Police officer Nwoke Babayi (real name withheld for protection purposes) had barely spent two days at the famous Gwoza Police Training Camp in Borno State when Boko Haram insurgents struck with a deadly force on August 20, 2014, at about 2pm. A traumatised Babayi shared his ordeal with Leadership's Agbo-Paul Augustine.
With no knowledge of the environment, he was forced to defend himself against a resolute force, out to annihilate the hundreds of policemen stationed at the camp. He had barely laid his head on his pillow to rest when the camp’s rapid alert whistle sounded. They were under attack from Boko Haram.
His days as a Gwoza Camp attendee were abruptly over. To save his life, he slid on his belly like a snake through the gutters and on to the bush, where several other policemen had already run to, most of them wearing only their shorts.
How did you stay out of harm’s way when Boko Haram invaded the police camp?
I crawled, with my bare chest against the ground, to the camp’s fence and scaled the fence to the farmland behind. I met some of the senior officers half naked and without ammunition. We then ran past some villages before sleeping somewhere, enduring all insect bites overnight in the bushes.
Tell us what you saw on arriving Gwoza Camp?
I arrived Gwoza Camp on August 18 2014 from my base, in one of the two trucks that drove my squadron to the camp. The camp looked like any other camp I had visited, but on entering the place, I noticed that the Quarter Guard had been burnt. I was told Boko Haram insurgents burnt it in an earlier attack on the camp.
I saw one armoured personnel tank, two trucks besides the two that brought us and one anti-riot water truck. Two instructors each were stationed in beats to secure various parts of the camp.
The camp had a large dormitory housing all trainees, usually on a double bunk with each carrying a 6-spring mattress. The camp has electricity supply and a reservoir where we source our water needs.
The first day I came to Gwoza, they served us beans with no meat or fish and for lunch, rice and beans with nothing either, but most of the trainees rely on the popular commandant market within the camp for alternative meals.
Tell us what happened at August 20, 2014 in Gwoza camp?
On that fateful day, we were ordered to all submit our rifles and arms before heading for the routine training. After the morning jogging that ended at about 9am, we went for our breakfast and about 11am, I noticed a fighter jet flying over the camp and later another flew over us again.
After breakfast, we went to our various classes for lectures and at 1pm we were asked to go for lunch. Instructions later came that all of us should take a rest till 4pm, before another session of training. I took advantage of the break to have my hair cut before taking rest.
I got to the hostel and took off my clothes, leaving me with only knickers on and suddenly, I heard the camps rapid alert at 2pm. Information reaching us said something was happening and we should assemble for instructions. Before I could come out of the hostel, the camp’s armoury had been overwhelmed by officers desperately trying to collect their arms. In spite of the difficulties, I was able to grab my rifle.
As I was leaving the armoury, the Boko Haram armoured tank had already penetrated the main gate and the insurgents were shooting sporadically around the camp church. People were running for their lives, especially those who couldn’t get arms as pandemonium ensued.
What did you do afterwards?
I just took cover inside the gutter and started crawling amidst intense gun firing. While inside the gutter I fired seven shots, hitting the Boko Haram tank, but they were well guided. When I looked up to check my back, I realised my colleagues had disappeared, leaving me alone. I thought all of us would pin-down and engage the Boko Haram invaders.
After realising others had run away and the firing from the insurgents was intense, and knowing too that I alone cannot stand them with my AK-47, I decided to stop shooting to avoid attracting them to me. I just laid in the gutter and started crawling towards the nearby bushes.
Where was your camp commander at that time?
As soon as the rapid alarm whistle was blown, I did not see the camp commander, because there was little time for comprehension. I only saw officers and men running in confusion amidst gunfire.
Meanwhile, as we were running, other fleeing policemen joined us making 23 in the bush. At about 5am the following day, we heard a prayer call from a village. We then decided to nominate three men to go and spy the village, if it is safe for us. They went and met a pastor who led them to the village head. We were later invited all to come out of hiding. The pastor and the village head bought some snacks for us and assisted us to Mubi town in Adamawa State. The villagers assisted us with a few clothing before we left for Mubi. It was at Mubi that some female police officers went home to get some clothes for those of us without clothes on.
How did you get from Mubi to your base?
Those of us that finally converged at Mubi were from various units of MOPOL. We came from four different units. On the second day of our escape, our various unit commanders made arrangements with a transport company, in which a luxury bus conveyed us to our various units.
Any word from force headquarters after your return to base?
Apart from our squadron commander that addressed us after we came back, we have not heard anything from Abuja. I went to Gwoza with three sets of uniform and came back with none. The police only gave me a beret without uniforms afterwards. I had to buy another uniform with my money.
I lost the pocket money and other valuable items I took to the camp in the process of escape. The worst of all is that we were told that the cost of transportation from Mubi to our base will be shouldered by us. They told us that it will be deducted from our salary.
After going through that horrifying experience, how do you feel about being a policeman?
I can’t say I am happy, as I continue to live with the trauma of a near death experience. In spite of the challenges, I will still be in the police force and hoping that our situation will improve one day.