Cutlass Supreme

When you go out looking for the Nigerian Taliban, bad things happen.

The Scene in Maiduguri, as captured by Seamus Murphy's offending camera.     Photo: Seamus Murphy

A HOT FRIDAY MORNING in August 2007 in the Nigerian trading town of Maiduguri. From the cramped backseat of a compact car, I squinted through the windshield, looking for a group of thugs who called themselves the Taliban. I'd come to Maiduguri, once a respected center of Islamic learning, to investigate the rise of a group of militants who terrorized locals for "protection" money and took their name from Afghanistan to try to shore up their power. I'd been here for three weeks with Irish photographer Seamus Murphy, but so far we'd struck out. All I saw through the windshield was hundreds of men teeming about, waiting for noon prayer to begin. I looked but couldn't find a single woman.

Our translator, Mohamed, a soft-spoken English teacher, had brought us to the market to change U.S. dollars into Nigerian naira. It wasn't a great idea to have two pink-skinned people in the market on a holy Friday, so we stayed in the car while Mohamed searched for the money changer. Seamus sat in the passenger seat, idly snapping photos. Having worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade, he was accustomed to throngs like the one surrounding our car, and so was I. Still, I felt claustrophobic as the midday sun rose.

I glanced out the window as Seamus took photos—click, click. What was he looking at? I saw nothing special.

Then, in the crowd, I noticed one man staring at our car. He strode up to the open passenger window. I glanced at our driver. He was half asleep, hunched over the wheel.

"Give me that film!" screamed the stranger, clad in his Friday whites. Seamus tried to explain that there was no film, but the man had never heard of digital cameras. He poked his head through the window. A crowd gathered behind him. Suddenly, six hands, then eight, reached into the car to snatch the camera; we held on against the tug of hands, gripping tightly as Seamus tried to reason with the men, murmuring quietly, as one might address a spooked animal.

That's what the mob felt like—a beast turning more agitated with each second. People began to rock the car, and then, in an instant, every man was suddenly armed with the long machetes Nigerians call cutlasses. Through the window I saw a sea of knives.

We are dead, I thought. The mob rocked the car but couldn't open the doors, because there were no exterior handles—a design flaw Seamus had been bitching about ten minutes earlier.

The crowd's rage moved like water. The bloodlust periodically petered out, then rose again in a wave, cresting over the car roof. Each breath felt like it took an hour. Mohamed appeared in the crowd. Men grabbed him.

"Please use your fists, not the blades," he pleaded before he disappeared beneath a hail of blows.

Our driver pushed his door open, climbed out, and ran away. But, perhaps in a twisted gesture of mercy, he left the keys in the ignition. Seamus grabbed them. The car swayed like a dinghy in a squall. Then, out of the crowd, a man in mirrored sunglasses appeared with a tiny, wizened elder.

"I'm a policeman!" Sunglasses screamed. The crowd continued to rock the car. Suddenly, another face appeared at the window.

"Move away from the car!" commanded a tall man in white. I could tell by his dress, by his small, white hat, that he had been on his way to the mosque.

Together, this religious teacher, the policeman, and the tiny old man—a community leader—pushed themselves against the windows, absorbing blows. It took all three to wrest our translator from his attackers. Then Seamus opened the door and all four men climbed into the car. The religious teacher took the wheel and nosed the car through the slowly dissolving mob.

We felt a bump in one of the front wheels as we drove off. When we reached a safe distance, we stopped to see what the problem was. One of our attackers had shoved a cutlass into the tire. The policeman told us we'd just met Nigeria's Taliban.

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