The boy who lived: surviving the scars of Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency

Almost left for dead when he was injured by a discarded bomb, Jonathan Gambo faces a long road to recovery. The teenagers fate mirrors that of Nigeria itself

On the day he lost his arm, Jonathan Gambo had been sent to gather firewood in the Nigerian village of Uba, where his parents worked as farmers.

His elder brother had been curious to unearth a chunk of metal and unwittingly passed him the bomb before instructing him to throw it away.

The device blasted off Jonathans hand and right arm up to the elbow. The bone in his leg was protruding and he was bleeding from multiple flesh wounds.

It backfired and cut my hand immediately; I felt dizzy and everything became a blur, and then I fell down, remembers Jonathan.

His body was so blackened by the charcoal dust from the explosion that police who attended the scene declared him dead.

north-east Nigeria

But the barely conscious 12-year-old overheard them talking and was able to force open his eyes. He even managed a smile to show he was still alive.

A policeman tied my hand with a scarf and took me to the hospital, he recalls.

Some soldiers followed us and explained everything to the doctors. The other hand that was cut off by the bomb was buried.

It is a story repeated in conflicts the world over one of the innocent people accidentally maimed or killed by casually discarded ordnance. In this case, the culprit was a bomb left behind after a Boko Haram raid.

In north-east Nigeria, where progress to defeat the Islamist militant group is finally becoming apparent, it is a reminder that, even after the violence dissipates, the recovery process will be long and hard.

Two years on from the accident Jonathan, now 14, is back at school but it has not been an easy journey. Following the incident his family relocated from their village to the town of Yola. The move, which meant the youngster could undergo a series of major operations, came at a cost to the familys farming livelihood.

Before this incident I was very happy with my mum, we even had a farm and my mum bought a cow, Jonathan says. My elder sister got married and went to her husbands house. There are a lot of things I could do before that I cant do now, like farming.

His mother, Killu, describes how she struggled at first to secure adequate medical treatment for her son.

What happened to Jonathan was tragic, she says. He had stitches all over his body, the bone on his leg was out. I was thinking he wont make it alive. The facility in Mararaba Mubi [near Uba] is very poor. There was no bedspread on the bed, just a polythene bag.

The incident affected Jonathan a lot because there is lots he cant do, but he is trying his best. He writes with his left hand, climbs tree with one hand, hes brilliant.

Given his life-changing injury, it seems incongruous to describe Jonathan as among the more fortunate children living in north-east Nigeria.

But this is a region where youngsters are routinely snatched for use as child soldiers or suicide bombers by Boko Haram, which has killed thousands and displaced 2.3 million people since launching its violent insurgency in 2009.

The injured face a future as beggars on the street in Adamawa state, where poverty and illiteracy levels are among the highest in the country.

Jonathan, who attends a private primary school run by the church, is lucky enough to be getting an education.

His day starts at 5am, when he lifts weights with his left arm before walking to school.

He is catching up on lost time and attends classes with peers two years his junior. Doggedly determined, he has not once been late or missed a class, and has learned to write using his left hand.

I want to become a lawyer, he says. My favourite subjects are mathematics and English. I want to complete my education and stay with my mother. I want to study, because education is good and anybody that studies will find it easy to get employment.

His story is representative of the region he calls home: there is light at the end of the tunnel, but still a long way to go.

Last year Boko Haram began fracturing into two splinter groups, with one faction moving away from the Islamists established figurehead Abubakar Shekau.

The group led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi broke off after Shekaus refusal to adhere to guidance from Islamic State, to which the militant group pledged allegiance in 2015.

The division has left the warring factions weakened and Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari has boasted that recent progress has left the militant group technically defeated.

But the Nigerian army has a history of embellishing its victories over the terrorist organisation while underestimating its own losses.

Elizabeth Donnelly, deputy head of the Africa programme at Londons Chatham House, says it is not yet clear how the dynamics between the two factions will play out.

The Al-Barnawi faction at the moment is less deadly but that is because it is newer, she says. We dont yet know what that faction will evolve into.

In many respects Boko Haram is a known quantity in terms of tactics and the pressures it is under evidenced by the forced recruitment and deployment of women and girls as suicide bombers.

However, she adds: This is an embattled group that is trying to survive and because of that it certainly remains vicious.

Amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear: big questions remain about how to recover and make progress in a region that, in common with Jonathan and many others like him, will always carry the scars of conflict.

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