Mohammad Mohammad (19) and Yusuf Mohammed (20) (pictured above with Shanta Premawardhana and Abare Kallah) came to OMNIA's very first community gathering in Gombe City in May 2016. They were Boko Haram fighters. But they came seeking the community’s forgiveness and reconciliation.
Mohammad described what they did and their motivation in a blood curdling video.
If they refuse to believe in our religion, you can come and put them in a room and put a fire. I too... I use fire in some rooms. That means I kill a lot of people inside that room. Many children. There were a lot of children and old people in that place. If you kill any person you will feel happy because you are a special person in the hereafter. If you are not a member, even a Muslim, you are not a true believer. If you didn’t believe with Boko Haram you are not a believer. Your blood is allowed to shed.
Mohammad and Yusuf spent three years with Boko Haram. 70% of young people in Gombe State are unemployed. Boko Haram gives money and lures young people with promises of employment and opportunity. They got caught in that trap. Once you are in, there is no way to get out. If you run away and Boko Haram catches you, they’ll kill you, and you can’t go home because in your community are family members of the people you’ve killed, and they’ll come after you.
From time to time, Boko Haram fighters went on raids of villages. As Mohammad said in the video, both Muslims and Christians were fair game. If you did not “convert” to the Boko Haram version of extremism, you are liable to be brutally murdered. If there was a high value target, they were kidnapped and held for ransom. Christians were particularly good targets for this because, they believed that Christians were connected to Europe and the US, and therefore had access to money. The raids and the kidnappings were what provided the fighters with money and food to survive in the jungle.
One day, the raid included the two boys’ village. As they were ransacking the homes of their neighbors and relatives, the commanders told them to go to their own homes and kill their parents. Something snapped inside the two boys. They decided that they would run away. They knew that if they were caught, it was certain death for them. But they simply couldn’t carry out their command, and if they stayed, they would be killed anyway. So, they ran.
Their running ended in a rehabilitation camp in Gombe. Government run rehab facilities are also correctional facilities, like prisons, but with a focus on re-integrating them back into society. It takes a certain maturity for society to understand that these kids were also victims of Boko Haram, as were those they raided or killed. This is where Rev. Abare Kallah found them in 2016.
A year prior to that, Boko Haram had undertaken one of their more infamous plans, the kidnapping of 275 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok in Borno State. “Bring Back Our Girls” became a world-wide campaign when First Lady Michelle Obama publicly participated in it. Many people know of Boko Haram only because of that incident. Rev. Abare Kallah, in addition to being Nigeria’s National Coordinator for OMNIA was at the time also the Chairman for the Northeastern Zone for the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). In this role, he participated with a group of religious leaders to negotiate with Boko Haram. As a result, they were able to free 82 ofthose girls.
That year, when Abare was in Chicago, he was invited to an interview with WGN TV’s Evening News.
Many thought we were crazy to go to Gombe. It was dangerous. Boko Haram operatives were embedded in the villages. The State government provided a security detail with police escort for us and a full-time security agent following us at all times.
Our first training there was an impressive gathering of about 70 participants that included Traditional Rulers, politicians, NGO leaders, imams, pastors and people of faith. It also included the two young men – Mohammad and Yusuf.
This was a cathartic moment for the two young men. In the presence of the community’s elders, they came forward and confessed to their crimes. They begged for another chance, knowing full well that the group could easily turn against them because of what they had done. Miraculously they didn’t. Some mothers wept. A Traditional Ruler stood up and addressed the meeting. The boys themselves are victims. They had been punished enough. Now they need to be welcomed back into society, he said.
The two boys asked if the community would help them to build a business. They thought organizing a barber shop would be a good option for them. As the business grows, these two Muslim boys agreed that they will hire Christian boys to assist them so that their work force would demonstrate their interreligious commitment.
We were just starting our Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. Wisely, Rev. Abare Kallah appointed a group of businessmen to create an IP Team around the two boys, who paid the rent for the store-front Barbershop and for setting up the equipment. Soon they were in business.
Inspired by their story, two young ladies, Grace Williams and Rahila Barnabas both Christians, who participated in our early trainings, decided that they will start a sewing shop, which later morphed into a catering business. But they made a commitment to hire Muslim young ladies to help them as their business grows. At a recent meeting, Rahila testified that their business is going well. There are many others like them.
The barbershop too is going well. It is providing a useful service and making money. Mohammed decided to go to university, and true to their promise, Yusuf hired a Christian to help him. The IP Team suggested that they create an apprentice program and train other young people, which they did.The apprentices went out and started Barbershop businesses of their own. Today, there are 5 barbershop franchises in Gombe, and they are thriving.
Mohammad and Yusuf are among the top leaders of IP Teams. Rev.Kallah adds: “They are actively involved in converting violent extremism in the City of Gombe. They risk their lives, sometimes engaging in bodily confrontations with extremist preachers. They are inspiring leaders.”