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Ghosts of Boko Haram: How Nigerian Refugees Are Coping in the Wake of the Baga Massacre

Though the Nigerian military has won victories against the notoriously violent militants, refugees displaced by the violence are still struggling to repair their lives.

Madi Musa was on his way to the market when he heard gunshots. His instinct was to run. It wasn't the first time that insurgents from Boko Haram had attacked his hometown of Baga, in northeastern Nigeria, and Musa figured he would follow the blueprint that had kept him alive thus far.

Musa would run to the lake and wait for the shooting to stop. He would return home to find his wife and five children. He would live in fear, but he would tend to his onion gardens and oversee his stall in the local market. His children would go to school and life would return to normal.

But the Saturday, January 3, attack on Baga was different from the ones before. The Boko Haram fighters broke from their usual routine and the gunshots gradually moved closer to the lake, where Musa and thousands of others had gathered. When the turbaned gunmen arrived at the shore, they fired indiscriminately.

"Men, women, children, anything that moved," Musa tells me, his frenzied eyes darting left to right, right to left. On that day, Musa recalls, it seemed Boko Haram's goal was not to occupy or plunder, but to kill.

When Boko Haram first emerged in northern Nigeria in the early 2000s, most analysts viewed the Islamic sect as the latest in a long line of Nigerian religious movements born out of frustrations with a corrupt and ineffectual secular government.

But Boko Haram has since morphed into something less definable and terrifyingly more lethal, kidnapping and killing thousands as it seeks to establish its own Islamic state in northern Nigeria. From 2009 to mid 2014, an estimated 11,100 Nigerians died because of the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian government, and Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 1,000 civilians were killed by Boko Haram in the first three months of 2015. In total, an estimated 1.5 million Nigerians have been displaced by the violence.

As the insurgent group expands its operations abroad, pledging allegiance to groups such as the Islamic State and vowing to attack targets outside of Nigeria, the international community is scrambling to find answers to a group that has baffled experts and policymakers alike. At times, Boko Haram acts more like a crime syndicate or undisciplined gang than an ideologically inspired political project. Fifteen years into existence and despite dozens of high-profile atrocities, precious little is known regarding what exactly Boko Haram wants, how it is structured, or how it gets its money.

Yet here in Bagassola, Chad, where thousands of Nigerian refugees who fled Boko Haram now live, these considerations seem excessively academic. At its core, survivors say, Boko Haram is a death cult. It is young men with guns for whom killing is not a means to an end, but the end in its own right.

"They have become killers," Musa tells me. "They go into town, kill, and then disappear back into the bush."

The multi-day siege of Baga and its environs, since dubbed the "Baga massacre," outraged a Nigerian public aghast at the apparent insouciance of its own government. Last year, when Boko kidnapped of the 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, the lackluster government response spawned a global campaign under the banner of #BringBackOurGirls. Allies of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan went so far as to dismiss the kidnapping as a fabrication orchestrated by the president's political opponents. With Baga, Jonathan issued his condolences to victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks before he even acknowledged that hundreds of his own citizens had been slaughtered four days prior to the slayings in Paris.

Having lost re-election to a second term in large part because of his mishandling of the Boko Haram insurgency, Jonathan has used the waning days of his presidency to finally take the fight to Boko Haram. The Nigerian army, aided by an awkward coalition of neighboring militaries, Western advisors, and mercenaries from South Africa, has managed to drive Boko Haram from all but a few remaining strongholds. And though it no longer controls the same swath of territory that it used to, Boko Haram has still managed to carry out scores of deadly attacks throughout the Lake Chad region, prompting the governments of neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad to move survivors of the Baga massacre further from the Nigerian border.

In late February, I travelled to the Dar Es Salam refugee camp in Chad, where thousands of refugees were cobbling together their new lives after the Baga massacre. These are their stories.

Children play soccer in Dar Es Salaam

As Boko Haram descended on the lake, Musa realized that if he ever wanted to see his family again, he had to run back into town and find them. Musa's wife, Bintu, had already fled Baga. She was at home with her children when the attack started, and she too followed her first instinct. She fled into the bush with her baby.

