Trained to Kill: How Four Boy Soldiers Survived Boko Haram
SPOTLIGHT, 26 Jun 2017
The four children, from a fishing village in Nigeria, were among thousands abducted by Boko Haram and trained as soldiers. They learned to survive, but only by forgetting who they were.
The names of the children in this article have been changed to protect them against retaliation from Boko Haram, the Nigerian government and their own community. No other details about the children or their situation have been changed.
25 Jun 2017 – When the boys of Baga think back to home on the shores of Lake Chad in northeastern Nigeria, they remember a life that was not hard on any human. At dusk, fishermen cast their nets in the lake’s blue-green waters, careful to avoid the spots where townspeople swam and washed. The next morning, men and boys — so many it would be impossible to count them all — would head back after prayer to retrieve them. Some ran “fast-fast” into the cold waters; others tread cautiously, readying their bodies for the chill and checking for objects hidden under the surface.
Each fisherman knew his net, marked with plastic ribbons and wood, by sight. The only mix-ups were intentional, when someone wanted to steal someone else’s fish. The boys knew the punishment for this: charms that could destroy your life, make a man lose his customers and shame him from showing his face in the town market. By 10 a.m., the boys walked through the encroaching Saharan sands to the mud-and-cement homes of Baga to see what their parents needed of them. Few went to school, and so by afternoon they mostly gravitated back to what they called “the riverside,” where they liked to go even if they had nothing to do at all.
Kolomi’s group gathered on the mud-and-grass banks beneath a shady tree. They called themselves Ajegunle, the name of a neighborhood in Lagos, though they didn’t know it at the time. They just liked the sound of the word. A-jeh-GOON-leh. They were jokers and pranksters and rode their bikes backward into trees and trained two brown dogs to hunt hares. They named the female Ramat, for Kolomi’s school, and the male Cena, after the American wrestler John Cena, whose colorful clothes flashed across the town’s TV screens.
Fannami, a small and bony 13-year-old with knotted muscles and big eyes rimmed with thick lashes, admired Ajegunle’s dogs from his house. How had they trained them so well? How did they sprint so fast when Kolomi called, only to stop short on their hind legs, as if ready to dance? Since his father had died, Fannami supported his family and was often home with his mother. He greeted Kolomi every time he passed; Kolomi, a short and handsome 12-year-old with a clever smile, waved back.
Neither boy spoke to Mustapha, though they knew the lanky teenager with narrow-set eyes, whose voice seldom rose above a whisper. His group built a shed to mark its territory and had a reputation — they smoked cigarettes and Indian hemp. Fannami and Kolomi knew that if Mustapha became angry, he would not forgive easily. Mustapha’s mother died when he was young, and he heard his father’s two other wives say cruel things to her before she passed. Years ago, his father was charmed, though Mustapha didn’t know why. He knew only that his father lost his provisions shop selling things like macaroni and soap and that he could no longer frequent the market. Eventually, he fell ill. Mustapha, 15, didn’t want that kind of trouble in his life. He avoided most people, except his best friend, Abba, who was a few years older. They told each other everything. When he was alone, he liked to walk to where the town elders gathered and sit close enough to eavesdrop. When he heard an inside joke, gossip or wisdom meant for their ears alone, it was as if he’d caught a secret.
Strangers rarely appeared at the riverside, but the boys remember when that started to change. Since they were small, they had heard about Boko Haram, which translates roughly as “Western education is sinful.” The group started out in the early 2000s as a peaceful protest movement 120 miles away in the state capital, Maiduguri. Its charismatic leader, Mohammed Yusuf, preached about ending endemic corruption through Shariah law and more equitably sharing the great oil wealth of Nigeria. He promised to end the poverty that plagued towns like Baga across Borno State, leaving villages without roads, electricity and water.
When Fannami’s mother heard the reports, she appealed to her sister. “Look at this man, saying ‘boko haram’!” she said. “Does that mean we should not enroll our children in school?” She was a kind and devout woman. She taught Fannami the Quran at home, and told him never to beg, never to gossip and always to try to forgive. She decided that she agreed with Yusuf. All along the riverside, people were talking: “Look, some genuine people have come-o to do the work of God.”
But in 2009, after years of rising tensions and occasional violence, Nigerian troops shot hundreds of Yusuf’s followers, captured him and turned him over to the police, who killed him in custody. Boko Haram went underground. Commanded by Abubakar Shekau, Yusuf’s former lieutenant, the group grew increasingly militant and began to attack security services and politicians in revenge for the killings. As the insurgency unfurled across the state, it did not miss Baga. One day, armed men on motorcycles killed a politician in the central market. Mustapha watched as nobody said a thing. This was a matter between the government and Boko Haram. It was then that the unknown men began to arrive at the riverside, guns slung over their shoulders, heads wrapped in turbans leaving only their eyes visible. They paid for the things they wanted and left. Sometimes Mustapha felt fearful of them, but he wanted to sell his fish, and the insurgents were customers — what was it his business?
Boko Haram grew bolder, and their words more threatening. They began abducting and killing innocent people in other towns — Muslim clerics, traditional rulers, Christians and teachers, anyone who opposed their ideology. The chatter on the riverside changed as well. Whatever hope the villagers had in the organization was washed away. Ah, there’s no sincerity in this thing, the people said.
