By Yusuf Hassan
Months after Nigerian militants swept through Baga, an investigation by Human Rights Watch reveals the details of perhaps the insurgent group’s most brutal attack to date.
Just before dawn on the morning of Jan. 3, Boko Haram fighters opened fire on a Nigerian army base near Mile 4, a small Nigerian village a few kilometers west of the town of Baga. Situated in the northeastern-most state of Borno, the base had been host to a multinational joint task force — which included troops from Niger and Chad before they apparently withdrew from the base weeks earlier — and served as a nerve center for the international response to the years-long Boko Haram insurgency. Despite this, the outpost was quickly overrun. As militants approached, the Nigerian army stationed in nearby towns scattered. The retreating troops, some of whom dropped their weapons as they fled, left members of a local defense group, the Civilian Joint Task Force, to defend themselves with machetes, locally-made guns, and homemade weapons as best as they were able.
Facing little official resistance, the militants, having overrun Mile 4, quickly made their way east to Baga. As fighters entered the town on foot or on motorbikes, they shot indiscriminately at unarmed civilians. The bodies of the dead littered the streets, witnesses told us.
Over the course of the next four days, from Jan. 3 to 7, Boko Haram fighters continued their brutal assault on civilians in Baga and the surrounding villages. When the first reports of the massacre surfaced in January, there were few confirmed details. Reports of the number of civilians killed ranged from a few dozen to thousands. In an apparent effort to dodge criticism in the aftermath of the attack, a Nigerian military representative quickly sought to downplay the number of dead claiming that there were no more than 150 fatalities, and discrediting higher figures as “misinformation” that could “embolden the terrorists and diminish the efforts of the security forces.”
Yet ongoing investigations by Human Rights Watch, which began in January, among others, indicate that Baga may have been the most deadly single massacre in Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency. The attackers slaughtered hundreds of civilians — possibly as many as 2,000 — burned homes to the ground, and abducted hundreds. This accounting of the events of those four days is based on more than two dozen interviews with refugees in Chad who witnessed the carnage firsthand. The survivors fled the violence in Baga, eventually making their way to Chad’s Dar es Salam camp, which hosts nearly 5,000 Nigerians. Further detailed investigations will be needed to document the full extent of Boko Haram abuses in and around Baga, but the information collected to date strongly indicates that they amounted to crimes against humanity.
The January attack was not the first targeting of civilians in the region. In fact, many refugees we spoke with had set up in Baga after fleeing their homes in earlier Boko Haram attacks and abductions. Fatima, 17, was one of many who described being relentlessly pursued. (The names of all the witnesses have been changed for security purposes.) Displaced from a neighboring town by the ongoing violence, she had moved to a family home in Baga, which she thought had a stronger military presence than many of the surrounding areas. The morning of the attack, she was working at a restaurant in town when dozens of men in camouflage fatigues and black headwraps raced through the town.
“My brother said we should stay, that [the militants] are coming to fight against the soldiers,” she recalls. “He said it was not a good time to run.”
Her brother was wrong. Cowering in a hiding place under a bed, Fatima listened as the fighters entered the house, killed one of her brothers, and abducted three of her sisters and two female cousins.
Boko Haram fighters rolled through Baga, systematically clearing the area and gunning down civilians as they were fleeing toward Lake Chad. (The lake, which straddles the border of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, as well as Nigeria, was a potential route of escape.)
“I got on a motorbike and saw people fleeing until I reached the water,” said a 42-year-old survivor who escaped with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. “The water and roads were full of bodies. They even killed my own brother. [Boko Haram] told the people to leave Baga and then they fired on them as they fled.”
After sacking Baga, Boko Haram fighters moved on to Doron Baga, a fishing village 5 kilometers to the east, torching homes and buildings as they went along. Satellite imagery acquired by Human Rights Watch revealed evidence of large-scale destruction in Doron Baga (otherwise known as Doro Gowon) covering approximately 57 percent of the four-square-kilometer town.