Like Musa, Bintu realized that something was different about this attack, so she ran back into town to look for her four other children. The family home was vacant and the streets were empty when she arrived. Bintu then made the agonizing decision to flee Baga without her children, save for the infant on her back.

Musa and Bintu had heard stories about what happens to children who are captured by Boko Haram. They knew that girls often become "brides," a euphemism used by locals to soften the grim realities of a life of servitude and sexual slavery. Boys captured by the group often become fighters, indoctrinated and conscripted into the ranks. Separated from each other, both Musa and Bintu prayed that their children had managed to escape Baga on their own.

Their adolescent daughter, Falmata, had also heard stories. She was at her family home when young men wearing Nigerian army uniforms approached her, but she knew they were part of Boko Haram. "The uniform is the same, but they wear it differently," she says. "I thought, If I can just die before they get here, I will be happy."

"Where is your father?" one of them asked. Falmata told them Musa had run away. They searched the house and, for reasons Falmata can only attribute to God, left her alone and quickly moved on. She wasted no time. She ran as fast as she could to a nearby village, where she found two of her siblings, including her older sister, who took them to the city of Maiduguri. There, they found their mother and another sibling.

"People do not speak of Boko Haram... I cannot even explain how evil they are." –Sani Abdelhamid

Musa had no idea that his family was safe. Having run back into town only to find streets lined with corpses and buildings aflame, he returned to the lake and made arrangements to take a canoe toward the town of Almoustri.

Word quickly spread among the crush of people jostling for spots that Almoustri was also under siege. It may have been a rumor started by those desperate to ensure space for themselves . Or it may have been that those escaping toward Almoustri were unknowingly delivering themselves to Boko Haram.

Unsure, Musa erred on the side of fleeing Nigeria altogether. He swam until he reached the island of Tumbunyashi. Once there, he linked up with others and spent the next six days hopping from island to island until he reached Kangala, an island in neighboring Chad. From Kangala he would go to Dar Es Salam, a refugee camp set up by the Chadian government in the town of Bagassola.

"I suffered," Musa says. "I knew Boko Haram were kidnapping women and children." He also wondered how, in the unlikely event that they did escape, his wife and children would provide for themselves without him.

Once he had settled in Bagassola, Musa was able to call his brother in Maiduguri, who told him that his family had made it there unscathed. Musa instructed his brother to give them enough money to travel to Chad, where they now live with him in the Dar Es Salam camp. Their story is one of the few to emerge from Bagassola with a relatively happy ending.

Related: Watch VICE News' documentary, 'The War Against Boko Haram'

Musa's neighbor, Sani Abdelhamid, cannot say the same. It was 5 AM when Boko Haram attacked his small village, located three miles from Baga. A father of seven, Abdelhamid packed two of his children and two of his brother's children on his motorcycle and told the others to run.

Abdelhamid is in Dar Es Salam with the two sons he escaped with and his 15-year-old daughter, who he found at a transit site in Ngouboua, Chad. But he has no idea what happened to his four other daughters. His wife, who was in Maiduguri for a funeral at the time of the attack, has not been able to find them either.

"I am so afraid they have been kidnapped or killed by Boko Haram," Abdelhamid says, listing each of their names and ages: four-year-old Hadiza, seven-year-old Fatama Madama, 13-year-old Nafiza, and 16-year-old Saudi. "I just want to go home and, God willing, meet my children there."

It's a universal sentiment in Bagassola, but there is little indication that the over 6,000 refugees living here will return home any time soon. Though a hastily assembled regional force of African armies and a small group of South African mercenaries hired by the Nigerian government are taking the fight to Boko Haram, there is widespread concern that the problem could further metastasize beyond Nigeria's borders.

The impatience that runs through the camp is palpable, and the anodyne rhetoric of "root causes"—economic underdevelopment, corruption, political marginalization—is noticeably absent. In Bagassola, to talk of long-term development endeavors to counter violent extremism is to elide the most pressing matter altogether: killing Boko Haram.

A group of girls in Dar Es Salam

"People do not speak of Boko Haram," Abdelhamid tells me. "I cannot even explain how evil they are."

Both Sani and Musa are of the opinion that Boko Haram, regardless of the underlying conditions that spawned it, represents a unique type of evil that must be met with force.

"It is impossible to negotiate with them," Sani says.

