Adam Mossiter, New York Times, February 5, 2015
They came in the dead of night, their faces covered, riding on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, shouting “Allahu akbar” and firing their weapons.
“They started with the shootings; then came the beheadings,” said Hussaini M. Bukar, 25, who fled after Boko Haram fighters stormed his town in northern Nigeria. “They said, ‘Where are the unbelievers among you?’ ”
Women and girls were systematically imprisoned in houses, held until Boko Haram extracted the ones it had chosen for “marriage” or other purposes.
“They were parking”–imprisoning–“young girls and small, small children, parking them in the big houses,” said Bawa Safiya Umar, 45, whose 17-year-old son was killed when her town fell under Boko Haram’s control. “They parked 450 girls in four houses.”
Refugees flocking into this besieged provincial capital describe a grim world of punishment, abduction and death under Boko Haram in the Islamist quasi state it has imposed in parts of northern Nigeria.
Mass open-air prayer sessions, conscription at gunpoint and occasional handouts of stolen food are the tools of its outreach, they say. Forced marriage, slavery and imprisonment are vital institutions in its way of life. And casually meted-out death–by shooting or beheading–is the punishment for men who refuse to join.
“They tied their hands behind their backs, said ‘Allahu akbar’ and cut their head off,” said Shuaibu Alhaji Kolo, 22, recounting how captured men were swiftly beheaded after the militants cried, “God is great.”
As Boko Haram terrorizes the area surrounding this city, as many as 400,000 people have fled to this island of tenuous government control.
The peril these refugees have escaped is pressing in on Maiduguri–the city has sustained three Boko Haram attacks in the past week and explosions can be heard here every night–providing a rare glimpse into the militant group’s dystopian vision of Islamist rule.
“You would see bodies everywhere,” said Yagana Kabani, 42, who stayed in the town of Bama for three months after Boko Haram took it over. “They killed many. They would take their money. They said it was infidel money.”
This week, Boko Haram insurgents were pushed back again by the Nigerian Army, thwarting another attempt to take Maiduguri. A regional military response involving the armies of neighboring Chad and Cameroon is underway to stem Boko Haram’s advances.
Many diplomats hope the outside intervention will finally shift the momentum in the faltering, six-year fight against Boko Haram, but the militants are resisting. This week, fighters from Boko Haram crossed into a border town in Cameroon, killing many more civilians, according to a Chadian military official.
Refugees described Boko Haram’s rudimentary attempts to win hearts and minds in the territory it captured. But even as it tried to administer the towns, the killing continued, with the group’s punitive impulses overriding all.
“After two weeks, they came back and killed him,” said Fatima Abdullahi, 26, whose husband was shot in front of her in the town of Bama. “They had told him to stay. Then, they just shot him,” she said, weeping. “They didn’t say anything.”
In another case, Boko Haram fighters returned from combat and grew furious at the sight of elderly men talking peacefully under the shade of a neem tree, so they simply opened fire on them, said Hauwa Abubakar, 24, who lived for six weeks under Boko Haram rule in Bama.
“They were angry,” she said. “They shot them.”
After charging into towns, Boko Haram would make attempts to bring residents to its side, materially and spiritually. Black flags would be hoisted on streetlights, and the proselytizing would begin.
“They started distributing property so that people would follow them,” said Hauwa Abubakar, recalling that Boko Haram gave out biscuits, rice and spaghetti that its fighters had looted from Bama’s market.
Other residents considered less useful to Boko Haram, mainly older men and children, were employed in menial tasks, the refugees said.
“They were using the old men to grind millet and corn,” recalled Ms. Kabani, adding that children were used for errands. “If they refused, they would beat them with a rifle.”
Even with troops from neighboring countries joining the fight, thousands of people still live under Boko Haram’s sway–with a deep unwillingness, the refugees said.
“Nobody helped them,” said Issa Bulama, who escaped from Damboa. “Everybody hated them. We hate them.”