Then one April day in 2013, the insurgents killed a Nigerian soldier in Baga. The Army retaliated by setting fire to the village. This had become a common military strategy — collective retribution and scorched earth — but no one had ever seen it on a scale like this. For two days, the earth shook and the land burned; many boys and their families hid along the riverside. When they came back, they learned some 200 people had been killed and 2,400 structures were destroyed — homes and market stalls turned to soot and ash. Villagers swore they saw soldiers throwing children into the flames. The people of Baga had no choice but to rebuild, but they no longer trusted the military, and they didn’t trust the insurgents. The boys learned to live in the between.
Kolomi was at Ajegunle’s tree with his friends. It was midday and the dogs were resting at their feet when the gunfire erupted. Ramat and Cena startled and began barking. Kolomi looked around — turbaned men stood blocking the paths from the shore to town. Boko Haram shot in the air. Some boys ran into the lake, but others didn’t react fast enough. The men aimed at movement. Many fell; many were brushed by bullets; Ramat was killed.
“Nobody move!” the men shouted. “All of you lie down and face down!”
The boys obeyed. No matter how old or how brave, Kolomi, Fannami, Mustapha and a tall 13-year-old named Zanna, whose group usually gathered nearby, lay with their faces on the earth, flat. The men tied their hands with rope. Anyone who protested was slaughtered with knives. From the ground, the boys could hear the sounds. The insurgents ordered them into waiting trucks.
It was crowded inside. There was too much heat and not enough air. After the trucks started moving, there was no stopping and no water. The sun moved across the sky. Some boys died, lying atop other boys, a tangle of sinewy adolescent limbs that moaned, shuddered and then grew still. The boys who survived stopped feeling. Maybe the sun set, maybe another kind of darkness descended, maybe twilight settled in, but they had stopped noticing. The trucks moved north along dusty roads. They bumped past clusters of thin-leafed neem trees, spindly acacia trees and the charred remains of other villages that Boko Haram or the military had destroyed.
Over the course of a four-day siege in January 2015, Boko Haram carted away the boys of Baga. No one knows exactly how many were taken, but by the end, it seemed as if almost every family was missing a boy or a girl. Virtually an entire town’s worth of children vanished. Across Borno State in that year, Boko Haram battered villages like Baga, ransacking, burning, looting, establishing control over territory or abducting people and taking them to their bases. From the parched northern border with Niger to the Sambisa Forest in the south, the insurgency seemed to know no bounds — Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria were not safe. Boko Haram was expanding its army.
The trucks eventually stopped in front of a traditional ruler’s palace, its high archways opening into grand rooms and sandy courtyards. When Fannami got out of the truck, it was dark — all he could see were more people, all of them marching into a great hall, where they sat. They tried to be quiet, but there were whispers.
“This room is hot-o.”
“We are hungry.”
“They want to kill us and you’re talking of such things?”
A young man next to Mustapha whispered to him: “Don’t you think these people want to kill us?”
“If they wanted to kill us,” Mustapha whispered back, “they would have killed us over there. Why would they suffer to bring us here?”
Flashlight beams illuminated drawings, dark shapes on the walls. Geometric decorations aren’t uncommon on the walls of traditional palaces, but here Mustapha saw guns. Guns on the walls, guns on the insurgents.
The boys remember different greetings to their new life:
Zanna saw a big man with a turban who addressed them in Arabic. One abductee said they didn’t understand the language, and the big man cocked his gun, but instead of shooting, he laughed loudly. “You people will know your mistakes,” he said. “You have come to where you will enjoy your life.”
“It is God that chose you to be part of us to do the work of Allah,” Fannami heard. “So if you cooperate, we work together. If you don’t cooperate, whatever happens is left to you. We will train and equip you to go and kill pagans.” The people around him shouted, “Allahu akbar!” But Fannami didn’t join in. He was thinking of his mother, who would have been at home when the violence started — was she still alive?
“I am warning you people,” Mustapha was told, “anybody who disobeys any law here, we will slaughter him like a ram.”
Mustapha watched an older man rise to his feet. “What you people did was wrong!” he said.
The big man was silent. A younger insurgent strode over to him. “You’re the one who wants to drag with the authority?” he asked and brought out his knife. He pierced the old man’s stomach and sliced his throat. The elder’s body fell heavily on those seated around him. The insurgent ordered two others to remove the head.
The boys sat in the hall all night. The insurgents passed out handfuls of dates and some water. Maybe the food and drink were charmed, for no one could sleep. Mallams back in Baga charmed water by writing a bit of the Quran on a wooden board and washing the ink into a bowl for people to drink. The next morning, the insurgents crammed the boys into the palace rooms, 30 to 50 in each. It was hot inside, and they were not allowed to open the windows. All they had were a few straw mats scattered on the floor. Boko Haram fed them a plate of rice once a day. They were told nothing, left alone with their fear and their whispers.
A week later, the insurgents opened the doors and told the boys they should get moving. Weapons training was starting. They were taken in trucks through Malam Fatori — a commercial town on the border with Niger ringed by smaller villages, some 50 miles from Baga. They noticed that houses here were separated by farmland and trees, not packed together like back home. When the boys looked out, they could make out villages even half a mile away. At a primary school, the insurgents divided them into three groups and distributed turbans and guns.
When he first got to Malam Fatori, Zanna saw an abductee shout the name of someone he recognized. The insurgents shot the man he called to. “Anybody that identifies anybody, we’re going to kill that one who is identified,” they told them. So the boys became deaf and mute. They learned to communicate with their eyes.
The instructors taught them how to shoot an AK-47, load ammunition and aim at targets. They learned that if they wanted to kill the enemy instantly, they should shoot the head, chest or stomach, but if they wanted to bring him to the camp and dismember him, they should shoot the hands or the legs. They were better fed during training. Three times a day female captives prepared food for them like biski, a local dish of ground cornmeal, with meat or vegetable soup. They were also given dates and water. The water was murky. So the boys continued to wonder if it was charmed. Otherwise, why would they start feeling so strange after they drank it? They became seriously interested in learning how to be like those people.
