Boko Haram steps up cross-border raids and suicide bombings
Thousands of civilians fled their homes in the southeastern Niger town of Diffa this week, officials said yesterday, following waves of cross-border raids and suicide bombings by Nigerian militant group Boko Haram.
Attacks in Niger are deepening a humanitarian crisis in the remote border zone. The area, struggling to feed 150 000 people who have run to escape violence in northern Nigeria, has seen about 7 000 arrive this week in Zinder, Niger’s second biggest town about 450km west of Diffa.
The International Rescue Committee, which supplied the population estimates, has teams working on the ground there.
Country director Matias Meier said some families in Zinder, one of the poorest regions in Niger, were having to host 20 people, while other displaced people were sleeping in a stadium.
“Those who went on the trucks are the lucky ones. Bus tickets are sold out until the end of next week. Many are just walking or going by bicycle,” Meier said.
Boko Haram’s insurgency has killed thousands in northeastern Nigeria. Regional armies are mobilising a joint force of 8 700 men to defeat the group that is increasingly threatening neighbouring countries.
Niger’s military said its army, backed by Chadian forces deployed to the country, had killed hundreds of Boko Haram fighters in several battles sparked by raids in the Diffa region this week.
Almost 180 000 civilians have fled to neighbouring countries. Most have gone to Niger or Cameroon, but Boko Haram’s latest offensive has ravaged the western shore of Lake Chad. Those caught in the vortex have no way of escape except by making the arduous boat journey across the lake itself.
Shamsia Umaru, 13, stepped ashore clasping her baby sister, Fatima, and her four-year-old brother, Yahya. They had spent the previous week trapped on an island before a boat finally carried them to the town of Baga Sola in Chad.
They arrived without their father. “It was Boko Haram who killed him,” she said.
The family lived in Doron Baga until this Nigerian fishing town was largely destroyed by Boko Haram on January 3. Afterwards, they fled to the lakeside village of Toumbouyashi, where they hoped to find safety.
But Boko Haram caught up with them. At dusk, the gunmen arrived on board a fleet of open boats. The village was helpless and undefended, so the insurgents faced no opposition when they rounded up all the men. “They asked ‘Who is from Baga or Doron Baga’?” Shamsia said.
These neighbouring towns were both captured and put to the torch on the same day.
Later, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, released a video message boasting of how his fighters had “killed the people of Baga”.
He appears to be pursuing a vendetta against the men of Baga and Doron Baga, perhaps because some of them created a vigilante militia that inflicted heavy losses on Boko Haram.
Shamsia’s father, Danladi Umaru, was identified as being from Doron Baga, along with eight other men. They were shot dead on the spot.
Her mother, Adama, gathered the three children and they left by boat on a journey that would end in Chad over a week later.
Because Boko Haram’s killing ground is so remote, the modus operandi of its fighters has remained obscure. The testimony of the refugees who have witnessed its atrocities helps to paint a picture of the methods of Africa’s deadliest Islamist insurgents. Nasiru Saidu, a 43-year-old trader, was among those who fled the assault on Doron Baga.
Even before that particularly devastating raid, he knew the methods of Boko Haram through bitter experience.
One night in June last year, the gunmen raided a village where his brother, Qassem, lived. They carried away his brother’s wife, Rahama, and their four sons.
Saidu fears that the boys will be brainwashed and turned into child soldiers.
“I think they are going to recruit them. That is what we know they do with young boys. They are raping the women and they are taking the young boys to their camps and teaching them everything about what they are doing.”
When Boko Haram capture a town, the fate of its people rests on whether they resisted the onslaught. Those who put up a fight – as in Doron Baga – can expect nothing but a pitiless massacre.