As the militants swept through the area, they corralled the fleeing villagers as they went, effectively trapping many of them at the edge of Lake Chad. At the shore, terrified civilians desperately tried to get on boats, to hide in the water, or find other ways to flee. Some managed to escape by boat, yet most weren’t so lucky. Boko Haram fighters patrolling the perimeter of the lake in vehicles fired on them, killing many. Witnesses described the bodies of “women, children, mothers with babies on their backs” floating in the lake as far as the eye could see.
“The number of killed near the water was uncountable,” said one survivor.
Over the next 4 days, Boko Haram fighters rounded up groups of women and other survivors who had sought safety in the surrounding villages. Mariam, 30, who was nine-months pregnant, was separated from her family during the attack. Boko Haram fighters abducted her along with scores of other women, 14 of whom she also knew. The women and girls were crammed into a villa in Baga guarded by Boko Haram fighters. In the evenings, fighters came to pick women and girls to rape — Mariam was chosen twice by the same fighter, who sexually assaulted her in a building away from the others. After 50 days of captivity, she and 40 others decided to try escape after Boko Haram fighters said they would all be forcibly married. Mariam and those who left with her got away. Many of the other women and girls remain captive.
Some of those who had sought refuge on the Chadian side of the lake were targeted again, weeks later, by the same assailants. Abdou and his family fled Doron Baga, to Ngouboua, Chad, where he thought the border would offer them some protection. But on Feb. 13, Boko Haram fighters attacked Ngouboua, burning down his house and hundreds of other homes and structures. When we visited Ngouboua in April, the village still showed the scars of battle, including burned vehicles, homes, and mosques.
“I was sleeping inside and found my house on fire and heard shooting,” Abdou said. “I have two wives and 11 children. We all fled. There were many houses burned in Ngouboua … I could hear someone say, ‘Burn this one,’ ‘Burn that one.’” The attack, which killed several people, was the first such assault by Boko Haram on Chadian soil.
After the Baga massacre, the Nigeria military suffered other setbacks before rebounding. On Jan. 25, Boko Haram militants extended their reach by capturing the town of Monguno and a neighboring military base, but Nigeria’s military repelled their assaults on Maiduguri and Konduga, 40 km to the southeast. After recapturing Monguno, the Nigerian military announced on Feb. 21 that it had retaken Baga after a fierce battle with Boko Haram. In recent weeks, Nigeria’s army says, it cleared 10 more camps used by Boko Haram in the northeastern part of the country. It also rescued hundreds of former Boko Haram captives from the Sambisa Forest, an area where Boko Haram had an important base.
Despite these gains, the government of former president, Jonathan has not arrest anyone for planning or participating in the massacre. So far Nigerian authorities’ only action has been to court martial some military officers for the loss of Baga.
There is a pressing need for justice in the northeast if the deadly cycle of violence is to end. The government should work to ensure that those responsible for the slaughter may one day be held accountable, either in Nigeria or before the International Criminal Court, which is already monitoring the country for crimes that may fall within its jurisdiction. But the abuses in the area are not limited to Boko Haram: Only two years earlier, in April 2013, the Nigerian security forces ransacked Baga after Boko Haram militants attacked a military patrol, killing a soldier. Community leaders told Human Rights Watch that they counted 183 bodies.
As Muhammadu Buhari takes over as president of Nigeria, ushering in what many hope will be a new era for the country, the real test will be whether accountability for serious crimes make it to the top of the new administration’s agenda. During his inauguration speech on May 29, Buhari committed to overhauling the military’s rules of engagement “to avoid human rights violations in operations” and to improve legal mechanisms so that “disciplinary steps” can be taken against individual members of the armed forces for proven violations.
These promises are an important first step. But for the people of Baga, as well as the thousands of others driven out by the relentless violence plaguing northern Nigeria, more than words are needed. Boko Haram continues to wage a brutal campaign in the northeast; in late May, the militants conducted a series of attacks over a three-day period, killing at least 42 people. In early June the group intensified its attacks in the country’s northeast, killing scores in a series of assaults and suicide bombings in Maiduguri and elsewhere. Meanwhile, most of the refugees who fled to the Dar es Salam camp have yet to attempt to return home. Put simply, six months after what many consider the insurgency’s most brutal massacre, justice and security remain as elusive as ever.