Zanna felt so strong he imagined he could lift the big man and throw him.
Mustapha wasn’t sure he felt anything at all.
At first, those in Mustapha’s group shot bags of sand, but later, the insurgents marched out eight or nine people they had sentenced to death. They told Mustapha’s group to form a U around them. The group raised their guns. Mustapha took aim at one of the men; he was light in complexion, tall and slim. When the instructors said, “Shoot!” Mustapha fired. He moved his gun to a second man and shot him too, then he trained his gun on the third. He was sure he was the one who killed the first man, but he didn’t know if he killed the second. Today, when Mustapha thinks of all the men he has killed, he cannot remember. He can only recall the ones he started with.
The eight-year conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian state has killed more than 20,000 and displaced millions. The people have slipped out of Boko Haram’s control quietly by night or trudged en masse from a large-scale attack to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. It was not until parents started pouring into the city that aid workers realized a new dimension of the problem. They saw the crowds of women and girls coming in and wondered: Where are the boys? No one knows exactly how many boys have been taken, though estimates number up to 10,000 — a stolen generation. “If we want to go back and try to maybe compute the demographics before Boko Haram, I am sure that we can arrive at some reasonable estimate,” Geoffrey Ijumba, Unicef’s chief field officer in Maiduguri, told me. “But that will only be an assumption — this is not factual. The only thing that is factual is that the boys are missing.”
Like many armed groups, Boko Haram uses a variety of methods aimed at changing an abducted child’s identity and breaking their bonds to home, making any return to their old life extraordinarily difficult. This is an intellectual and emotional separation that surpasses the physical one. As the group steadily escalates a child’s participation in violence, they are resocializing them. Training breaks a child’s will, and the first kill is a kind of baptism. Ritual becomes important. Charms and magic reduce guilt. Killing becomes normalized. The more gratuitous the violence — gang rape, ceremonial sacrifice, mutilating and murdering neighbors or family members — the harder it becomes to contemplate returning home.
“Over time, this strains the children’s ability to cope and to stay true to their civilian identity,” says Michael Wessells, a professor in the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University. “Many children engage in this strategy of splitting — technically the term would be ‘disassociation.’ ” Disassociation is akin to being torn in half — children see or feel the atrocities they commit like surreal dreams. This allows them to exist in a state somewhere between their previous selves and the reality of their new life.
“There is not much choice,” Helle Harnisch, a Ph.D. fellow at Dignity, the Danish Institute Against Torture, told me. “They have to change their ways, or they will get killed.” Harnisch has spent five years researching the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda — one of the more infamous groups to use child soldiers. “It is simple: Either I do this, or I die.”
Over three weeks this winter, I spoke with 25 children across Borno State. And while it’s true that the world of a child combatant is a powerless one, the children all made small calculations in how to go about surviving. They stole moments of agency. I met one 16-year-old girl who was forcibly married three times. When her second “husband” told her he was going to Bama, the town she was from, she made a snap decision to pretend she was in love with him. She smiled at him for the first time and asked him to pass a message to her mother. He did so twice until he was killed.
Some boys lived in two dozen tarpaulin tents in the bush, others in entire occupied towns, like Malam Fatori. Some were kept inside houses for the whole of their abduction and lectured on Boko Haram’s ideology. Others were given jobs, from logistical to tactical. One boy was given a bicycle to deliver tea around the camp all day. Some looted, loading trucks with pilfered village goods, searching dead bodies for jewelry and cash. A boy who had finished the fifth grade was called by the top emir of his camp to be his personal satellite-phone assistant. The emir was illiterate, so the boy was responsible for saving numbers and reading the caller ID aloud. Another drove a motorcycle to and from wells, bringing water back to the camp. Abuar, who told me he was 16 though he looked no older than 13, was given the job of feeding an antiaircraft gun mounted on the back of a Toyota HiLux pickup truck. At times, Abuar had to trail behind fighters with a bag of spare magazines, throwing them cartridges once they expended their ammunition. Another boy I spoke to carried petrol drums for militants to raze villages.
Abuar told me about a strategy that his commander employed: When facing the military, small boys in his unit, called “new catch,” were ordered to lead the advance, shooting wildly. Behind them marched captured herdsmen, driving their cows and rams. Senior insurgents, moving on foot or in vehicles, brought up the rear. The insurgents noted the number of dead animals as they passed. “The number of animals dying determined the strength of the military’s shooting and whether the insurgents would continue to come with us or they would run back,” Abuar explained. I asked why they counted the dead animals and not the dead children. “They don’t count our corpses,” he explained, “because the belief is human beings may dodge or may hide to avoid bullets, but animals are just moving. They’re easier killed.” At the end of the operation, he told me, the insurgents “would gather the dead animals along with the corpses of the new catch, set them ablaze and go away.” A pile of dead cattle and small boys on fire.
After the training ended, the boys were taken back to the palace in Malam Fatori. The largest building was used as the private quarters of the leader, or babban emir, but there were other structures, too — a labyrinth of spaces for purposes the boys did not know. Gathered in the sandy courtyard, the babban emir stood before them with his two subordinates, whom the boys called the second emir and the third emir. Tall and mature, the babban emir wore a traditional white jalabiya and cap. Mustapha wasn’t sure how old he was, no more than 30. The babban emir divided the assembled boys. Kolomi was sorted into the third emir’s unit and told to get up and follow his new leader. Mustapha and Zanna, bigger and stronger, were assigned to guard the babban emir’s palace.
