‘They Told Us They Were Here to Help Us.’ Then Came Slaughter

A camp for internally displaced people in Borno State, the center of the battle against Boko Haram in Nigeria. Civilians who escaped from areas once controlled by Boko Haram have started to report massacres committed by the military. Credit: Florian Plaucheur/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — A wheelbarrow saved his life.

Sprawled across it, Babagana felt every bump, moaning in pain from four bullet wounds. Covered in his blood, his pregnant wife helped roll him across the Nigerian countryside to a hospital.

Somehow, Babagana survived the makeshift ambulance ride. More than 80 men from his village had been shot to death, he said, all of them forced to strip to the waist and lie face down. The gunmen then burned their small farming village before speeding away.

The attack fit the pattern of rampages by Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has killed poor people in this region for years. But Babagana and multiple witnesses to the attack in June, as well as another one days before in a neighboring village, say the radicals were not to blame this time.

Instead, they say, the massacres were carried out by the Nigerian military.

“They told us they were here to help us,” said a resident, Falmata, 20, adding that soldiers in uniform shouted for villagers to point out the Boko Haram members among them. When none were identified, the killings began, she and other witnesses said.

In recent months, the Nigerian military has made great headway in its war against Boko Haram, the radical Islamist militants terrorizing northeast Nigeria.

Reports of civilian massacres have emerged in recent weeks as residents from areas previously sealed off by Boko Haram start to stream out.

“As more combatants from Boko Haram have been hiding within the civilian population, the line between who is civilian and who is not has been blurred,” said Agnes Bjorn, a manager for Plan International, an aid group. “It is, however, the responsibility of the Nigerian Army to protect civilians and clearly distinguish between civilians and combatants. Protecting civilians in war is part of international humanitarian law.”

President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general elected on promises to defeat Boko Haram and stamp out corruption, pledged to clean up the abuses.

Many observers give the president credit for pressing the campaign against Boko Haram and taking steps toward professionalizing the military.