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Rumors Of Boko Haram Attack Send Nigerian Refugees Fleeing Again

Civilians who had just recently arrived in Yola prepare to flee again, this time in a large open-top truck headed to the city of Jos. (NPR)

As Nigeria's military continues to battle Boko Haram fighters for control of towns and territory in the turbulent northeast, fearful residents are leaving — or being driven out of town. More than 200 schoolgirls, abducted by the Islamist extremists in April, are still missing.

Hoisting the black flag of al-Qaida, the insurgents have imposed strict Islamic law in areas under their control, vowing to establish a caliphate.

The deadly insurgency has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, who are ending up in camps around Yola, the capital city of Adamawa, one of three northern states still under emergency rule. Concerned that Yola, too, may be attacked, others are again on the move.

A large open-top truck parked at a gas station on the outskirts of Yola is already overflowing with children and women. Men are hoisting more people, buckets, bundles and spare tires onto the back of the truck, amid much chatter and palpable panic.

The Rev. Ishaya Suno seems to be in charge, collecting money for the fares to Jos, 320 miles away in Nigeria's Middle Belt.

Suno and the dozens of men, women and children climbing onto the truck have been in Yola since late last month, when suspected Boko Haram insurgents seized the commercial border town of Mubi and nearby villages, further north along the border with Cameroon, after clashes with the Nigerian army.

The military says it's now in control of Mubi, but the displaced who found their way to Yola are not returning. Instead, they are fleeing further from their homes. Why?

"Yola is not safe. We are hearing rumors," he says. "Boko Haram, they prepare [to] come to Yola. We are afraid."

Clutching her baby girl in her arms, and poised to flee again, Liyatu Joshua, mother of five, just wants out of Yola. In a mixture of English and the local Hausa language, she says they they all are scared of the fighting — and of Boko Haram.

"Yes, we're leaving Yola, but we don't know what will happen, where we're going," Joshua says.

These anxieties are not limited to the displaced, says the Adamawa state governor's spokesman, Phineas Pwanohoma Elisha.

"It is definitely worrisome to the good people of Adamawa state. It's worrisome to the government of Adamawa state," he says. "There is no two ways about that."

But the military will not divulge its security plans, Elisha says.

Sort-of assurances from the governor's spokesman aren't enough to dampen the fears of Liyatu Joshua, The Rev. Suno and others, as they scramble to secure a standing-only place on the truck heading out of town to Jos.

Many Nigerians accuse the army — and the government — of failing to counter Boko Haram and end the insurgency. Mohammed Sanusi II, the emir of Kano and one of the nation's most revered traditional and Muslim leaders, this week called on residents in the north to arm and defend themselves — and to not rely on the military or fear the militants.

"Before the soldiers arrive, the terrorists would already have committed their crimes," says the emir. Speaking Hausa, he says some soldiers throw away their guns and flee.

"These terrorists slaughter our boys and abduct our girls and force them into slavery," he warns, adding that people should not sit by idly and think that prayers are the only solution.

"Be prepared, and acquire what you need to protect yourselves," says the emir, who was until recently Nigeria's central bank governor and an outspoken critic of the government.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Nigerian military continues to battle Boko Haram for control of towns and territory in the turbulent northeast. And fearful residents are leaving or being driven out of town. More than 200 schoolgirls who were abducted by the group in April are still missing. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced by the deadly insurgency ending up in camps around Yola, a city that is still under emergency rule. Concerned that Yola may too be attacked, others are again on the move as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been finding out.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: A large, open-top truck, parked at a gas station on the outskirts of Yola, is already packed full of children and women like cattle. More people, buckets, bundles and spare tires are being hoisted onto the back of the truck amid much chatter and palpable panic. Reverend Ishaya Suno seems to be in charge, collecting money for the fares to Jos, 320 miles away in Nigeria's Middle Belt, dubbed the gateway to the north.

REVEREND ISHAYA SUNO: These people from Mubi and Madagali - Boko Haram attack everybody there. They are killing people. And from here now we are going to Jos.

QUIST-ARCTON: Late last month, suspected Boko Haram insurgents seized the commercial border town of Mubi, in arid northeastern Nigeria's Adamawa state, after clashes with the Army. Reverend Suno and the dozens of men, women and children climbing on board the truck were chased out of Mubi and nearby towns. Mubi has since changed hands again. And the military says it's now in control of the town. The displaced found refuge here in Yola, the state capital, says Suno. So why are they leaving?

SUNO: We come to Yola and Yola is not good. Yola is not safe. Yola is not safe because we are hearing rumors Boko Haram - they are prepared to come to Yola.

QUIST-ARCTON: Clutching her baby girl in her arms and poised to flee again, Liyatu Joshua just wants out of Yola. In a mixture of English and the Hausa language, she tells me...

LIYATU JOSHUA: We are scared of this fighting, Boko Haram.

QUIST-ARCTON: Liyatu Joshua says we're scared of this fighting and Boko Haram. Yes, we're leaving Yola, but we don't know what will happen where we're going. I put their security concerns and fears about violence reaching Yola to the Adamawa state governor's spokesman, Phineas Pwanohoma Elisha, at his office in the city.

PHINEAS PWANOHOMA ELISHA: There is no two ways about that. It is worrisome, the number of displaced people in Yola, the swelling population of fleeing people in Yola.

QUIST-ARCTON: Elisha says the military will not divulge its security plans. Sort of assurances from the governor's spokesman aren't enough to dampen the fears of Liyatu Joshua, Reverend Suno and others as they scrambled to secure a standing-only place on the truck heading out of town to Jos.

SUNO: We want to go to Jos. We are afraid.

QUIST-ARCTON: You are afraid?

SUNO: Yes. We are afraid. We are going to Jos camp.

QUIST-ARCTON: Many Nigerians accused the army and the government of failing to counter Boko Haram and end the insurgency. One of the nation's most revered traditional and Muslim leaders, the Emir of Kano, this week called on residents in the North to arm and defend themselves. Muhammed Sanusi II says they should not rely on the military or feared the militants.

MUHAMMED SANUSI II: (Through translator) In fact, some soldiers throw away their guns and flee. And these terrorists slaughter our boys and abduct our girls, forcing them into slavery. Do not sit idly and think prayers are the only solution. Be prepared and acquire what you need to protect yourselves.

QUIST-ARCTON: But the desperate people on the truck to Jos in search of a new refuge are not waiting. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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