldiers liveth.
“Bullets may have destroyed their bodies, their flesh but we believed their soul liveth,” one of the army chaplains, Maj (Rev) Chinwe Njoku said in his exhortation, urging the families of the fallen heroes to take solace in the words of God.
Quoting from the Bible: Job 19 verses 25 to 27, the cleric officer said that the deceased army personnel shall “stand at the latter days… for I know my redeemer liveth.” He said that the officers and soldiers have sacrificed their life for Nigeria, Borno people and humanity. “They have only laid their life for humanity but they will be rewarded in the years after,” he said.
Acting Theatre Commander, Maj Gen Olusegun Adeniyi said the late personnel were not villains but heroes. He appealed to the families to glory in their sacrifices and gallantry, and dwell less on their loss. “You have reason to raise your heads up; you have a stake in Nigeria, in the Northeast. The fallen officer and soldiers did not die in vain. They died for Nigeria and Nigerian Army is proud of them. They were gallant men,” he said in his solemn remark.
As the soldiers fired the 21 gun salutes in honour of their departed colleagues, families, relations, children and siblings of the deceased who had travelled from far places, filed out of the graveside in tears. “Why now, why now my husband,” heavily pregnant wife of Lance Corporal Dimos cried aloud. She said it was a pain she would bear for a long time.