The grave-diggers of Maiduguri: burying Boko Haram and the past

Maiduguri (Nigeria) (AFP) –


Even the dead weren't safe from Boko Haram when the Islamist insurgency erupted in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri nearly seven years ago.

"They began to destroy this one," said Babagana Modu, gesturing to a mound of baked earth and sand -- the grave of a prominent Muslim cleric.

"We tried to stop them but we couldn't. They had guns and we didn't. We only had our shovels," the 30-year-old told AFP.

The dead may no longer be able to tell tales but the grave-diggers of the Gwange cemetery certainly can.

They talk of a place where piles of bodies were routinely dumped from trucks and some were even brought to be killed.

But in recent times, Modu and his colleagues say their workload has decreased as attacks become more sporadic and a sustained counter-insurgency brings a relative calm to the much-targeted city.

"At the height of the insurgency, 200, 300, 400 bodies were being brought here. Sometimes the sanitation department trucks were bringing three truckloads of dead bodies," said Modu.

"If they still had more left, they would go back and bring them the next day. This road just outside the cemetery was not passable because of the stench."

- 'Relative peace' -

Modu's estimation may be an exaggeration but not by much. At least 17,000, possibly more, have died overall across the Muslim-majority north.

The police and military launched a crackdown in Maiduguri after a series of Boko Haram attacks at the end of July 2009. Some 800 Islamists, including the group's then leader Muhammad Yusuf, were killed in just a few days in what is considered the start of Boko Haram's insurgency.

Modu's boss, Bulama Ali, speaks of smaller numbers, although he admitted there was a time when the cemetery was almost full.

"In the past we would get up to 20 to 30 bodies every day. Now we get five to 10. Most of these are deaths from natural causes."

"It's an indication that there's relative peace returned to Maiduguri and the metropolis," he added.

Sixty-year-old Ali's 22 staff are volunteers, young men dressed in fading replica football shirts, dusty trousers and flip flops.

Some started work with their fathers at a young age and know little else.

They now dig graves in the parched earth, cut down trees for the wood to cover the bodies or make earthenware pots that serve as grave markers for families of the deceased.

Three-metre-long (10 feet) mounds of earth for adults and smaller ones for children rise out of the ground, uniformly facing east towards the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Groups and individuals quietly pay their respects to the dead off the sweeping paths lined by neem trees, with the sounds only of bleating goats, birdsong and the rustle of lizards darting through fallen leaves.

- Recognition -

Not all graves are marked. Those that are and with dates from 2009 onwards only hint at the possibility of a connection to the insurgency.

"It's not our business to ask how they died," said Ali.

The young grave-diggers, though, are well aware of who lies just under the earth towards the high perimeter wall.

"From here to the wall over there and from there to the other end of the cemetery... is all Boko Haram dead bodies," said Modu, pointing to a stretch of open ground and scrub the size of a football pitch.

Islamic custom dictates the dead are washed and wrapped in a shroud before being placed on their right side and the body covered with wood and earth.

Boko Haram's dead were not extended the courtesy. Instead, they were simply dumped and covered, leaving only small ridges in the ground to indicate what lies beneath.

Civilian suspects who died in custody, including at Maiduguri's notorious Giwa Barracks that has seen human rights groups accuse the military of flagrant abuse, also have their final resting place in Gwange.

The grave-diggers themselves recall being rounded up in the days when any young man was a Boko Haram suspect, particularly in Gwange, once a hotbed for militant sympathisers.

Now, as Maiduguri tries to overcome its turbulent recent past, the young men who have witnessed more than most the ultimate effects of the insurgency want some recognition.

"We work from morning to 6:00 pm before we shut the gates," said 25-year-old Ibrahim Abubakar.

"We work here and nobody cares to come around and even give us anything to buy food. This really hurts us.

"This is the largest cemetery in the city. The (state) government ought to give us some attention."