Baga residents narrate their pains and sufferings and blame Nigerian soldiers for their ills.
Yagana Ali, 29, was four months pregnant when soldiers of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) locked horns with Boko Haram gunmen in bloody clash that claimed about 200 lives in Baga, a quiet fishing community of Borno state.
She however suffered a miscarriage after running 20km barefooted in the dead of night to escape bullets and inferno that spared only the lucky ones.
Yagana and her family have lived in the Town of Baga for about 10 years now. Her husband, Ali, said they were lucky their two daughters were away in Cross-Kawa, a village 20km away from Baga, to spend time with their grandparents on the night soldiers allegedly went house to house putting fire on residents’ houses.
“We had to run through the bushes for our dear lives,” Mr. Ali said.
Sore footed, Mr. Ali and his wife still had broken thorns in their skin almost two weeks after the April 17 incident.
“We are better off this way – with broken thorn in our skins than being killed by bullets or roasted in fire,” said Ali, a local government staffer.
One in many
The couple are one amongst many traumatised families that were forced to breast the nocturnal dangers of the desert and creeks to avoid the chaos that heralded a military clash with Boko Haram insurgents.
Refugees who made it to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, said many women and children died bleeding from injuries sustained from bullets; others drowned in creeks, “and some by snake bites.”
A truck driver said a 70-year-old father of his friend was only identified by the other side of his face lying on the ground; with every part of his body except his right foot completely burnt.
Soldiers have continually denied locals’ claim that 228 persons were killed and buried after soldiers of the Multi-national Joint Task Force (MNJTF) reacted to the killing of one amongst their troops by Boko Haram insurgents.
They also claimed that only six civilians, whose corpse they later found in Lake Chad, were killed in during the attack.
Commander of the MNJTF, Brigadier General Austin Edokpaye, told visiting Governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, and other top government officials in Baga that his troops came under heavy power of the Boko Haram terrorists whom he said were using lethal weapons like Rocket Propelled Grenades, General Purpose Machine Guns, and their cache of AK-47 assault rifles.
“The terrorists came in their unusual recklessness, killing people, extorting money from people. One of my officer, Lt. Zira was killed – they slaughtered him at the motor park like an animal,” he said. “We had no option as we pursued them, because they used civilians as shield. They even killed a soldier and if soldiers that are deployed to maintain peace now become targets, then the last berth of common man’s hope is gone.”
Despite repeated claims by the Nigerian Military that the fire on the houses was started by the insurgents’ weapons, Mr. Edokpaye hinted that his men could have also unintentionally started the fire.
“Anyone who said what happened here in Baga was deliberate is only being mischievous, and trying to make this place ungovernable. It was in the night and it took us four hours to bring fire upon their heads before the terrorists were forced to reduce their fire and shooting,” he said.
“We all know how dry and windy this place is. Houses are close to one another and a little gunfire could ignite conflagration that easily spread.
“There was nothing anybody could do to stop it; if anybody dies in the process, they might have unfortunately been caught in the crossfire; but not the soldiers going house to house killing people as alleged.”
Disputing casualty figure
The Senator representing Baga and other parts of northern Borno, Maina Lawan, said he counted 228 fresh graves in three different cemeteries in Baga after soldiers fighting insurgents “turned their guns against innocent civilians.”
The Nigerian military, which initially claimed 25 insurgents were killed in the battle, later claimed that a total of 37 people were killed in Baga including 30 insurgents, a soldier, and six civilians.
Senator Lawan also lamented the plights of Baga survivors whom he said currently lack adequate humanitarian aid.
“I saw women and children in the two camps sitting under scorching sun with little or no care whatsoever. The federal government must deploy more aid workers to assist the displaced whose numbers keep surging, lest they suffer epidemics,” Mr. Lawan said last week.
The National Emergency Management Agency also lamented the situation in Baga when it said last week that many of the victims were still hiding in the bushes; the Agency, however, said it is providing assistance to all the victims in the town.
A Baga refugee just arriving Maiduguri said he was forced by the difficult situation in the camp to get better medical attention in the city.
“The situation is even worse being in the camp because the number of refugees are much. I decided to leave but many who also wanted could not because they have no means to transport themselves to Maiduguri,” the man, who did not want his name mentioned for security reasons, said.
Though the military and political leaders of the area have not found a common ground on the casualty figure, Baga residents who shared the view that over 200 persons died since the attack, told PREMIUM TIMES that they have been burying victims on almost daily basis.
Abdullahi Malami, a fisherman who has lived in Baga for over 45 years, said last week after the incident that “the fighting and shooting have calmed down for some days now; but we are still burying the dead almost every day.”
“It has been an everyday thing. We buried a man who died on Monday (April 29) after he was found in the bush almost dead two days ago; we buried another one who suffered serious injuries without medication today (April 30).
“I have lost my house of over 45 years; I have not seen my 24-years-old son, Idrissa, since the attack last week. I have nothing left. The cloth I am putting on was given to me by a friend. We need help, and medication, I suffered for six days in the bush before coming back,” he said.
Ibrahim Modu, an old man in his 70s told journalists on a military guided tour of Baga on April 30 that he personally attended the burial of six of his neighbours a day after the fight.
“I lost everything in my house after soldiers came and set my house ablaze. I was standing outside confused and they came and met me, they didn’t say anything but walked into my house and put it on fire, after which they told me to leave with my family so that I don’t get burnt by the fire,” he said.
At Fulatari ward, where the military guides took journalists, a man who described himself as Modu Usman, said the fire that consumed his house left him with nothing except the clothes he was putting on and his prayer rosary.
“The cloth I am putting on and this rosary I am holding are the only belongings that I now possess after soldiers chased me, my wife and five children out before setting my house ablaze. There is no how they (soldiers) could deny this.
“No one says they should not do their job, but if there is problem or crime being committed, security should try to investigate rather than treating us all as criminals. Look at my house burnt down for crime I know nothing about’, lamented Mr. Usman.
Calm returns, seek investigation
A fisherman busy frying tiny fishes under the scorching sun at the Baga market gate thanked God for “the relative calm gradually coming back to Baga.”
“In this town for the past 40 years that I know, we knew no violence except business, business and business,” Mr. Adamu, a fried fish seller, recalled as he heaped deliciously fried fishes from the hot oil pan to the sales table in front of him.
“Look around you, Baga is one accommodative township; all religions, all tribes, all ages knew nothing like violence, but business.
“If criminals are amongst us, the police and soldiers should simply look for them and not everybody. But what happened last week, was bad, the death was too much, people have been made homeless, there is hunger everywhere, businessmen have been rendered bankrupt,” he lamented.
Most residents, including Mr. Ali, who spoke to journalists demanded thorough investigation into the Baga destruction.
‘We want a true investigation and we want justice,” Mr. Ali said.
Nigeria’s human rights commission has promised to carry out an independent and thorough investigation of the Baga crisis. The commission said its report would be out before the first week of July.