Zanna took a post at the back side of the palace with 20 others. He tried not to talk to anyone — it wasn’t safe. Every day, from the time of his abduction through his training, he prayed in his heart for a chance to escape. Mustapha, too, was afraid, but more, he was confused. This was a problem with no solution. No help was coming. What to do?
The rhythm of camp life enveloped the new abductees. Activity was concentrated around the palace, everyone working to fortify the heart of the base against the Nigerian military, which periodically probed their defenses, trying to retake Malam Fatori. Boko Haram had declared itself a caliphate and pledged its alliance to ISIS. A tug of war for the arid earth had ensued. Every morning, the deputy emirs, whose units lived in the surrounding villages to protect the center, would come to greet the babban emir, entering his building for a private audience. Directives from Shekau may have been conveyed by satellite phone. There was coordination with the other babban emirs as well, but the boys of Malam Fatori never interacted with neighboring fiefs. Though Boko Haram was hierarchal, it was also fragmented, each division preoccupied with ensuring its own survival.
In the morning, groups set out on patrol in their trucks, checking the areas around Malam Fatori for traces of movement overnight — new tire prints, footsteps or animal tracks. Mustapha would quietly accompany the insurgents on patrol. He wanted to see how everything worked. Throughout the day, women who had been captured from nearby towns cooked food, which the insurgents ate from communal troughs. At night, the boys could sleep in any room in the palace compound, so long as it wasn’t in a room where women were kept. They barely prayed, and no one knew what day it was — only Fridays stood out, because on that day, they were fed rice with meat stew.
Mustapha again drew close to those who whispered. This was not a place to isolate yourself. He noticed the senior insurgents didn’t like people who didn’t have action. Those without action are lazy. When they talk, they cannot command, so they cannot send fear into someone. Men of action, however, were free to go where they wanted: to the market, to the tarred road outside the camp, even to other Boko Haram-controlled villages, where they could stay overnight.
One night after dinner, Mustapha was sitting in a room with the guards, reflecting on his problem. Boys chatted lazily by torchlight. There was no solution. No help was coming. What to do?
If you do not put in effort, they will not draw you close. You will just be among those that they could do without. He turned it over again. What to do? Look, Mustapha told himself, if I want to get out of this place, let me obey whatever they say. Let me do as they want. Is it not by cooperating with them that I can get my freedom? If I want to survive here, let me just be doing what they like. When they notice that, they will trust me. No, more, let me do what will earn me commendation.
Mustapha started looking for his chance.
After weapons training, Fannami was taken to a village on the outskirts of Malam Fatori to join his unit. Their leader, the second emir, was fat and well kept, his house cooled by an air-conditioner powered by a generator. He told his new recruits that they were the Special Forces, a strike force for dangerous missions. Fannami learned his group did not accept anyone older than 15. They didn’t want people who would be thinking about their family. “We want people who when they are determined to do something, they will just go ahead and do it,” their emir told them.
A second round of training began. The boys in his unit were taught how to climb trees and lay ambush on soldiers, how to counter military attacks, how to use a rocket launcher. They now learned to work different types of bombs — heavy ones that could be exploded by remote control, others they threw by hand and some they buried in the ground for vehicles.
Training took place every day in an open field. As they practiced, instructors circled them in a kiriku, a small armored tank not much bigger than a car. The kiriku dropped bombs on the ground, unleashing heavy booms. The explosions initially scared Fannami, but he grew used to the sound. They learned to drive the kiriku, as well as cars and motorcycles. They were taught how to arrange themselves in the trucks for operations: The front seat was for those people who killed without a second mind; the rest piled into the back.
At the end of the training, the insurgents returned them to the emir’s palace, where Fannami found some uniformed persons — military or police — tied to a stake. “Shoot and kill,” the instructors commanded. If a boy was not able to kill, the men would take the boy away and beat him seriously, then bring him back another day to shoot and kill. So it was then that Fannami learned to kill human beings. Fannami knew the insurgents were always watching. He learned that if they were to go out on operation, they would identify those who performed excellently and reward them. They could promote them to the front seat of a truck, or let them go and friend a girl from the two rooms where abducted women were kept. The boys would be killed if the magic dates or charmed water failed and a person returned to his senses, making unguarded statements about wanting to go home or that what they were doing there was wrong — saying so many things.
At night, the boys would sleep in the village’s deserted houses in shifts. Some rooms held up to 10 boys. They didn’t have mattresses, they didn’t even have mats. There were so many mosquitoes. When the wind blew, it got cold. Fannami would squeeze himself into his clothes — all he had was what he was abducted in, a red T-shirt and black trousers, and his new turban. Sometimes, the cold entered his body while he slept, and he would wake up and remember Baga. There, if it was cold, he would wake to find himself covered in a cloth. In the morning, he would ask his mother, and she would say she was the one who covered him. If there were many mosquitoes, his mother would come and use a cloth to drive them away and light a mosquito coil in his room. All those things — anytime Fannami woke up, he would realize he was missing them.
It was after Mustapha’s first raid on a village — after they’d killed many people and returned to find their men rejoicing and were fed a great celebratory feast of jollof rice with fish. It was after he was ordered to shoot an elderly man for an offense — he didn’t know what. It was after he was asked to go with five insurgents to a village for “a small thing,” which turned out to be a beheading, and where Mustapha, being the newest of the group, was told to do it. It was after he killed a man on a motorcycle just to commandeer the shiny bike. (When Mustapha thinks of it now, this is the one he mourns. “The first two, I killed them on instruction,” he explains. “The last one, nobody asked me to kill him.”) It was after all these attempts to gain Boko Haram’s trust that one day, some weeks after training ended, he volunteered to go and find two fellow insurgents who had been arrested and detained by the authorities.