"Even if you call them and try to negotiate, they will refuse," Musa echoes.

"I want my government to fight," Sani concludes.

Until recently, the Nigerian military had been humiliated by its inability to defeat Boko Haram while also drawing criticism for its spotty human rights record. In the case of the Baga massacre, in what the refugees in Dar Es Salam describe as equal parts cowardice and betrayal, the Nigerian army fled, leaving civilians behind to fend for themselves.

One group that had grown accustomed to fighting Boko Haram is the Civilian Joint Task Force, vigilantes who were formalized into quasi-militias by the Nigerian government in 2013 when military leaders came to appreciate the value of working with the local population.

When I meet Zalha Adamu, he punctuates our handshake by promptly presenting his government issued Civilian JTF identification card.

"The Nigerian military is afraid to fight and die, but the Civilian JTF is not because we are defending our home and defending our families," says Adamu, one of the few Nigerians who made it to Chad with his family intact.

"They do not have the will to beat Boko Haram," he says of the government. "They point their guns at Boko Haram, but they run away as soon as the fighting starts."

On the day of the Baga massacre, Adamu says, the Nigerian soldiers dropped their guns and ran away when they saw that Boko Haram had come in unprecedented numbers.

As Adamu recounts his experience fighting Boko Haram, he cradles his most trusted weapon, a slingshot, made from the split end of a tree branch, thick rubber bands, and layers of tape and fabric. Normally, he says, he would also be carrying his cutlass and several homemade arrows.

During previous attacks on his village of Doron Baga, Boko Haram came in small numbers, and usually fled if they faced any stiff resistance, even if only from a Civilian JTF armed with artisanal weaponry.

But on the day of the Baga massacre, Adamu says, the Nigerian soldiers dropped their guns and ran away when they saw that Boko Haram had come in unprecedented numbers. The Civilian JTF picked up those weapons and fired until they ran out of bullets, but they too fled once it was clear that Boko Haram could not be repelled.

"Sometimes Boko Haram is wearing a military uniform, sometimes they are wearing normal clothes," says Adamu, who has also seen them wearing military uniforms of neighboring Niger and Chad. Adamu suspects Boko Haram acquired the majority these uniforms by raiding military barracks, by taking them from soldiers they killed, or from soldiers who undressed as they fled.

But Adamu offers another explanation, which goes to the heart of the Nigerian government's inability to defeat Boko Haram, and part of why Western partners such as the United States have been unwilling to share raw intelligence with the Nigerian military: complicity.

Adamu contends that Boko Haram's ability to procure military uniforms, AK-47s, rocket launchers, armored vehicles, and Israeli-made Tavor assault weapons used by Nigerian Special Forces suggests that the group has infiltrated the Nigerian military. Whether it is the result of complicity or outright corruption, Adamu does not know, but the "not one, not two, but many" Boko Haram fighters that he and his compatriots have captured and interrogated told them they had sources within the Nigerian military who are willing to sell weapons and equipment to them.

"With Chad and Niger helping, we can beat Boko Haram," Adamu says. "But if it is only the Nigerian army fighting, they will not be able to stop Boko Haram."

Related: More photos of areas ravaged by Boko Haram.

The prevailing theory among survivors at the Dar Es Salam camp is that the Baga massacre was an exercise in collective punishment aimed at the very communities that had the temerity to fight back, something that neither the Nigerian government nor its military were willing to do. January 3, they say, was an act of revenge.

When Boko Haram fighters came to Adama Issiako's village, they called for all of the men to assemble at the mosque.

"Among you, there are people who come from Doro and Baga," the Boko Haram fighters said. Issiako's husband was among the 11 men singled out.

"They said they knew he was from Doro," recounts Issiako. "He admitted to being from Doro, but he said that he had never been a member of the Civilian JTF or fought Boko Haram."

That Issiako's husband was a fisherman and not a vigilante meant little to the young men. They proceeded to kill him and nine of the other men they had selected. According to Issiako, they purposefully wounded the last of the eleven—choosing to let him live, Issiako says, so he could tell the story of the attacks and spread fear among the region.

