Trained to Kill: How Four Boy Soldiers Survived Boko Haram

When the boys of Baga think back to home on the shores of Lake Chad in northeastern Nigeria, they remember a life that was not hard on any human. At dusk, fishermen cast their nets in the lake’s blue-green waters, careful to avoid the spots where townspeople swam and washed. The next morning, men and boys — so many it would be impossible to count them all — would head back after prayer to retrieve them. Some ran “fast-fast” into the cold waters; others tread cautiously, readying their bodies for the chill and checking for objects hidden under the surface.

Each fisherman knew his net, marked with plastic ribbons and wood, by sight. The only mix-ups were intentional, when someone wanted to steal someone else’s fish. The boys knew the punishment for this: charms that could destroy your life, make a man lose his customers and shame him from showing his face in the town market. By 10 a.m., the boys walked through the encroaching Saharan sands to the mud-and-cement homes of Baga to see what their parents needed of them. Few went to school, and so by afternoon they mostly gravitated back to what they called “the riverside,” where they liked to go even if they had nothing to do at all.

Kolomi’s group gathered on the mud-and-grass banks beneath a shady tree. They called themselves Ajegunle, the name of a neighborhood in Lagos, though they didn’t know it at the time. They just liked the sound of the word. A-jeh-GOON-leh.They were jokers and pranksters and rode their bikes backward into trees and trained two brown dogs to hunt hares. They named the female Ramat, for Kolomi’s school, and the male Cena, after the American wrestler John Cena, whose colorful clothes flashed across the town’s TV screens.

Fannami, a small and bony 13-year-old with knotted muscles and big eyes rimmed with thick lashes, admired Ajegunle’s dogs from his house. How had they trained them so well? How did they sprint so fast when Kolomi called, only to stop short on their hind legs, as if ready to dance? Since his father had died, Fannami supported his family and was often home with his mother. He greeted Kolomi every time he passed; Kolomi, a short and handsome 12-year-old with a clever smile, waved back.

Neither boy spoke to Mustapha, though they knew the lanky teenager with narrow-set eyes, whose voice seldom rose above a whisper. His group built a shed to mark its territory and had a reputation — they smoked cigarettes and Indian hemp. Fannami and Kolomi knew that if Mustapha became angry, he would not forgive easily. Mustapha’s mother died when he was young, and he heard his father’s two other wives say cruel things to her before she passed. Years ago, his father was charmed, though Mustapha didn’t know why. He knew only that his father lost his provisions shop selling things like macaroni and soap and that he could no longer frequent the market. Eventually, he fell ill. Mustapha, 15, didn’t want that kind of trouble in his life. He avoided most people, except his best friend, Abba, who was a few years older. They told each other everything. When he was alone, he liked to walk to where the town elders gathered and sit close enough to eavesdrop. When he heard an inside joke, gossip or wisdom meant for their ears alone, it was as if he’d caught a secret.

Strangers rarely appeared at the riverside, but the boys remember when that started to change. Since they were small, they had heard about Boko Haram, which translates roughly as “Western education is sinful.” The group started out in the early 2000s as a peaceful protest movement 120 miles away in the state capital, Maiduguri. Its charismatic leader, Mohammed Yusuf, preached about ending endemic corruption through Shariah law and more equitably sharing the great oil wealth of Nigeria. He promised to end the poverty that plagued towns like Baga across Borno State, leaving villages without roads, electricity and water.

When Fannami’s mother heard the reports, she appealed to her sister. “Look at this man, saying ‘boko haram’!” she said. “Does that mean we should not enroll our children in school?” She was a kind and devout woman. She taught Fannami the Quran at home, and told him never to beg, never to gossip and always to try to forgive. She decided that she agreed with Yusuf. All along the riverside, people were talking: “Look, some genuine people have come-o to do the work of God.”

But in 2009, after years of rising tensions and occasional violence, Nigerian troops shot hundreds of Yusuf’s followers, captured him and turned him over to the police, who killed him in custody. Boko Haram went underground. Commanded by Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s former lieutenant, the group grew increasingly militant and began to attack security services and politicians in revenge for the killings. As the insurgency unfurled across the state, it did not miss Baga. One day, armed men on motorcycles killed a politician in the central market. Mustapha watched as nobody said a thing. This was a matter between the government and Boko Haram. It was then that the unknown men began to arrive at the riverside, guns slung over their shoulders, heads wrapped in turbans leaving only their eyes visible. They paid for the things they wanted and left. Sometimes Mustapha felt fearful of them, but he wanted to sell his fish, and the insurgents were customers — what was it his business?