Mustapha tracked them to a nearby police station. When he arrived, playing the part of a local villager, the police stopped him and inquired what he was doing. He asked if there was anything he could help them with but was sent away. Back in Malam Fatori, he collected a few others and led them to the station, where they opened fire. The group killed six policemen. They abducted two girls and freed the insurgents.
When the babban emir heard of this, he gathered the men of the camp and addressed Mustapha. “You went,” he said. “You rescued these two without any injury. You killed those policemen. You took their vehicle and brought it to us. You are definitely going to be very useful to us. I’m proud of you.”
“I thank you so much,” Mustapha responded and presented the babban emir with the girls they abducted. “I dash you these ones.”
“You are now the second emir of the camp,” the babban emir told Mustapha, and gave him a new name. The other emirs were demoted to third and fourth in the camp. Everyone cheered “Allahu akbar!” and shot their guns into the air. The babban emir divided those assembled before him again and led Mustapha to his new base — an abandoned village on the side of town. They inspected the terrain together. The babban emir told the second emir which house should be his. Mustapha’s new home had a master bedroom with a bed and a mattresses and, what Mustapha liked most, a sitting room with a big rug, two wooden chairs and enough windows to allow a gentle cross breeze. He now had three trucks at his disposal, though he did not know how to drive.
The second emir’s men — 60 of them, of all ages — carried things from the babban emir’s stores: food, women and ammunition. Mustapha told them where everything should go. He let his people select the best houses in the village. That night, all those earlier confusions vanished. Mustapha had found his solution. I will go all out to execute the babban emir’s instructions, he decided, rightly or wrongly.
The night the third emir announced the operation, Fannami had trouble sleeping. Before morning prayer, he readied himself, tucking his shirt into his trousers, tying on his turban and putting on the big green military helmet snatched from a dead soldier. Fannami never found a uniform to fit his scrawny frame. The boys stuffed handfuls of dates into their pockets and climbed into the backs of the trucks, eating as the convoy moved.
He was asked to go with five insurgents to a village for ‘a small thing,’ which turned out to be a beheading.
The trucks stopped in an open field. Hopping down, they saw that the senior insurgents were standing near thick bundles of grass that concealed holes in the earth: entrances to tunnels. The insurgents had honeycombed the area around their base. The most experienced knew which tunnel would take them beneath the soldiers and which one could turn you into a target. “Go into that one!” they commanded. “Go around. Go to that side!” Fannami bent down and walked through one for a long time. When he emerged, he found himself directly behind a large group of uniformed soldiers.
The insurgents were still organizing when the fighting began. They had not expected such a large enemy force. These soldiers were not like usual Nigerian military units, who spent more time shooting into the air and running back and forth, uselessly. They were organized and immovable. (Later, Fannami learned they were from the Multinational Joint Task Force — special forces from Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Chad and Cameroon.) Fannami knew he was supposed to be at the front, leading the attack: The insurgents had told him the soldiers didn’t like killing young ones. But he hated it there; he always tried to go to the middle or even to the back. He scanned for somewhere to take cover. As he looked ahead, he realized how many in the front had been killed. His mind cut, and his heart thrummed. His legs were too weak to carry him. Others must have felt the same, because many were turning back, so Fannami tried to run, but he tripped and fell. Something metal pierced his flip-flop.
Fannami watched as a boy running past him stopped. He threw his gun to the ground and heaved Fannami onto his back. There was so much blood. As the boy ran, Fannami’s blood trickled down the boy’s pants. When the boy tired, he put Fannami down.
“Thank you,” Fannami said.
“I was afraid, but I couldn’t leave you there,” the boy replied. “I had to carry you.” His name was Sale. It was then that Fannami decided this boy would be his friend.
Fannami and Sale began finding each other at meals. They liked to take the individual plates they were served and mix them into one big pile to share. Sale told Fannami his mother died when he was born. Fannami told Sale his father died when he was small, but he still remembered him. He talked about his kind mother. They wished over and over again that they could go home.
“Don’t worry,” Sale told him, “by the special grace of God, sooner or later, we shall leave here. God will not leave us in this place.”
“That is true,” Fannami replied. “We shall surely leave, by the will of God.”
They repeated these words to each other cautiously, aware that if insurgents realized you were fond of spending time with someone, they would also suspect you might be planning an escape. So Fannami and Sale mixed their food only once every three days. When they did, they made sure not to sit together for more than an hour. If they really wanted to stay in each other’s company, they would go into the bush and pretend to hunt.
One night Fannami dreamed that the insurgents told them that the war was over, that they had conquered Nigeria. “Everybody go back home!” they said. When Fannami returned, his mother saw him and was crying: “Where have you gone? You have spoiled yourself. You have carried a lot of sins.” She put him in a room, bathed him and changed his clothes. In his dream, he was happy.
Fannami’s mother had taught him not to fight, even when people insulted him. It was a sin to do so. But in the bush, Fannami saw everyone’s bad habits were magnified. Those who were bad now had the opportunity to be worse, and they were. Now that I have found myself where I should not be, Fannami told himself, I should not make my situation worse by fighting people. The best thing is, let me be showing gratitude to God by exhibiting good habits.
