February 3, 2015
Scores of men, women and children were killed in the Nigerian towns of Baga and Doron Baga on 3 January when Boko Haram militants launched a fierce attack. The exact number of dead remains unknown, but claims vary from 150 to 2,000 people killed. The BBC met survivors at refugee camps in Chad in order to piece together a picture of what happened that day.
Many inhabitants had already gone to pray when gunshots rang out on Saturday, 3 January. The first raid started at about 05:45 local time (04:45 GMT), just before dawn.
As Boko Haram fighters rushed through the west side of Baga, a group of determined young men collected their “cutlasses” – or machetes – and knives to defend their town. It was a rare success.
“We pushed them back, together with our soldiers,” said local man Harun Muhamad, 31.
The Islamist militants were forced to retreat into the bush.
“We all came out en masse to fight back,” recalled 20-year-old Dahiru Abdullahi, adding that most fighters were wearing army uniforms of different kinds.
“Some also had black coats on and turbans,” he said. Such headwear is common in this desert area, where insurgents often use them to cover their faces.
After the militants’ retreat, there was a lull in the fighting and some relief, but it did not last long.
2. Boko Haram returns
When I was running and they were hunting us, shooting us, some people were falling and dying, others being run over with motorbikes and dying. Some reached the bank of the lake”
A few hours later, Boko Haram combatants stormed the town again. Their ranks had swollen to a terrifying column of pick-up trucks and motorcycles.
“They came back out from the bush with around 20 vehicles,” said Dahiru Abdullahi.
Between 10 and 15 armed men jumped from each car. It remains impossible to know how many fighters took part in the assault, refugees spoke of “hundreds”. The local men were also out-gunned.
“They opened fire, they kept shooting at us,” said Dahiru Abdullahi. “Because we were trying to defend ourselves with machetes, we had to leave.”
Harun Muhamad also said the second wave of Boko Haram militants was “too many”, forcing everyone to run for their lives.
The survivors described how the armed intruders yelled at the young men who had earlier brandished locally made weapons.
“Be brave, men, why don’t you fight us?” they shouted.
Faced with the advancing militants, the Nigerian soldiers, too, gave up fighting and fled. Witnesses say many threw or dropped their weapons on the ground as they went, leaving them for others to retrieve.
“Vigilantes picked up these weapons and fired back, but they found themselves overwhelmed by the force against them and [they] ran as well,” said Saratu Garba, 20, mother of a two-year-old boy.
As the armed group progressed through the town, witnesses described pandemonium. People fled in all directions; many thinking that they could seek refuge in the nearby fishing town of Doron Baga, on the shore of Lake Chad.
3. Pursuit to Doron Baga
By midday, the assault had turned into a hunt-to-kill as Boko Haram fighters chased people down the road.
“They shot people dead, but they also killed with their cars, running over those who were in their way,” said Saratu Garba, who was separated from her husband in the turmoil.
“There were too many corpses to count them.”
Saratu Garba and other refugees all described seeing women, children and men falling to the ground or lying dead.
The streets of Doron Baga were soon littered with bodies. As people reached the shores of Lake Chad, Boko Haram militants closed in on them.
“They kept firing at us even when we jumped on boats,” said Dahiru Abdullahi. “One man next to me was shot.”
Some rowed just far enough to escape the chaos. They hid on nearby islands and many waited long hours hoping that the militants would leave. They didn’t. As night fell, the sound of gunfire could still be heard.
Several refugees recalled seeing fighters setting houses on fire. From their dugout canoes and boats, they could see plumes of smoke rising into the sky.
4. Escape to Lake Chad
We were still in bed when we started to hear the commotion. I was told to get my kids and get out of the house. Apart from the clothes I’m wearing I wasn’t able to take anything”
Families scattered in a desperate flight. Many were separated as they ran for their lives.
Some escaped through the bush and, days later, reached sanctuary in other Nigerian towns or cities. About 5,000 fled to the Borno state capital Maidiguri – 162km (100 miles) from Baga, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres. Others travelled north and crossed into neighbouring Niger.
Nearly 15,000 have now arrived in Chad, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), waiting for assistance on lake islands, where we met them.
Harun Muhamad was separated from his wife and baby. “I don’t know whether they are alive or dead,” he said.
Dahiru Abdullahi, meanwhile, is waiting for news of his younger brother.
“Him and nine other men who were with us, they have disappeared,” he said.
Dahiru Abdullahi is amongst more than 2,500 refugees who have been relocated by the UNHCR from one of the lake islands to the site of “Dar-es-Salaam” in the dusty outskirts of Baga-Sola town.
Those from Baga and Doron Baga who made it to the Chad side of the lake are without any of their belongings.
“Apart from these clothes I’m wearing, I wasn’t able to take anything. I got out like this,” says Hadija Umar, a mother of three, whose husband was killed in the attack.
On Ngouboua island, big tents have been erected by aid agencies. Refugees are living in cramped conditions, sleeping on the sandy floor in the cold of night.
Boko Haram attacks
killed in Baga attack – reports vary and verified figures unavailable
buildings damaged or destroyed
- 14,638 people have fled to Chad
- 774 people a day have crossed the border
- 5,000 fled inland to Borno state capital
- 105 unaccompanied children are among refugees at Ngouboua camp
5. Claims and counter claims
It remains impossible to know exactly how many people were killed during the attack. Human rights group Amnesty International has said that up to 2,000 lost their lives, but we have found no evidence to back such a claim.
Eyewitness accounts suggest several hundred are likely to have died, but the real figure will probably never be known.
The government of Nigeria seems unable to confirm any death toll. The army rejected Amnesty’s count, saying “the number of people who lost their lives during the attack has so far not exceeded about 150”.
However, Sambo Dasuki, National Security Adviser to the president, said Nigeria was “going with Amnesty” figures in the absence of “independent confirmation”.
Satellite images of Baga and Doron Baga taken after the attacks show the extent of the damage – with an estimated 3,700 structures damaged or destroyed, according to Amnesty International.
In an online video, a man called Abi Mos’aab Albernawi – presented as the “official spokesman” for Boko Haram – said they attacked Baga because it was “important in terms of commercial and military value to the Nigerian government”.
Baga was most likely targeted because of the nearby military base, headquarters of the Multinational Joint Task Force that includes Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Together with Doron Baga, it is also a commercial and fishing hub for Borno state and important for international trade as it sits on the border with Chad.
Niger withdrew its troops in November 2014, and Mr Dasuki said “only the Nigerian contingent was left there when it was attacked”.
Mr Dasuki also spelled out a list of equipment that was seized by the Islamist militants, including “six of our APCs – or armoured vehicles – all of them with 4,000 rounds of ammunition inside” and artillery guns.
He said this dispelled criticism that suggested the Nigerian forces were ill-equipped: “Anybody who says he is not well-armed is not telling the truth.” He said the soldiers who ran away were “cowards”.
6. Toll of Boko Haram attacksAlthough the figures for the Baga dead have not been verified, thousands have died at the hands of Boko Haram over the last six years.
Maps show how the spread of Boko Haram’s activities have gradually concentrated more on the north-east regions of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe – where a state of emergency was declared in 2013.
They also show the greater intensity of attacks in 2014.
Civilian toll in spread of Boko Haram attacks
Source: BBC News