“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.
The Nigerian government’s failure to stop the militants after battling them for so long has become a major issue in the presidential election on Feb. 14, and Maiduguri, a city of more than two million, remains vulnerable. Its fall would be an “unimaginable human catastrophe,” said Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno State, where Maiduguri is. The loss of the city would threaten the Nigerian government’s most important remaining grip on the northeast.
Most of the refugees now sheltering in 16 camps scattered throughout Maiduguri, often living with little food in makeshift tents of sticks and empty grain sacks, fled into the semi-desert as soon as the Islamists came barreling into their towns.
At first, there would be blanket house-to-house terror, aimed mostly at young men suspected of opposing the militants.
“They would tell you to lie down, then shoot you in the head,” said Babakar Karami Issa, 25, who hid in the town of Gamboru Ngala for two weeks afterit was overrun last year. This week, Chad’s military said it had retaken the town from the militants.
“If they saw a locked door, they would say, ‘Where are your men?’ ” recalled Alhaji Ali, 28, who escaped from the town of Damboa.
Some of the refugees stayed behind for weeks or months, often hiding as best they could or looking for opportunities to escape. The militants, many of them with wild beards and unkempt hair, some wearing full-face turbans showing only their eyes, were by turns arbitrary, brutal and cajoling, the refugees recalled.
Many of the fugitives are still traumatized by the violence they survived. A young girl whose parents were killed in front of her stood silently, unable to speak, at a camp in a girls’ school that has been closed because of the fighting.
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.
“They were trying to endear themselves to the citizens,” Mr. Karami Issa said of similar tactics used by the group in Gamboru Ngala.
There, after taking over the town and “executing people just anyhow,” recalled Sato Modu, 33, “the Boko Haram said: ‘Don’t panic. We will give you food and clothing.’ ”
Later, Boko Haram chose fighters to act as leaders for each section of Gamboru Ngala, Mr. Karami Issa recalled.
Boko Haram took a similar approach in Bama. Governing over them all was a man who installed himself in the palace of the shehu — the highest local traditional leader — but who had previously been known to some in the town as a local fishmonger.
He is the one giving instructions,” recalled Hauwa Abubakar, a resident who fled.
One Friday in Bama, the remaining population was called together and ordered to assemble at the shehu’s palace, Ms. Abubakar said.
“No more killing,” the militants told the people, she recalled. “Forgive us, and follow our doctrine.”
Similar exhortations were made in other towns. In Gamboru, “they told the civilians they were here to defend them,” recalled Mallam Bukar Ali, 29. “They said, ‘Why aren’t you following us?’ ”
The population would be told to join in mass open-air prayers. In Damboa, “they preached in front of the emir’s palace, to the old people,” said Issa Bulama, 26. “ ‘Tell your children to come back and follow our orders. If not, we will kill them.’ ”
At Bama, the people were called to prayers by Boko Haram three times a day. Others described Boko Haram patrols going into the bush to search for young men who had fled. Sometimes, if they were not killed right after the initial assault, the men were told to join Boko Haram’s cause.
“The leaders were reciting books when I was taken to them,” said Muhammad Ali, 24, referring to the Quran. “I was seated in front of their leaders.”
He said he was asked: “Can you do the job of God? Can you join us?” Imprisoned by his captors, he evaded their notice one dark midnight and escaped.
Yagana Kabani was imprisoned for more than two months before escaping.
“There were hundreds of people in the compound,” said Ms. Kabani, referring to the other women and girls who had been confined. “They just locked them in one place.”
She said that the women and girls were kept in harsh conditions, and that she had managed to push off the militants’ advances by telling them she was already married.
“Beans, beans, only beans; they got sick,” said Ms. Kabani, describing the diet they were given. “They abducted many girls and they said they were going to marry them.”
Kaltum Usman, 20, said she had been told: “You are living in an infidel town. We are going to take you to where we live. We will take you to our emir so that we can give you in marriage.”
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.”