But there were times when he, too, would get carried away. During an operation, he would be shooting — the heavy gun shaking his body and making a sweet, satisfying noise. People would be running away from him, hiding behind a building, and Fannami would be running toward them. Then he would start to wonder: What has this person ever done to me? What is happening to me? He would drop the idea. So many things like that happened.
Fannami’s unit once went to raid a village, unaware that the military was stationed there. The soldiers killed many of their people, but in the end, the insurgents drove them away. The boys were told to go back and remove the corpses of their fallen heroes. When Fannami arrived, he saw so many bodies. Children even younger than himself. He didn’t know their names, but he’d seen some of their faces. Fannami helped carry them to a shallow grave. I could also be killed, Fannami thought, and this is how they are going to pick up my corpse and bury it. After they finished, he found a tree and climbed it. He didn’t know what else to do. Alone in the branches, he cried. After the small bodies were buried, the insurgents gave the village a long time to forget that Boko Haram had ever visited them. Then they went back and killed every young man there. They abducted the women and children and even the old men. The village’s offense was housing the soldiers. To Fannami it felt like justice.
Mustapha now had no restrictions except the customary morning visit to the palace, where he greeted the babban emir and took his instructions. If there were none, Mustapha could tell him he wanted to go on patrol, and the babban emir would nod. Back at the base, Mustapha was in charge. Minor infractions, punishable by flogging, rarely came to him, but any decision for execution rested with him. He dealt with these about once a month, but they did not weigh on him — everyone knew the rules. The guilty were never shot; they were slaughtered with knives.
Among those in his camp were men whose job it was to collect the blood from executions, put it in a black plastic bucket and keep it for when the insurgents returned from war so they could wash their hands in it. Mustapha did not know why they did this, just that the insurgents had been washing their hands with blood when he arrived, and so after returning from battle he, too, washed his hands with blood, sinking them deep in the bucket, lifting them out and rubbing his palms together.
Mustapha found he enjoyed his new life so much he did not even want to remember having been a fisherman. Each morning, he woke early and took his breakfast. Boys brought him water in which to bathe, and his bathroom was always stocked with soap and cream. The women working in his house asked what he wanted for dinner and washed his clothes. He found himself eating often with a young man in his early 20s named Mubarak. Mubarak gave Mustapha good advice and was thoughtful. Mustapha never told Mubarak something and heard it later from someone else. He reminded him of his friend Abba back in Baga. He had the same quiet laugh and the same walk, a slow drag of his legs as if they were too heavy to lift off the earth.
Mustapha now had a dozen outfits to chose from, including a camouflage vest reserved for emirs. By 7 a.m., he would go to his base and dispatch his people for patrol, then spend the day sitting with his men, listening to their chatter. Mustapha was young, so he adopted a strategy: He didn’t harass those under him needlessly. He never ordered people to go bring him things. He did everything himself. He rarely spoke. That way, when he did command his men, in his soft, low voice, they would know he was serious.
Mustapha knew it was important to remain light. He had noticed the great changes in himself. Back in Baga, if he saw a dead body being conveyed to the cemetery, that day was a problem for him. He would leave his room and spend the night among his half brothers out of fear. But since he got to Malam Fatori, Mustapha sometimes caught himself wondering: Am I the same person? Myself, who doesn’t want to see corpses, I can now just cross over them and go back to a sound sleep? There were drugs in camp, sold by people who brought them from outside villages. Mustapha got his free. He took a pill called Desert 200, which he had also taken back in Baga to help him forget anything that disturbed him. Now he moved about with it in his pocket all the time; he hardly did anything serious without taking it.
When Mustapha felt inclined, he could go into the special rooms at the emir’s palace or at his own base and pick a girl to friend. On entering, he would always spot the one he liked, no matter how many were there. When he called them, most girls would oblige. Some of the girls he pointed to would be shedding tears, but they did not make any effort to stop him. He was sure they knew what was about to happen. Perhaps they were only feigning reluctance modestly. They would make it look as if they didn’t want to, but when he took one home, she would cooperate. “Oh, I don’t like it,” some said, even when it was just the two of them. But as she was saying “Oh, I don’t like it,” she would be undressing.
When he first brought Bintu home, she was not free with him. She was very angry and so worried. “Look, better relax your mind,” Mustapha told her. “There’s nothing you can do. Relax your mind. It will be better for you.” Afterward, Mustapha did not order her to return to the rooms. A short time later, when he got malaria, Bintu was the one who cooked for him and took care of his feverish sweats. He did not send her away after he recovered. She slept in his bed, and Mustapha didn’t friend anyone else. Often when he looked at Bintu, he felt like laughing, and she would ask him, “Why are you looking at me and laughing?” And Mustapha would say, “O.K., if you don’t want me to, lower your face.” So Bintu would look down, and then she, too, would laugh. Sometimes Bintu would start: “When I look at you … ” and Mustapha would finish “I feel like laughing.” They would laugh together.
People would be running away from him, hiding behind a building, and Fannami would be running toward them. Then he would start to wonder: What has this person ever done to me? What is happening to me?
Whenever a woman at Mustapha’s base delivered a son, he reported the birth to the babban emir. The other emirs did the same. One month after the birth, a man from the palace would come to collect the baby, and everyone would know. In the palace courtyard, the baby would be put on a special table with a hole in the middle. Anybody could watch as they lay the baby flat, neck over the hole. The emir from the unit would be given a special knife — sharp, double-edged with a black handle. He would use it to slaughter the baby. The blood would drain through the hole and into a bucket. That was how the insurgents slaughtered their sons. Mustapha couldn’t ask questions. He slaughtered four babies this way. It was just something that needed doing.
