Boko Haram: War-torn Nigerian town shows devastating legacy

The scope of the horrors that took place in Gwoza, Nigeria, became apparent after the Islamist militants were driven out.

GWOZA, Nigeria — In the sprawling city that was Boko Haram’s headquarters, almost every building has been bombed or burned or looted.

Schools and homes are littered with abandoned explosives and weapons. A ditch is full of decomposing bodies, the hands of the victims tied behind their backs.

As Boko Haram is forced out of its strong holds in a multinational military operation, the scale of its brutality is being revealed. Now, the government will face the dual challenges of keeping the insurgents at bay while rebuilding entire cities. More than 1 million displaced Nigerians are waiting in makeshift camps and caves to see whether their country is up to the task.

In the years after Boko Haram emerged as a small band of militant Islamists, the group was able to slaughter and rape with impunity across northeastern Nigeria. It seized a constellation of cities and carried out targeted attacks in others.

Eight months ago, Gwoza became the command center for that rampage — the capital of the group’s self- proclaimed caliphate. The insurgents were driven out of the city in late March. Last week, the army took a few Ni­ger­ian and Western journalists to see what was left of the city — its horrors hidden from the world until now.

The military has been accused of conducting its own scorched-earth campaigns across Nigeria’s northeast in recent years. But most of Gwoza’s destruction — charred homes with the owners’ names still scrawled on the doors, cars riddled with bullet holes — was carried out by Boko Haram, according to residents. The damage is nonetheless difficult to attribute with precision.

When the insurgents took over the city last August, some fortunate residents were able to flee. But others were either raped or forcibly recruited by Boko Haram, according to residents and soldiers. At one point last week, as Nigerian troops drove through the city on a blazing afternoon, they pulled over in front of a group of boys and young men. They had been caught fighting with insurgents, the troops said, and were now prisoners. Some were as young as 12.

One man in his early 20s, Hassan Usman, said he was ordered to work as a mechanic for Boko Haram. He held up his arm. His hand had been amputated.

“How did this happen?” asked one soldier.

“They accused me of stealing fuel, and they punished me,” Usman said.

When Nigerian troops retook Gwoza after a lengthy firefight, they began sifting through what was left of the city, looking for clues that might help them better understand the mysterious insurgent group. They found weapons and tanks that appeared to have been stolen from their own bases. They saw Arabic scrawled on walls and signs, but with misspellings and grammatical errors that indicated the group’s Islamic education was limited.

Gwoza’s radio tower hangs over like it has been struck down by some natural disaster instead of intense firefights. (Jane Hahn/Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

“The number of mines was uncountable,” said Col. Oduware Irabor, the brigade commander in Gwoza.

Now, the once-bustling city of 275,000 looks as if it has been racked by a series of natural disasters. Homes have been burned and ransacked. Boko Haram has become known for its indiscriminate campaigns of burning and looting in the towns it seizes. In Gwoza, even the radio tower was somehow destroyed, so it droops downward like a dying plant. It was clear to the troops that although they had won the city, it was uninhabitable.

Still, just days after Boko Haram had been vanquished, residents started coming back. Within two weeks, there were hundreds of them, sleeping in makeshift shelters or what was left of their old homes.

Fatmata Samori Bombe, 40, fled Gwoza in November, after the group killed her only son. She remembers about 600 fighters controlling the city.

“They murdered the men and had their way with the women,” she said. “If they saw anything here that was good, they took it.”

When Bombe heard that Nigerian troops had reclaimed Gwoza, she came back. She went to her old home and saw that it had been ransacked. Even the city’s mosque had been destroyed, she noticed, in what appeared to be an airstrike.

The Nigerian military has been launching air attacks against the insurgents in