c.2013 New York Times News Service
BOSSO, Niger — For the soldiers, the young men’s long, flowing robes — the traditional garb of Muslim West Africa — were enough to establish guilt, the refugees said.
“As soon as they see you with clothing like this, they shoot,” said Abukar Ari, a Quranic teacher in a long robe who said he had fled across the border from Nigeria two weeks before. “They don’t ask any questions. I’ve seen them shoot people. Yes, I’ve seen them shoot.”
Other refugees in the registration lines of thousands who had fled Nigeria’s combat zone echoed these assertions, saying civilians were being killed there by soldiers unconcerned with the distinction between militants and innocents. Friends and neighbors were being shot, they said; young men were being rounded up at night; and citizens with the vertical ethnic scarring of the Kanuri, a group dominant in the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, were being taken away.
“They are killing people without asking who they are,” said Laminou Lawan, a student who said he had fled here 10 days before. “When they see young men in traditional robes, they shoot them on the spot. They catch many of the others and take them away, and we don’t hear from them again.”
Nearly three weeks ago, Nigeria launched what it depicted as an all-out land and air campaign to crush the Boko Haram insurgency, using thousands of troops, vehicles and even fighter jets and helicopter gunships just over the border from here, where Nigerian officials say the insurgents have their stronghold.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, suggesting that he was fed up with Boko Haram’s four-year uprising, announced “extraordinary measures” in his country’s north and placed a large part of it under a state of emergency, ordering troops to “take all necessary action” to end an insurgency that he said was threatening the country’s foundations.
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Nigeria’s foreign partners, including the United States, which considers the country an important ally in the fight against Islamist militancy, have watched warily, with Secretary of State John Kerry pointedly warning the Nigerian military about what he called “credible allegations” that Nigerian forces had committed “gross human rights violations” before the offensive began.
Last month, more than 200 people were killed in what local officials, residents and human rights groups say was a sweeping massacre by Nigerian forces in the nearby village of Baga, in northern Nigeria. Analysts have long questioned whether Nigeria’s heavy-handed counterinsurgency strategy, which has resulted in numerous civilian deaths since 2009, might be having the opposite effect of the one intended, increasing anger at the Nigerian state and driving new recruits to the militants.
But Kerry has not specifically raised the question of human rights abuses during the latest offensive, and for a good reason: It is difficult to get a clear idea of what is happening. Since its start, much of northern Nigeria has been under a communications blackout, as cellphone service has been cut, physical access has been limited and information has been restricted to a series of military communiqués. They have announced the “capture and destruction” of Boko Haram camps, the deaths of “high-profile” Boko Haram members and other “terrorists,” the “disarray” of militants, the discovery and destruction of weapons caches, and the “securing” of various towns and settlements in the north from Boko Haram.
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Nigerian military spokesmen have been at pains to deny any misconduct against civilians during the campaign, trying to reassure the country’s allies by announcing that they were pleased soldiers were sticking to what they called “the rules of engagement.” A spokesman did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the refugees’ accounts.
But some of the refugees who have massed here in this remote border village at the far eastern edge of Niger — there are at least 5,000 of them, and possibly as many as 10,000 in the area, officials say — described the fighting in terms that varied widely from the military communiqués.
Their testimony is among the first independent accounts of the Nigerian military’s offensive, and they spoke of indiscriminate bombing and shooting, unexplained civilian deaths, and nighttime roundups of young men by security forces. All spoke of a climate of terror that had pushed them, in the thousands, to flee for miles through the harsh and baking semidesert, sometimes on foot, to Niger. A few blamed Boko Haram — a shadowy, rarely glimpsed presence for most residents — for the violence. But the overwhelming majority blamed the military, saying they had fled their country because of it.
They had come from multiple villages in Nigeria to one of the poorest nations on earth, overwhelming local officials. But at least here, they said, the soldiers of the Republic of Niger are drowsing under a giant tree at the border, not pointing their guns at the civilians who continue to cross it.
“The military just opens fire and kills people, and throws bombs and kills people, for no reason,” said Abubakar Ali, a shoe salesman waiting in one of the registration lines. “That is why you see these people here,” he said, pointing out at the crowd. “That is what is happening now in Nigeria.”
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Others in the crowd said that friends and neighbors had been shot during the offensive. They could not always identify the source of the shooting, but they could easily identify the victims.
“I’ve seen the wounded; these are people I know,” said Muhammad Yacoubu, a farmer.
“The military are looking for Boko Haram, but if they don’t find them, they take revenge,” said Moustapha Ali, a shopkeeper.
Ousmane Boukari, a herdsman, said, “They bombed on Saturday, and they missed their targets. They’re just firing at random. They don’t even know where the Boko Haram are.”
Modu Goni, another refugee, said: “At night you hear the shooting, and in the morning you find the bodies, people from the village. When you see your friends dead, it’s scary.”
Others spoke of seizures of young men by security forces, a pattern already established in the insurgents’ stronghold city of Maiduguri, according to residents there.
“The soldiers took the young men away, at least 10 of them, at night; it’s at night that they make their raids,” said Sherrif Alhadji Abdu, another refugee. “They band their eyes, and take them away. They took away my friends.”
At the edge of this village, some of the refugees have erected crude reed shelters in the sand or simply posted sticks in the ground and placed rags over them. Abou Boukar, a farmer, had just finished building a reed hut. Anything was better than staying in Nigeria, he said. Boko Haram had built a camp near his village. The next day, he saw a Nigerian air force plane flying overhead.
“This doesn’t look good,” he recalled saying to himself.
And then he fled to Niger.