Oumar Martins reading from his manuscript

One man who can corroborate these types of stories is Oumar Martins, a refugee who is eager to read aloud from his 22-page manuscript titled, "The Boko Haram That I Know." The handwritten document, originally written on loose scraps of paper but now carefully rewritten on United Nations stationary, is as much a collective memoir as it is a first draft of history. It describes the attacks that Martin witnessed in his village of Doro and distills the stories he heard from travelers and traders passing by his roadside pharmacy in the months leading up to the January 3 attacks.

The scenes Martins recounts in colorful prose track closely with the whispered testimonies that linger in the dry desert air at Dar Es Salam camp. During some passages, Martins writes of Boko Haram members as religious fanatics. Other times, Boko Haram fighters are portrayed as petty thieves who hijack merchant vehicles and hold hostages for small ransoms. In Martins's text, Boko Haram consists of battle-hardened jihadists as well as child soldiers, who he assumes "did not know the actual price of a bullet" as evidenced by their profligate shooting.

As with everyone else I spoke with in Bagassola, Martins has little regard for the Nigerian military. "Nigeria's army only wants money, but they don't want to help the population," he writes, describing soldiers stripping from their uniforms and fleeing barefoot as the Civilian JTF picked up their weapons.

"Even the local fishermen know where Boko Haram hides, but because they are scared, they don't tell anyone." –Oumar Martins

Martins's memoir details how in the weeks leading up to the Baga massacre, Boko Haram deliberately searched for people from the towns like Baga and Doro that had previously resisted incursions by Boko Haram.

"They started questioning drivers: 'Where are you from? Where are you going?' People who were originally coming from Doro, Baga and Bandaram were put aside," Martins writes. "They killed them in cold blood. They did not hesitate to kill them, even if some of them were acquaintances."

Martins also describes a scene similar to the one Issiako witnessed, in which Boko Haram spared certain people not as an act of compassion, but as a means to further terrorize villages they had not yet ransacked. Shortly after an attack in which Boko Haram had kidnapped dozens of women and young girls, they released two older women.

"Boko Haram decided to liberate two elderly women on purpose," he writes, "They told them, 'Go home, and tell your people that sooner or later, we will make your cities (Doro and Baga) disappear.'"

According to Martins, Boko Haram's methods of disseminating fear have proved effective in terrorizing local populations finto submission. "Even the local fishermen know where Boko Haram hides, but because they are scared, they don't tell anyone," he writes.

Hawa Ahmadou and two children under her care prepare to leave the tent where they've lived for weeks

It's been a rough few weeks for Hawa Ahmadou, but today she is smiling. She is leaving tent Z4B4TO43 for good, and she can't wait.

She claps her hands a few times and starts ordering her adopted family to pack up. It's a depressingly quick process, and within a few seconds, she and her children are ready to say good riddance to a place for which they have zero nostalgia.

To outsiders, staying warm in Bagassola, where midday temperatures are regularly in the 110s, might seem like a peripheral concern. But nights on the edge of the Sahara can be uncomfortably cool and Ahmadou's tent—shoddily constructed and made of a simple wood frame overlaid with tarpaulin—is no match for the nocturnal winds.

For weeks, Ahmadou and the five children under her care slept in a huddle, finding warmth not in the blankets provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency—they sold those in the local market in exchange for food—but in each other's body heat. The two youngest children, both four years old, often cried throughout the evening.

She gives a tour of the eight-by-15-meter box she has been begrudgingly calling home. Even by refugee camp standards, her living situation is dire, complicated by the fact that she has taken in three children who are not hers.

"I found these children on my way to Ngouboua," Ahmadou tells me. "I saw so many lost children. I took seven of them with me, but four of them were seen by their parents along the way."

When Boko Haram fighters attacked her island village of Kaukiri, they opened fire before Ahmadou could finish telling her neighbors that armed men had furtively snuck into town. She fled immediately, but lost track of her two daughters amid the hail of bullets.

Miriam, ten, and Fati, 7, spent three nights without their mother on various islands in Lake Chad. "I thank God I was able to find them," says Ahmadou, placing a hand on their heads and letting out a broad, gap-toothed smile.

During the same stretch of her days-long journey from Kaukiri to Ngouboua, Ahmadou took in Jamilu and Saratu, both four years old, and ten-year-old Fanné. All three children were unaccompanied and in boats headed for Niger, but Ahmadou knew there was a refugee camp in Ngouboua, Chad—people fleeing northern Nigeria had been passing through her home village for weeks—and she persuaded their caretakers to give them over to her. She thought an established refugee camp would be better able to care for them.

