Fati Abubakar: Touching portraits of life after Boko Haram

CNN  — 

Fati Abubakar knew something was wrong when a local preacher started to draw larger crowds with his outspoken rhetoric.

The place was Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno State, and the man in question was Mohammed Yusuf, the late leader of Boko Haram.

Eight years on and the militant Islamist cell has become the deadliest terror group in the world. Boko Haram has unleashed wave after wave of brutal attacks across northern Nigeria, bombing schools, churches and mosques, kidnapping women and children and assassinating politicians and religious leaders alike.

In 2014, the last available year of figures, Boko Haram was responsible for 6,644 deaths according to the Global Terrorism Index. It was a number widely reported, but it only tells a fraction of the story.

Abubakar is doing her best to make up for that.

After the bomb blast

War has many terrible consequences. One of them is that it reduces human lives to statistics. Thousands have died at the hands of terror in Nigeria, though many times more have lived – and are still living – through it.

Abubakar is one of the survivors. During the ongoing insurgency, she has lost neighborhood friends and her mother’s best friend was shot. Her family were forced to relocate for a time due to the hostilities. Remarkably, Abubakar maintains that she has not been directly affected by the conflict. Her story, she argues, is nothing compared to others.

She should know. Abubakar has made it her mission to document the lives of the people of Maiduguri, finding both deep trauma and steely resilience along the way. Her Instagram and Facebook series, “Bits of Borno,” explores the lives of those who have been touched by the unrest.

“The (media) focus has been entirely on the bomb blasts, the deaths and the displaced,” she says, and though she concedes that those are not unimportant subjects. She adds “I feel there’s less focus on anybody left… I wanted people to see after the bomb blast, who was left behind.”

With her camera, Abubakar has patrolled Maiduguri for the last six months seeking out personal stories and captioning her images accordingly. So far she estimates she has taken about 1,000 photographs, only some of which have found their way online.

Her lens has captured schoolchildren and grandmothers, vigilantes and merchants, all with a story to tell. People like Alhaji Bukar Tijjani (above), who complains that business has slowed since trade connections with Niger, Chad and Cameroon closed. Mohammed (below), like others Abubakar has met, is putting his trust in Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, and believes change is already at hand.

“I ask them about what has happened, how they are coping, just very normal questions,” she explains. However with Maiduguri’s newest residents “it’s usually the same stories that keep occurring. People who have lost family, people who have lost parents,” she says, trailing off.

‘This Boko Haram era must end’

Maiduguri has seen an influx of internal migrants, particularly from surrounding villages says Abubakar. Not that the state capital is a safe haven. In 2015, militants attempted to overrun the city, and last month, two female suicide bombers disguised as men blew themselves up at a mosque, killing 22 people. The residents are surviving, but their plight is compounded by other issues.

“(People) have lived through terror, but still cannot cope because the economy is bad, they have health issues, (or) they cannot afford to live here,” Abubakar argues. “I think it takes its toll across the region.”

Bulama Mustapha is one such person who has fallen on hard times. Though he shares his compound with 100 other residents, he is the traditional leader.

“We sell charcoal to pay the rent. It’s 1,000 Naira ($5) a room per month and the landlord has started saying there will be an increase in rent to 3,000 Naira ($15). Most of us might end up being evicted,” he says.

Others in less desperate situations are steeling themselves to take on the insurgents. Modu Aji, vice president of the Civilian Joint Task Force, says the government has provided his team with resources to “liberate Borno State.”

“In the past you wouldn’t go two hours without running from a gunshot, a bomb blast, a perceived threat or hearing about death,” he says. “But we sacrificed ourselves and decided to make sure we find the terrorists and hand them over to the authorities… We are aware of people who don’t like our activities because the insurgency aids them in a way, but we don’t care. This Boko Haram era must end.”

Abubakar says that while some are hesitant to be photographed, many find sharing their experiences cathartic. “Although I find a lot of sad stories, I think you can still find a lot of different narratives,” she says, suggesting her series “shows how people are continuing.”

“I think that people become stronger after war; they’re not exactly as traumatized,” she argues. “People truly bounce back.”