Inside Boko Haram’s citadel of death

The Sunday Times

FOR the people of Gwoza, the first sign that the assault on their town was unlike any other came three days after it fell, when corpses began to appear in the streets.

As the men hid, their women brought news that Boko Haram fighters, some clad in combat fatigues, were going door to door, searching for males of fighting age.

From his hiding place in his house Abbas Aga, 56, heard a knock on the door and voices asking his wife whether there were men inside. His wife said they had all left, but the fighters came in anyway.

They found Aga and five others, including a 15-year-old boy, cowering in one of the rooms, dragged them outside and forced them to lie down on their stomachs in the dust.

Aga kept muttering an Islamic prayer until the militants ordered him and another older man to stand. A tall, lanky fighter wearing a black turban told the two men to watch as he lifted his rifle and shot the boy and each of the younger men in the back of their heads as they lay with their faces pressed against the ground.

Scores more were killed in similar fashion on the orders of the town’s new ruler, a 50-year-old former bricklayer born in Gwoza. Residents left the corpses to rot in the sun for days, too scared to bury their dead.

Aga and other residents who fled from Gwoza were speaking for the first time of the horrors of life in the hilltop town of half a million people that the Islamists have renamed “The Gateway of the Faithful”. Their chilling accounts reveal the horror of life under the group, which grabbed the world’s attention when it kidnapped 276 girls from a school in nearby Chibok seven months ago, but now seems determined to create its own “caliphate” across northeastern Nigeria, with Gwoza as its capital.

Over the past five years Boko Haram has become notorious for slaughtering hundreds of schoolchildren, beheading lorry drivers with chainsaws, bombing churches and mosques, assassinating religious leaders and abducting Christians. Yet in recent months the group, which makes most of its money from kidnapping, extortion and plunder, has shifted its focus to holding territory — inspired, perhaps, by the example of the fellow Islamists of Isis, who have carved out their own caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Sitting in the sandy courtyard of a school in the centre of Maiduguri, a former British military outpost guarded by pro-government militiamen, Aga told The Sunday Times: “They [Boko Haram] told us they were doing God’s work even though all of the men they shot in front of me were Muslims. They seemed happy.”

Aga said his 25-year-old son, a member of a vigilante group formed to defend the town, killed two fighters on the first day with a home-made rifle. His son was later captured and killed by militants, who speared him through the mouth with a knife.

When the fighters stormed into Gwoza in August, no one thought they would stay for more than a night or two. Many residents chose not to flee but hid in their homes, confident the militants would plunder the town before melting back into the bush as they had done in the past. But rather than leave, Boko Haram set about imposing its own form of brutal Islamic rule on the town.

After the initial wave of killings, the fighters began to organise themselves into different units, each group identifiable by the colour of its turbans.

Those with yellow turbans formed the vice and virtue police, patrolling the streets and enforcing the group’s strict interpretation of sharia. White turbans were worn by men responsible for preaching, and green by those charged with indoctrinating young men and persuading them to join the cause.

The most feared were the men clad in black and red turbans: those who killed with guns and those who slaughtered with knives.

Mustapha Bana, 41, a tailor, recalled how fighters in red turbans herded the men in his neighbourhood into a dusty square one day. They split the young and healthy from the old and infirm.

“They pick the strong and healthy to join them,” said Bana, who escaped from Gwoza two weeks ago. He saw 10 young men carted off in the back of pick-up trucks. Only two returned.

“The others refused to join them, so Boko Haram tied their hands behind their backs and put black blindfolds over their eyes. Then they rolled them on to their sides and slaughtered them like animals.”

The men in red turbans tossed the headless bodies into a trench that the Nigerian military had dug around Gwoza to prevent the militants from entering the town.

“That ditch has become a grave for our people,” lamented Suleiman Ali, 54, a teacher who escaped over the mountains a few weeks after the town fell to the Islamists.

For those who stayed behind, life became unbearable: the fighters flogged men for smoking or listening to secular music and chopped off the hands of anyone accused of stealing.

“If you don’t attend the religious sermons, if you shave your beard, if you were caught just talking to a woman in public, even your wife, then men in yellow turbans would flog you,” said Bana.

Floggings are often held in public, with residents made to watch the offender, hands bound behind his back and feet tied to a tree, struck up to 60 times with a leather whip or the branch of a tamarind tree.

“Afterwards, if the person repents, the fighters give them corn or spaghetti and tell them that they are forgiven so long as they follow the true path of Islam,” said Bana.

Boko Haram’s ability to hold Gwoza signals a worrying expansion of the group’s power. Over the past few months it has seized dozens more towns in the northeast, one of the poorest regions on earth.

On Thursday night its fighters captured Chibok, the town from which the 276 girls were kidnapped, adding yet more territory to an area under its command that is now more than half the size of Wales. Almost 1m Nigerians are believed to have fled from their homes in the face of the group’s lightning advance.

Some 200,000 of them have found shelter in Maiduguri, which has been without electricity since Boko Haram blew up the power station. Many of those walked hundreds of miles to reach the city. Most were forced to flee from towns along the way as they came under attack from the Islamist fighters.

Some of the refugees are being housed in the city’s schools, which were closed six months ago to prevent Boko Haram — whose name means “western education is a sin” — from killing and kidnapping schoolchildren. Last Monday a suicide bomber killed 48 schoolchildren at a school on the road to Maiduguri.

The Nigerian government’s response to Boko Haram’s military advances has been weak and often disingenuous. Last month it announced that the militants had agreed to a ceasefire and promised to release the kidnapped schoolgirls. Neither claim proved true.

Several days later, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubaker Shekau, who has a $5m (£3.2m) bounty on his head and walks with a limp from an old gunshot wound, taunted the government via video. “All of them [the kidnapped girls] have accepted Islam and are now married,” he was quoted as saying. “Anybody that said plans are under way for the release of the girls is just daydreaming.”

A negotiated end to the insurgency, or even a ceasefire, appears unlikely so long as Boko Haram continues to hold so much territory. Each town captured boosts the number of its fighters. In the past two years it is thought to have doubled its force to 5,000 -10,000 men, armed with weapons plundered from army barracks.

“Boko Haram only understands the language of resistance,” said the Reverend Toma Ragnjiya, 63, a peace activist who fled to Maiduguri when Boko Haram captured his village at the end of September. “There will be no dialogue until the government can show that it will fight back.”

Yet despite the oil-rich government’s pledge to spend $1bn on the fight against Boko Haram, the Nigerian military appears to be making little headway.

Residents in towns coming under attack by Boko Haram report seeing soldiers fleeing from the battlefield disguised as civilians. Some of them have refused to fight, and several have been sentenced to death for mutiny.

For men like Garba Nasiru, who fled to Maiduguri from Gwoza after hiding in his attic and hearing his brother and father shot dead by Boko Haram, there is little hope. He left his wife and five children behind and has not heard from them since.

“I have lost my home, my brother, my wife and my children,” he said. “We don’t even know when all this will end. Perhaps we will be in this place forever.”

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