Sometimes reinforcements from the babban emir’s guard would come to assist Kolomi’s unit. When they heard the boys complaining about the fourth emir, they would say: “Ah-ha, your emir is better. His own problem is just women. If you meet the second emir, that’s when you know that you have seen a wicked person.” Kolomi didn’t often think about Baga. But one day he was in the kitchen collecting his food when he saw the pot. It was the same kind they used at the riverside to cook pepper soup from the fish they caught. From then on, Kolomi didn’t like going to the kitchen. Each time, he would see the pot and say to himself: Oh, this life, it is not reliable. Look at me, here I am doing what I did not bargain for.
Fannami had also heard the rumors about Mustapha: The second emir was the most wicked emir, who easily ordered executions.
Zanna heard no such thing. He knew Mustapha was fearless, but he did not think him wicked. In Baga, he had seen Mustapha fight only when someone touched something that belonged to him.
Whenever the deputy emirs were going on an operation, they could come to the palace and choose reinforcements. Zanna’s body shook when he saw an emir walking the perimeter. He would sweat, even when the weather was not hot. He would pray again and again in his heart that they not pick him. But when the second emir came, Zanna felt more at ease. Zanna was sure Mustapha recognized him, even if their eyes never met. Mustapha didn’t pick him to go on an operation. He came to the palace three times and never chose Zanna. This is how Zanna knew Mustapha was protecting him. God has joined my blood and his blood, Zanna told himself.
The fourth time, the babban emir escorted Mustapha and pointed at Zanna’s post. “You go and join him,” the babban emir said. Zanna got up and followed Mustapha. The babban emir turned back to look at Mustapha. “You look angry,” he said. “Is there a problem?”
“No, nothing,” Mustapha responded.
Zanna could tell that Mustapha was angry. Mustapha doesn’t want me to go to war, Zanna thought. Before battle, Mustapha shook hands with all of his reinforcements and told them to be careful during the operation. They prayed for success and set off. Mustapha assigned Zanna to the group in the back and went ahead. When the battle started, Zanna dropped his gun and escaped. This is how Zanna is sure the second emir saved his life and wasn’t wicked at all.
Mustapha was sitting on the floor of his bedroom one evening when the question came to mind. He could hear people talking outside. Leaning against the wall, he rested his gun between his legs. We are always using blood to wash our hands. Blood of children or adults who are going to school. And that system may never stop. He turned it over and over in his mind. It may never stop. He thought about it for a long time, then drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, something in him had changed. He lost interest in that place. He tried to keep up appearances. He went out on patrol and sat with his men, but he stayed away from the babban emir. After four days, the babban emir sent a message for Mustapha to come to the palace.
“I hope all is well,” he said. “I have not seen you for some time.”
“I am not feeling very fine,” Mustapha told him.
“Why didn’t you tell anybody? And you’re still going out on patrol?”
“Yes,” Mustapha said.
“Stay behind. Don’t be going out until you recover fully,” the babban emir advised.
“Thank you,” Mustapha said, and was dismissed.
So Mustapha stuck to his daily routine. He continued raiding and warring. Afterward, like everyone else, he would wash his hands in blood. But now he didn’t dip his hands all the way, just his fingertips.
A few weeks later, Mustapha was in one of his trucks, on his way to the big tarred road about an hour’s drive from camp to attack vehicles passing with goods. His friend Mubarak was at the wheel. Mustapha sat quietly in the passenger seat, smoking his Benson & Hedges. There were two boys in the back seat, and five standing in the back.
“Look, this type of thing we are doing,” Mustapha told Mubarak suddenly. “I’m sure there are some of us that do not want to do it. They are just doing it because they have no alternative. I’m sure if some of them get the opportunity to escape, they wouldn’t mind escaping.”
Mubarak laughed his soft way and said nothing.
“Look, I’m serious,” Mustapha said. “I’m not joking.”
“Ah, I thought you just wanted to hear what people would say,” Mubarak ventured cautiously. “I didn’t know you were serious. No problem, then: By the will of God, God will create a situation for us where we can escape.”
Mustapha was silent. Mubarak kept driving.
They pulled up under a large acacia tree where the insurgents usually waited until the afternoon traffic reached its peak. Mustapha’s boys got out of the car and stood under the shade, waiting. Mustapha opened his door, but stayed in the car, facing them. He turned to Mubarak again. “Mubarak, it’s just like what I told you. This job, a lot of people are tired of it. If they see the chance, they don’t mind escaping.” He had everyone’s attention. “Look, gentlemen, see what I said in the vehicle, how do you people see it?”
“You are our leader: Anything you decide, we are ready for it,” someone said, as others in the circle nodded.
Another, older than Mustapha, took care to look anywhere but at his emir. “No,” he said, “we are doing the work of God. We cannot say we should stop and go. How can you be talking like that? The best thing is we should endure. The work of God is always hard.”
A debate began, some saying what they would do if they had their chance. One said he didn’t know where he would run, because he had no relatives. Others seemed buoyed by the prospect of going home. Mustapha smoked silently in the car. In the end, there were three who said they did not want to go.
“Shoot them,” Mustapha said. The others fired.
Mustapha finished his cigarette and got out of the car and looked at his remaining boys. “O.K.,” he said. “Let’s go.” They decided to head to a junction they had heard about with easy roads leading to Niger and Maiduguri. Along the way, Mustapha’s mind refused to settle.
Could some of our people go out on patrol and discover those corpses? Could they scout our vehicle and try to block us? Will soldiers find us?