But when they arrived in Ngouboua, there was less immediate help than Ahmadou anticipated. The Chadian army gave them some mats, blankets, rice, and cooking oil. She and the five children relied on bits of charity from the desperately poor local fishing community and she collected firewood in the bush in exchange for food.

The rice and cooking oil have since run out, and the mats and blankets were sold in the local market to buy some tomatoes, seasoning, and more cooking oil.

"All of the things I have been given here—blankets, mats, pots—I have sold in the market so that I can buy food," she tells me, gesturing to her empty living space.

She shows me a half bottle of oil, one kilo of rice, and one kilo of flour that she bought the day before. "Once that runs out, I will have to find work," Ahmadou tells me. With only two plastic buckets, a water jug, and a few pieces of fabric to her name, there isn't much left for Ahmadou to barter with at the market. "Maybe I can find people in town to pay me to wash clothes or collect wood," she wonders.

A drawing by a child displaced by Boko Haram

You can find unaccompanied children like the ones Ahmadou cares for in just about any of the hundreds of tent dwellings that dot Dar Es Salam's sparse landscape.

One such child is Ali, a six year-old boy whose fixed scowl and incurious eyes seem tragically out of place on his sweet face. Ali arrived in Chad in January, and his parents are nowhere to be found, nor are any of his four sisters.

Ali made it to Dar Es Salam because of Maimouna Abdu, a 35-year-old mother of four and grandmother of one who reached Bagassola with her entire family, save for her husband, who she has not heard from since the attacks. Abdu knew Ali's parents and grabbed him when she—like just about everyone else in Dar Es Salam—was meandering her way through Lake Chad's constellation of islands. Ali, like many of the other young refugees in the camp, retains some damage from that journey.

"He rarely talks," Abdu says. "And he never goes out to play with the other children."

On the other side of the camp, UNICEF has set up a "Child-Friendly Space." At first glance, the gaggles of children playing soccer and coloring with crayons might seem like a testament to the resilience of youth. But the illusion subsides when one looks at the pictures they draw. Amid the scribbles are juvenile renderings of bloody scenes; pictures of guns, bodies, and canoes that hint at the psychological trauma that children like Ali are experiencing.

Most mornings, you can find a steady stream of refugees—usually women with children in tow—walking into town. Saturdays are particularly busy, with droves of people marching 24 kilometers round-trip to the market. They endure the searing heat and thick sand in a desperate attempt to leverage what little they do have into something only marginally better.

Some of them arrived in Bagassola with a bit of Nigerian currency that they convince local vendors to accept, though it means they'll get a raw deal. Others will trade what they acquired during their journey for something they deem more essential. A bucket provided by the UN might become a new blanket. A donated T-shirt might become three pairs of plastic sandals.

Issiako's daughter, Shamysa, puts on bright orange lipstick to match her headscarf, and walks around the camp selling cake she made from flower, sugar and cooking oil. A butcher has slaughtered a sheep and opened a small stand, a shadow of his thriving business back home. His neighbor sells tea, soap, cigarettes, and phone credit just as he did in Nigeria.

As dusk sets in, a truck packed with people pulls into the camp. A local Chadian authority tells me the passengers are refugees who have only recently been rescued from the islands of Lake Chad. He estimates that there might be as many as a thousand more still lingering somewhere between Bagassola and the Nigerian border.

"We've moved them here for their safety," says Idriss Dezeh, a Chadian official tasked with acting as a liaison between the Chadian government and the humanitarian community. "They were too vulnerable to Boko Haram." Days earlier, Boko Haram had crossed the lake on motorized boats and attacked refugees in the village of Ngouboua, only 45 kilometers from Bagassola.

As the new arrivals disembark from the truck, babies are handed out and the elderly are carefully helped off the flatbed. Each refugee is registered and given a blanket, a bottle of water, and some nutritionally fortified biscuits.

This is their new life in Bagassola. It's no way to live, but it is living. And for now, they are safe from Boko Haram.

Peter Tinti is an independent journalist who has written for Foreign Policy, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter.