Nigerian soldiers in Borno State last year. The army has made progress in the fight against Boko Haram. CreditStefan Heunis/AgenceFrance-Presse — Getty Images
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — A wheelbarrow saved his life.
Sprawled across it, Babagana felt every bump, moaning in pain from four bullet wounds. Covered in his blood, his pregnant wife helped roll him across the Nigerian countryside to a hospital.
Somehow, Babagana survived the makeshift ambulance ride. More than 80 men from his village had been shot to death, he said, all of them forced to strip to the waist and lie face down. The gunmen then burned their small farming village before speeding away.
The attack fit the pattern of rampages by Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has killed poor people in this region for years. But Babagana and multiple witnesses to the attack in June, as well as another one days before in a neighboring village, say the radicals were not to blame this time.
Instead, they say, the massacres were carried out by the Nigerian military.
“They told us they were here to help us,” said a resident, Falmata, 20, adding that soldiers in uniform shouted for villagers to point out the Boko Haram members among them. When none were identified, the killings began, she and other witnesses said.
In recent months, the Nigerian military has made great headway in its war against Boko Haram, the radical Islamist militants terrorizing northeast Nigeria.
But the army’s aggressive sweeps to root out the remaining fighters have taken a toll on more than just Boko Haram. Witnesses are accusing Nigerian soldiers of killing unarmed civilians, as well.
Reports of civilian massacres have emerged in recent weeks as residents from areas previously sealed off by Boko Haram start to stream out.
“As more combatants from Boko Haram have been hiding within the civilian population, the line between who is civilian and who is not has been blurred,” said Agnes Bjorn, a manager for Plan International, an aid group. “It is, however, the responsibility of the Nigerian Army to protect civilians and clearly distinguish between civilians and combatants. Protecting civilians in war is part of international humanitarian law.”
The Nigerian Army has a long record of human rights abuses. In 2013, soldiers burned homes and opened fire in the village of Baga, killing as many as 200 people, survivors said. Civilians have complained for years of arbitrary detentions, torture and killing by soldiers. Worried about such abuses, the American government held up the sale of attack helicopters to the Nigerian military.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general elected on promises to defeat Boko Haram and stamp out corruption, pledged to clean up the abuses.
“We are guided by rules and guided by our transparency of operations,” said Brig. Gen. Rabe Abubakar, the director of defense information for the Nigerian military. He denied that the military was responsible for the massacres, contending that insurgents, “criminal elements” or cult members could be to blame.
Many observers give the president credit for pressing the campaign against Boko Haram and taking steps toward professionalizing the military.
Soldiers have pushed into forests that have long hidden Boko Haram fighters. New villages have been freed, and major roads have reopened. The army says it has scattered Boko Haram and encouraged many of the nearly two million people in Nigeria who have been uprooted by violence to go back home.
“What you find now is a collection of ragtags that are running from pillar to post,” Maj. Gen. Leo Irabor, the commander leading the fight against Boko Haram, said of the militants at a recent news conference.
In some areas, soldiers have treated sick residents, helped with food handouts and repaired wells. Here in Borno State, the center of the battle against Boko Haram, one commander even secured a film projector to host a movie night in a displaced persons camp, screening “Tom and Jerry” cartoons and movies in two local languages.
But allegations of abuse continue. The military has detained children and infants for weeks at a time after their families have escaped or been freed from Boko Haram territory. Huge detention centers have been set up to hold families until civilians with perceived sympathies for Boko Haram can be weeded out. Last month, the Nigerian military mistakenly bombed a displaced persons camp, killing at least 90 civilians.
Humanitarian workers for the United Nations said they had heard repeated complaints from civilians that the military had been evacuating villages and burning them to the ground. On a helicopter flight over the area, the blackened remains of small villages were clear.
Inside one enormous camp for displaced persons, on the grounds of an old science-theme high school, several residents said the military ordered them to leave their villages to carry out operations against insurgents.
Shortly after they fled, they said, their villages were set ablaze.
Salamatu Omaru, an elderly woman living in the camp with her sister, said the military told everyone in her village of Uruga to clear out three weeks ago. A relative sneaked back to check on their homes, she said, only to find them burned. Like most residents with similar complaints, Ms. Omaru was uncertain whether soldiers or insurgents were responsible.
