By Timothy Olanrewaju
Collapsed bridges and culverts washed out by erosion, wild grasses severally harassed by quails (small but destructive birds), unused farmlands with several ponds; these are what you see as you meander through the vast land of Borno desert in search of roads to Rann, the headquarters of Kala Balge Local Government located on the Nigeria-Cameroon border.
Until the Tuesday accidental aerial strike on a crowded area sheltering scores of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) by the Nigerian Air Force jet, Rann, a remote town about 180 kilometers east of Maiduguri, was relatively unknown not only in Nigeria but also in Borno State. As a local government headquarters, the town lacks basic social amenities of a contemporary community even before the advent of insurgency. Aside the local government secretariat and a few houses, there are no noticeable modern structure in the town. Worse still, it is cut off from the rest of the state, largely inaccessible especially during rainy season due to the muddy nature of its soil and lack of access road.
Rann is situated far from other communities in neighbouring local governments in the state. The 40-kilometre journey from its next neighbour; Gamboru/Ngala, takes about one and half hours and nearly six hours from Maiduguri. It is like a lonely child in the wilderness swallowed by a vast land. Despite all the odds, the people are proud producers of onion, tomatoes and pepper.
Its inhabitants mostly, Shuwa Arabs and Kanuris, share more affinity with their kith and kin in the neighbouring Cameroonian communities, about eight kilometres away, than their Nigerian counterpart due to their proximity. Sadly, the community has been bedeviled with one tragic fate or the other as Sunday Sun gathered during a visit to the area facilitated by the Nigerian Army.
From frying-pan to fire
The people of Rann have lived in peace in years past, preserving their farm products and livestock until dry season when they could access the commercial town of Gamboru for market. There are no banks in the town, making the people to resort to use of the traditional method to keep their resources. Unfortunately, such simple rural life was truncated by Boko Haram beginning from late 2014. “The insurgents overran our community, killed some of our people, kidnapped children and burnt our houses,” septuagenarian Ba Ali Goni told Sunday Sun.
Those who were lucky to escape the insurgents’ rampage fled to Gamboru/Ngala and Cameroon while others were held hostage under the new ‘ruler’ (Boko Haram) for almost two years until the military came to the rescue on March 22, 2016. “We finally recaptured Rann from Boko Haram on 22nd March, 2016,” Commanding Officer, 3 Battalion of the Nigerian Army, Rann, Lt. Col. Patrick Omoke disclosed. He said Kala Balge was the last area to be recaptured from the insurgents, adding that troops in the battalion had demonstrated great commitment to defending the nation’s territory and people. “I can say it’s been a privilege commanding the troops here,” he added.
From then on, the people breathed air of freedom while those who fled the community returned last year only to discover most of their houses had been destroyed by Boko Haram, caretaker chairman of the local government, Alhaji Babagana Malarima said. “Those who returned as IDPs settled at the community clinic while others who did not flee stay in their houses,” he explained further.
The humanitarian agencies including Red Cross recently moved into Rann to address the food shortage and medical challenges of the people. Sunday Sun gathered that the Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders moved into the town a week ago. Sadly, a military jet in pursuit of Boko Haram accidentally hit the IDPs camp located within the heart of the town, killing many. MSF puts the casualty figure at 53 but the community said they have buried over 200 since Tuesday when the incident occurred. “We were pursued by Boko Haram and when military cleared them from the town, this tragedy befell us again,” a vigilante who preferred anonymity said.
IDPs camp or residential area?
There have been conflicting reports regarding the actual status of the scene of the mistaken airstrike. Sunday Sun discovered rubble of what used to be a cluster of mud houses adjacent a clinic-turned abode for displaced persons. “The first bomb from the jet landed at the back of this clinic at about 12.05pm,” says Ahmad Malla, a survivor. The Red Cross office is also located within the clinic area. Residents said the second strike killed more people than the first one. “There are many people at home and in front of their houses,” a source said.
What went wrong with the military?
In the past weeks, people of Borno have been celebrating the reported successes of the military in the counter-insurgency operation and emerging peace in the northeast. So what went wrong with the military this time around after successful clearance of several Boko Haram camps and hideouts? Chief of Army Staff, Lt Gen Tukur Buratai, attributed it to operational mistake. “It was a great mistake and very unfortunate,” he told journalists at Rann last Friday during a visit, adding that the military had learnt from the tragedy.
Theatre Commander, Operation Lafiya Dole, Maj Gen Lucky Irabor, in a press briefing few hours after the news of the incident broke last Tuesday, said the military acted based on information received concerning alleged gathering of Boko Haram. “We received information that Boko Haram terrorists were gathering somewhere at Kala Balge and we decided to mobilize our air component but unfortunately, it hit a wrong target. Some civilians were affected,” he said, urging Nigerians to see the incident as human error, though avoidable.
The fresh attack on Rann by Boko Haram two days after the tragic incident gives credence to the reliability of the information received by the military on the gathering of the insurgents in the area. Commanding Officer, 3 Battalion of the Nigerian Army, Rann, Lt. Col Igwe Omoke, who led the operation to repel the attack, said the insurgents were in two hilux vehicles. He said one of the insurgents was captured alive. Sunday Sun saw six corpses of the Boko Haram and the arrested suspect.
Rann is in dire need of support, not only from the military but also from government, residents said. Fatima, a house wife whose husband was wounded said support to them would reduce the pains of the incident. “My husband was injured on his two hands, our house has been shattered. We need help,” she said. As we journeyed back on same bumpy dusty road, the question is when will the people of Rann get reprieve from all these tragedies, will the recent incident draw the authority’s attention to the plight of the people?