Fannami was a 13-year-old fisherman when he was captured by Boko Haram.

Boko Haram grew bolder, and their words more threatening. They began abducting and killing innocent people in other towns — Muslim clerics, traditional rulers, Christians and teachers, anyone who opposed their ideology. The chatter on the riverside changed as well. Whatever hope the villagers had in the organization was washed away. Ah, there’s no sincerity in this thing, the people said.

Then one April day in 2013, the insurgents killed a Nigerian soldier in Baga. The Army retaliated by setting fire to the village. This had become a common military strategy — collective retribution and scorched earth — but no one had ever seen it on a scale like this. For two days, the earth shook and the land burned; many boys and their families hid along the riverside. When they came back, they learned some 200 people had been killed and 2,400 structures were destroyed — homes and market stalls turned to soot and ash. Villagers swore they saw soldiers throwing children into the flames. The people of Baga had no choice but to rebuild, but they no longer trusted the military, and they didn’t trust the insurgents. The boys learned to live in the between.

Kolomi was at Ajegunle’s tree with his friends. It was midday and the dogs were resting at their feet when the gunfire erupted. Ramat and Cena startled and began barking. Kolomi looked around — turbaned men stood blocking the paths from the shore to town. Boko Haram shot in the air. Some boys ran into the lake, but others didn’t react fast enough. The men aimed at movement. Many fell; many were brushed by bullets; Ramat was killed.

“Nobody move!” the men shouted. “All of you lie down and face down!”

The boys obeyed. No matter how old or how brave, Kolomi, Fannami, Mustapha and a tall 13-year-old named Zanna, whose group usually gathered nearby, lay with their faces on the earth, flat. The men tied their hands with rope. Anyone who protested was slaughtered with knives. From the ground, the boys could hear the sounds. The insurgents ordered them into waiting trucks.

It was crowded inside. There was too much heat and not enough air. After the trucks started moving, there was no stopping and no water. The sun moved across the sky. Some boys died, lying atop other boys, a tangle of sinewy adolescent limbs that moaned, shuddered and then grew still. The boys who survived stopped feeling. Maybe the sun set, maybe another kind of darkness descended, maybe twilight settled in, but they had stopped noticing. The trucks moved north along dusty roads. They bumped past clusters of thin-leafed neem trees, spindly acacia trees and the charred remains of other villages that Boko Haram or the military had destroyed.

Over the course of a four-day siege in January 2015, Boko Haram carted away the boys of Baga. No one knows exactly how many were taken, but by the end, it seemed as if almost every family was missing a boy or a girl. Virtually an entire town’s worth of children vanished. Across Borno State in that year, Boko Haram battered villages like Baga, ransacking, burning, looting, establishing control over territory or abducting people and taking them to their bases. From the parched northern border with Niger to the Sambisa Forest in the south, the insurgency seemed to know no bounds — Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria were not safe. Boko Haram was expanding its army.

The trucks eventually stopped in front of a traditional ruler’s palace, its high archways opening into grand rooms and sandy courtyards. When Fannami got out of the truck, it was dark — all he could see were more people, all of them marching into a great hall, where they sat. They tried to be quiet, but there were whispers.

“This room is hot-o.”

“We are hungry.”

“They want to kill us and you’re talking of such things?”

A young man next to Mustapha whispered to him: “Don’t you think these people want to kill us?”

“If they wanted to kill us,” Mustapha whispered back, “they would have killed us over there. Why would they suffer to bring us here?”

The remains of a primary school in Maiduguri bombed by Boko Haram in 2014.

GLENNA GORDON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Flashlight beams illuminated drawings, dark shapes on the walls. Geometric decorations aren’t uncommon on the walls of traditional palaces, but here Mustapha saw guns. Guns on the walls, guns on the insurgents.

The boys remember different greetings to their new life:

Zanna saw a big man with a turban who addressed them in Arabic. One abductee said they didn’t understand the language, and the big man cocked his gun, but instead of shooting, he laughed loudly. “You people will know your mistakes,” he said. “You have come to where you will enjoy your life.”

“It is God that chose you to be part of us to do the work of Allah,” Fannami heard. “So if you cooperate, we work together. If you don’t cooperate, whatever happens is left to you. We will train and equip you to go and kill pagans.” The people around him shouted, “Allahu akbar!” But Fannami didn’t join in. He was thinking of his mother, who would have been at home when the violence started — was she still alive?

“I am warning you people,” Mustapha was told, “anybody who disobeys any l