In the weeks before Nigeria's presidential election — just before President Goodluck Jonathan was defeated by former military commander Muhammadu Buhari — VICE News correspondent Kaj Larsen was embedded with Nigeria's army as it battled Boko Haram. The militant Islamist insurgents, whose leader recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, are best known for abducting nearly 300 schoolgirls in April 2014. Fittingly, Larsen, a former US Navy SEAL, began his three-part series at the site of a former school, where the army has set up an outpost, just 1,000 meters from a second school, which Boko Haram uses as a staging point to launch attacks.
Chemistry, physics, computer science: The 10th, 11th, and 12th grade girls at the Girl's Science Secondary School in Konduga, Nigeria, would pack the classrooms, eager to absorb the day's lesson. Many were the first in their families to attend secondary school and aspired to go to university, either at home or abroad, and become doctors or engineers. All wore the mandatory blue and white school uniforms; most added headscarves that reflect the majority Muslim population in this northern region of Nigeria. Between classes, the sports enthusiasts played basketball, while other students gathered in the shade of the trees to finish schoolwork and socialize. The most studious would take their breaks in the one-room library, its shelves stacked with books donated from schools in the UK and the US.
But life at the school came to an abrupt stop when, within days of exams in March 2014, Boko Haram fighters attacked the school, allegedly kidnapping up to 20 of the girls and taking them to the nearby Sambisa forest. That attack was like a prelude to the larger attack on the boarding school in Chibok, where the abduction of 276 schoolgirls sparked #bringbackourgirls, a worldwide Twitter campaign that came to naught despite the attentions of Malala Yousafzai, Angeline Jolie, and Michelle Obama.
Today the Nigerian Army uses the school as an outpost in its battle with Boko Haram — a name that translates to "Western education is forbidden" in English — who are based in northeast Nigeria and are responsible for an estimated 19,000 deaths since 2009.
"Let them come," declares a soldier, holding up a commando knife that could slice through a person and come out the other side with room to spare. "We'll kick their motherfucking ass, motherfucker."
"When I get them, I slaughter them," he adds, referring to Boko Horam, who people in the region often refer to as "the devil."
Lieutenant I.W. Iorakpen, the military intelligence officer of the unit stationed around the perimeter of the schoolhouse, holds up a notebook chock full of maps and arrows and notations drawn in blue pen, and explains the army's strategy: "If this place is captured, Boko Haram will have easy access to Maiduguri," he told VICE News, referring to the capital of Borno state and spiritual headquarters of Boko Haram. "So this place is very vital because it's an access from the Sambisa forest just to the south … like six kilometers away from here." The Sambisa forest is not only where Boko Haram fighters took the kidnapped schoolgirls, but also where they are fleeing now.
Iorakpen is an unlikely warrior. If anyone in this schoolhouse turned military outpost carries on the traditions of aspiration and education, it is he. Iorakpen is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man, who speaks in a deep baritone. He is a poet and a soldier, the author of several screenplays. During the day he writes; he is working on a novel, titled Eyeball to Eyeball, about his experience on the frontlines fighting Boko Haram. At night he sleeps in his four-foot-deep trench with his AK-47 by his side.
Here, officers don't sit at desks in headquarters. "Everybody is a trained infantry officer," he says. "And everybody is deployed in the field, as first primarily as a soldier."
The 7th division 24th Brigade's command post is in the old headmaster's office; the guidance counselor's office is now the ammunition depot. Hundreds of soldiers sleep in abandoned classrooms, where chalkboards still have equations written on them. AK-47s are propped lazily next to beakers once used to teach the girls chemistry.
Cpt. K.B. Mshelia, the unit supply officer, is from the region. Born locally in Borno state, his parents were forced to flee their home village when Boko Haram seized it. They are currently internal refugees in Maduguri, just an hour's drive away. For Mshelia, the fight is personal and real. "I would fight Boko Haram, but this is also my home," he told VICE News. "It is the most important thing I can be doing right now."
A kilometer down the dusty two-lane checkpoint-filled highway from where the 24th brigade is headquartered lies another former school — this one a staging point for Boko Haram fighters to attack the town of Konduga. In more peaceful times Konduga subsisted on fishing and agriculture. Now it's a critical midpoint on the main supply road from the capital city of Maiduguri to the second-largest city, Bama. This strategic chokepoint has forced the Nigerian army to bunker down in one school while just across the road Boko Haram attacks from another.
It is places like Konduga that Boko Haram has terrorized since 2009. Abducting women, conscripting child soldiers, and imposing harsh Islamic law has been its modus operandi. The funding sources of Boko Haram are shrouded in rumor and conspiracy, but it is certain that kidnapping women and children and pillaging of villages like Konduga provide a portion of the group's revenue.
The first school, where the Nigerian army is posted, is the farthest edge of the army's push into what was, until recently, Boko Haram territory. The insurgents were estimated to be some 4,000 to 6,000 strong, but the latest offensive has killed many of them and reduced their numbers and capabilities dramatically. Along with a multinational force from neighboring Chad and Cameroon — and help from private military contractors — the new offensive has devastated the terrorist organization.
At night the two sides exchange fire from their respective encampments. Both schools have sustained damage and are pockmarked with bullet holes. The school used for cover by Boko Haram fighters has been pounded by Nigerian forces. Formerly a place of learning, it has become a graveyard for Boko Haram fighters.
The fate of the girls from Konduga Senior Secondary School remains unknown. Kidnapped more than a year ago, many of the girls, Nigerians believe, are now married off to Boko Haram fighters forced upon them. As young as 14, some no doubt have borne children.
Where young women once aspired to become doctors and engineers, the officers of the 24th Brigade 103rd battalion are preoccupied with the details of warfare. "Here you don't sleep far away from your trench because this Boko could crawl," said Iorakpen. "When they crawl, they come close to the trench and begin to engage you. So you have to be close enough.
"You have two-hour shifts," he added. "After two hours another person comes in, but you have to be here so that once you hear any fire, you dash in and then you return the fire." Even if that means this poet-lieutenant must return fire into a school.
Part 2 in this series coming soon.
Follow Kaj Larsen on Twitter: @kajlarsen