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 law here, we will slaughter him like a ram.”

Mustapha watched an older man rise to his feet. “What you people did was wrong!” he said.

The big man was silent. A younger insurgent strode over to him. “You’re the one who wants to drag with the authority?” he asked and brought out his knife. He pierced the old man’s stomach and sliced his throat. The elder’s body fell heavily on those seated around him. The insurgent ordered two others to remove the head.

The boys sat in the hall all night. The insurgents passed out handfuls of dates and some water. Maybe the food and drink were charmed, for no one could sleep. Mallams back in Baga charmed water by writing a bit of the Quran on a wooden board and washing the ink into a bowl for people to drink. The next morning, the insurgents crammed the boys into the palace rooms, 30 to 50 in each. It was hot inside, and they were not allowed to open the windows. All they had were a few straw mats scattered on the floor. Boko Haram fed them a plate of rice once a day. They were told nothing, left alone with their fear and their whispers.

A week later, the insurgents opened the doors and told the boys they should get moving. Weapons training was starting. They were taken in trucks through Malam Fatori — a commercial town on the border with Niger ringed by smaller villages, some 50 miles from Baga. They noticed that houses here were separated by farmland and trees, not packed together like back home. When the boys looked out, they could make out villages even half a mile away. At a primary school, the insurgents divided them into three groups and distributed turbans and guns.

When he first got to Malam Fatori, Zanna saw an abductee shout the name of someone he recognized. The insurgents shot the man he called to. “Anybody that identifies anybody, we’re going to kill that one who is identified,” they told them. So the boys became deaf and mute. They learned to communicate with their eyes.

The instructors taught them how to shoot an AK-47, load ammunition and aim at targets. They learned that if they wanted to kill the enemy instantly, they should shoot the head, chest or stomach, but if they wanted to bring him to the camp and dismember him, they should shoot the hands or the legs. They were better fed during training. Three times a day female captives prepared food for them like biski, a local dish of ground cornmeal, with meat or vegetable soup. They were also given dates and water. The water was murky. So the boys continued to wonder if it was charmed. Otherwise, why would they start feeling so strange after they drank it? They became seriously interested in learning how to be like those people.

Kolomi was 12 when he and his friends were herded by Boko Haram into trucks and forced to become soldiers.

GLENNA GORDON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

Zanna felt so strong he imagined he could lift the big man and throw him.

Mustapha wasn’t sure he felt anything at all.

At first, those in Mustapha’s group shot bags of sand, but later, the insurgents marched out eight or nine people they had sentenced to death. They told Mustapha’s group to form a U around them. The group raised their guns. Mustapha took aim at one of the men; he was light in complexion, tall and slim. When the instructors said, “Shoot!” Mustapha fired. He moved his gun to a second man and shot him too, then he trained his gun on the third. He was sure he was the one who killed the first man, but he didn’t know if he killed the second. Today, when Mustapha thinks of all the men he has killed, he cannot remember. He can only recall the ones he started with.

The eight-year conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian state has killed more than 20,000 and displaced millions. The people have slipped out of Boko Haram’s control quietly by night or trudged en masse from a large-scale attack to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. It was not until parents started pouring into the city that aid workers realized a new dimension of the problem. They saw the crowds of women and girls coming in and wondered: Where are the boys? No one knows exactly how many boys have been taken, though estimates number up to 10,000 — a stolen generation. “If we want to go back and try to maybe compute the demographics before Boko Haram, I am sure that we can arrive at some reasonable estimate,” Geoffrey Ijumba, Unicef’s chief field officer in Maiduguri, told me. “But that will only be an assumption — this is not factual. The only thing that is factual is that the boys are missing.”

Like many armed groups, Boko Haram uses a variety of methods aimed at changing an abducted child’s identity and breaking their bonds to home, making any return to their old life extraordinarily difficult. This is an intellectual and emotional separation that surpasses the physical one. As the group steadily escalates a child’s participation in violence, they are resocializing them. Training breaks a child’s will, and the first kill is a kind of baptism. Ritual becomes important. Charms and magic reduce guilt. Killing becomes normalized. The more gratuitous the violence — gang rape, ceremonial sacrifice, mutilating and murdering neighbors or family members — the harder it becomes to contemplate returning home.

“Over time, this strains the children’s ability to cope and to stay true to their civilian identity,” says Michael Wessells, a professor in the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University. “Many children engage in this strategy of splitting — technically the term would be ‘disassociation.’ ” Disassociation is akin to being torn in half — children see or feel the atrocities they commit like surreal dreams. This allows them to exist in a state somewhere between their previous selves and the reality of their new life.

“There is not much choice,” Helle Harnisch, a Ph.D. fellow at Dignity, the Danish Institute Against Torture, told me. “They have to change their ways, or they will get killed.” Harnisch has spent five years researching the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda — one of the more infamous groups to use child soldiers. “It is simple: Either I do this, or I die.”

Over three weeks this winter, I spoke with 25 children across Borno State. And while it’s true that the world of a child combatant is a powerless one, the children all made small calculations in how to go about surviving. They stole moments of agency. I met one 16-year-old girl who was forcibly married three times. When her second “husband” told her he was going to Bama, the town she was from, she made a snap decision to pretend she was in love with him. She smiled at him for the first time and asked him to pass a message to her mother. He did so twice until he was killed.