But witnesses had few such doubts about the massacres last year in Marte, a dangerous region where military officials say operations against insurgents continue.
Residents acknowledge that Boko Haram had recruited fighters from the tiny villages in the area. Militants would also go to a market there to get fuel and meat. Last summer, soldiers killed three Boko Haram members in Marte and captured 11 others, recovering hand grenades and weapons.
A few days before the massacres in June, witnesses said, soldiers and local vigilantes surrounded the village of Ngubdori, a small farming community in the area. They rounded up all residents, including those out working in the fields, witnesses said.
Men were forced to remove their shirts, perhaps to reveal any weapons they might be hiding. They stood bare-chested before the soldiers, said Mallam, a 25-year-old man who complied.
Point out the Boko Haram members among you, soldiers told the residents, witnesses recounted. The villagers argued back, saying that none among them were insurgents.
“We told them we’d also been attacked by Boko Haram from time to time,” said Mallam, who, like several other witnesses, asked that his last name not be used to protect him from reprisals by the military. “But we had nowhere to go. Our farms were there, and we hadn’t yet harvested. Our livestock was there.”
At one point, two men stepped from inside their homes. The soldiers shot both of them, witnesses said. Seven other men came out of their homes and were shot, too.
“We watched so many of them killed like that,” Mallam said.
Then the soldiers turned their weapons on the crowd, gunning down 13 more men. The soldiers grabbed a canister of fuel, doused rags and set fire to all the grass huts before leaving.
“We separated the corpses from the ones who had not yet died,” said another resident, Zainaba, 42, adding that she lost six relatives that day. “All of our bodies were stained with blood.”
About four days later, a missile landed in the nearby village of Alamderi, announcing the arrival of soldiers.
“That was our first indication trouble was coming,” Babagana said.
He and a community official were just outside the village when they heard the missile, followed by gunshots, he said. The two returned with their hands in the air “to indicate our loyalty,” Babagana said.
But when they arrived, the soldiers were already burning homes. Everyone in the village had their hands up.
“Drop your hands,” Babagana recalled soldiers saying. “We’re here to fish out your Boko Haram.”
The soldiers gathered women and children to one side of the village and told them not to look back.
“I’ll show you who’s Boko Haram,” Babagana recalled one soldier saying before he picked men from the crowd and shot them. “I ask you again. ‘Who is Boko Haram?’”
The group pleaded with the soldiers, witnesses said. The soldiers made the men lie face down on the ground. They started shooting.
One woman, Fanna, said she and the other women secretly turned their heads toward the gunfire. “We wanted to know whose husband was being killed,” she said.
Babagana, lying with the men, said he tilted his head to see what was happening. But before he could get a clear picture, he was shot, too. The gunfire stopped, but soldiers noticed his leg twitching. They shot him again, he said.
The soldiers drove off in military vehicles, and women rushed to the bullet-riddled bodies of their husbands.
Maryam, 20, said she ran crying to her husband, Babagana. Others dug shallow graves. Corpses, many with bullet wounds to the head, were stacked in piles, but Babagana was still breathing. Maryam propped him up against a wall.
“I was praying for him,” she said. An hour passed before Babagana opened his eyes. He drifted in and out of consciousness.
Villagers from nearby poured into town once the gunfire stopped. Several took turns pushing Babagana for hours until they persuaded a vehicle to take them to a hospital. His medical records confirmed four gunshot wounds.
“We were all stained with his blood,” Maryam said.
The couple, along with other witnesses interviewed, now live in one of the most squalid camps for displaced people in Maiduguri, the biggest town in the state where Boko Haram is active.
General Irabor has promised that anyone harboring or helping Boko Haram would be ensured psychological counseling to help them understand they were “with the wrong people.”
But witnesses of the massacres in Marte say they had been victims of Boko Haram, not collaborators.
Last week, even the camp where they had taken refuge was set upon by nine suicide bombers from Boko Haram, the most coordinated attack in months. The witnesses stumbled upon the decapitated head of a girl, apparently that of a bomber, shortly before being interviewed for this article.
“We wanted to tell our story,” Zainaba said.
(c) New York Times 2017