Some boys lived in two dozen tarpaulin tents in the bush, others in entire occupied towns, like Malam Fatori. Some were kept inside houses for the whole of their abduction and lectured on Boko Haram’s ideology. Others were given jobs, from logistical to tactical. One boy was given a bicycle to deliver tea around the camp all day. Some looted, loading trucks with pilfered village goods, searching dead bodies for jewelry and cash. A boy who had finished the fifth grade was called by the top emir of his camp to be his personal satellite-phone assistant. The emir was illiterate, so the boy was responsible for saving numbers and reading the caller ID aloud. Another drove a motorcycle to and from wells, bringing water back to the camp. Abuar, who told me he was 16 though he looked no older than 13, was given the job of feeding an antiaircraft gun mounted on the back of a Toyota HiLux pickup truck. At times, Abuar had to trail behind fighters with a bag of spare magazines, throwing them cartridges once they expended their ammunition. Another boy I spoke to carried petrol drums for militants to raze villages.

Abuar told me about a strategy that his commander employed: When facing the military, small boys in his unit, called “new catch,” were ordered to lead the advance, shooting wildly. Behind them marched captured herdsmen, driving their cows and rams. Senior insurgents, moving on foot or in vehicles, brought up the rear. The insurgents noted the number of dead animals as they passed. “The number of animals dying determined the strength of the military’s shooting and whether the insurgents would continue to come with us or they would run back,” Abuar explained. I asked why they counted the dead animals and not the dead children. “They don’t count our corpses,” he explained, “because the belief is human beings may dodge or may hide to avoid bullets, but animals are just moving. They’re easier killed.” At the end of the operation, he told me, the insurgents “would gather the dead animals along with the corpses of the new catch, set them ablaze and go away.” A pile of dead cattle and small boys on fire.

Custom House, a camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria, for people displaced by the conflict with Boko Haram, has more than 9,000 residents.

GLENNA GORDON FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

After the training ended, the boys were taken back to the palace in Malam Fatori. The largest building was used as the private quarters of the leader, or babban emir, but there were other structures, too — a labyrinth of spaces for purposes the boys did not know. Gathered in the sandy courtyard, the babban emir stood before them with his two subordinates, whom the boys called the second emir and the third emir. Tall and mature, the babban emir wore a traditional white jalabiya and cap. Mustapha wasn’t sure how old he was, no more than 30. The babban emir divided the assembled boys. Kolomi was sorted into the third emir’s unit and told to get up and follow his new leader. Mustapha and Zanna, bigger and stronger, were assigned to guard the babban emir’s palace.

Zanna took a post at the back side of the palace with 20 others. He tried not to talk to anyone — it wasn’t safe. Every day, from the time of his abduction through his training, he prayed in his heart for a chance to escape. Mustapha, too, was afraid, but more, he was confused. This was a problem with no solution. No help was coming. What to do?

The rhythm of camp life enveloped the new abductees. Activity was concentrated around the palace, everyone working to fortify the heart of the base against the Nigerian military, which periodically probed their defenses, trying to retake Malam Fatori. Boko Haram had declared itself a caliphate and pledged its alliance to ISIS. A tug of war for the arid earth had ensued. Every morning, the deputy emirs, whose units lived in the surrounding villages to protect the center, would come to greet the babban emir, entering his building for a private audience. Directives from Shekau may have been conveyed by satellite phone. There was coordination with the other babban emirs as well, but the boys of Malam Fatori never interacted with neighboring fiefs. Though Boko Haram was hierarchal, it was also fragmented, each division preoccupied with ensuring its own survival.

In the morning, groups set out on patrol in their trucks, checking the areas around Malam Fatori for traces of movement overnight — new tire prints, footsteps or animal tracks. Mustapha would quietly accompany the insurgents on patrol. He wanted to see how everything worked. Throughout the day, women who had been captured from nearby towns cooked food, which the insurgents ate from communal troughs. At night, the boys could sleep in any room in the palace compound, so long as it wasn’t in a room where women were kept. They barely prayed, and no one knew what day it was — only Fridays stood out, because on that day, they were fed rice with meat stew.

Mustapha again drew close to those who whispered. This was not a place to isolate yourself. He noticed the senior insurgents didn’t like people who didn’t have action. Those without action are lazy. When they talk, they cannot command, so they cannot send fear into someone. Men of action, however, were free to go where they wanted: to the market, to the tarred road outside the camp, even to other Boko Haram-controlled villages, where they could stay overnight.

One night after dinner, Mustapha was sitting in a room with the guards, reflecting on his problem. Boys chatted lazily by torchlight. There was no solution. No help was coming. What to do? If you do not put in effort, they will not draw you close. You will just be among those that they could do without. He turned it over again. What to do? Look, Mustapha told himself, if I want to get out of this place, let me obey whatever they say. Let me do as they want. Is it not by cooperating with them that I can get my freedom? If I want to survive here, let me just be doing what they like. When they notice that, they will trust me. No, more, let me do what will earn me commendation.

Mustapha started looking for his chance.

After weapons training, Fannami was taken to a village on the outskirts of Malam Fatori to join his unit. Their leader, the second emir, was fat and well kept, his house cooled by an air-conditioner powered by a generator. He told his new recruits that they were the Special Forces, a strike force for dangerous missions. Fannami learned his group did not accept anyone older than 15. They didn’t want people who would be thinking about their family. “We want people who when they are determined to do something, they will just go ahead and do it,” their emir told them.

A second round of training began. The boys in his unit were taught how to climb trees and lay ambush on soldiers, how to counter military attacks, how to use a rocket launcher. They now learned to work different types of bombs — heavy ones that could be exploded by remote control, others they threw by hand and some they buried in the ground for vehicles.

Training took place every day in an open field. As they practiced, instructors circled them in a kiriku, a small armored tank not much bigger than a car. The kiriku dropped bombs on the ground, unleashing heavy booms. The explosions initially scared Fannami, but he grew used to the sound. They learned to drive the kiriku, as well as cars and motorcycles. They were taught how to arrange themselves in the trucks for operations: The front seat was for those people who killed without a second mind; the rest piled into the back.