It was early evening when they arrived at the junction and found a nearby ditch to push their truck into. They stashed their guns, knives and turbans in the truck and covered it in grass. Mustapha turned to his men to issue his final command: “We should all move individually, because moving in a group, even if it is a group of two, can raise suspicion. All of you should be careful. Don’t show as if you are from the bush. When you see water, wash your body, look clean.” Everyone raised their arms, fists clenched, a farewell salute. Then each one turned and started walking in his own direction.
Mustapha walked for a few miles in his military boots before tossing one behind and one ahead. He knew people feared unknown faces, so he always pretended as if he came from a neighboring town. At night, he would look for the lights of a village, a lantern or a fire. He would sleep in the local market, after people had left their stalls. Early in the morning he would leave. It took Mustapha five days to reach Maiduguri. The city rose from the sands, crammed with people, cars, market stalls and auto-rickshaws. While Mustapha had been in the bush, Boko Haram continued to fight for territory. Refugee camps mushroomed — 12 at last count. Fewer than a quarter of the new arrivals settled in the camps; the rest squatted or lived with relatives. Mustapha went immediately to seek news of Baga. He had been gone for more than a year and a half.
Fannami was captured by soldiers. They tied his hands and put him in the back of a truck. He was more scared at that moment then he had been during the initial abduction. He was no longer innocent. When the truck broke down, Fannami ran into the darkness and dropped down, crawling until he reached a bush where he spent the night. Kolomi was also captured by soldiers. When his truck stopped, he asked if he could relieve himself and slipped away, too. Given the chance, they scattered like children of birds.
When Fannami got to Maiduguri, he asked for an area where he remembered his relatives had lived. When he arrived there, he asked for their house. He found his mother. She stood up, came to him and held him. They sat down together and started crying. Fannami was unkempt, he was hungry and in his heart he knew he had sinned. Fannami’s mother told him to go and take a bath. She brought him new clothes to wear, and she fed him chicken. It was just as he’d dreamed.
Fannami’s mother told him that many villagers from Baga had escaped and made their way to Maiduguri. But she cautioned him not to tell anyone what had happened to him. All the boys had to be wary of the military and the Civilian Joint Task Force, a vigilante group the government authorized in 2013 to fight Boko Haram. Any involvement with insurgents was treated as abetting. Adults and children with any association with Boko Haram are taken to the notorious Giwa Barracks, where they are detained indefinitely in squalid conditions. Boys whom I interviewed told me they had been crammed in cells with between 50 and 100 other children, forbidden to speak to one another and unable to contact their families until the military decided, seemingly at random, to release them. Human rights groups speak of extrajudicial killings by the Civilian J.T.F. as an open secret.
‘We are always using blood to wash our hands. Blood of children or adults who are going to school. And that system may never stop.’
Once children were released from Giwa, the Nigerian government considered them “cleared.” If they moved into an official camp, there were free schools and sporadic psychosocial support programs, but the need far outpaced the response. For former abductees who moved into the community, there were even fewer options. Children were essentially left to fend for themselves. Aid agencies descended to assist with famine, acute malnutrition, education and peer-to-peer counseling, but none of these efforts had reached the boys I spoke to. When I asked, they said they didn’t even want the help. They thought they’d be turned over to the military and to Giwa Barracks. They had reason to fear. The Nigerian government has been keeping the Chibok girls who were rescued from captivity in custody for the past eight months.
For those who avoided Giwa, life became uncertain. Fannami didn’t know what to do with himself when he returned. “In the morning, I would quickly come out of the house as if I’m going to do something important. But what really used to bring me out was to watch children going to school. Then I would look at the road. I would see people of different ages, including young men, driving cars. I would say, Have I lost out? Can I ever be like these people? Is the opportunity still there? Why did I make this mistake? If I had left the whole of this area when insurgency started, before I was abducted, wouldn’t it have been better?” Fannami, more than anything, wanted to go to school.
During Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, Fannami ate chicken for the second time and went to the zoo. He was entranced by the lion. He is seeing us like meat, but he has no right to come out of his cage and catch us, he thought. On his way out, he passed Kolomi. The boy with the dogs! He went back and introduced himself. When they pieced together that they had both been in Malam Fatori at the same time, Kolomi felt relieved that someone else had passed through this trouble. Fannami was angry. If he’d been around people from home, perhaps he could have escaped sooner. Kolomi was living with his older sister and going to school. He had forgotten many details about his time in Malam Fatori and didn’t know why. It was as if someone had scrawled an eraser through his memory at random.
Fannami later saw Zanna at the barber shop where he worked sweeping the floor. “I know you from Baga!” Fannami said. “Yes, it’s true,” Zanna said. Fannami also saw Mustapha on the street, but he never spoke to him. Mustapha looked the same in and out of the bush — his eyes hadn’t changed. Fannami did not want anything to do with him.
When Mustapha arrived in Maiduguri, he waited a week before going to find his grandmother. It took two more days for him to see his older sister. He told them that Boko Haram detained him in a house for a month, until soldiers had liberated them. “I know how society is,” he explained. “I know how they are treating the parents of children that joined Boko Haram. Why should I put my relations in that situation?” He moved out of his grandmother’s house as soon as he could — he did not feel free there — and started washing cars and three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, called keke Napep. The owners left their keys so the washers could park the vehicles when they were done, and so Mustapha finally learned to drive. Mustapha decided to hang around the drivers, pulling shifts, and soon he got a vehicle from someone with a fleet and started driving full time. Sometimes, without warning, he remembers, and he is back in Malam Fatori. If he’s carrying passengers, they will notice and ask: “What is wrong? You look so worried, you have changed.” He will tell them, “It’s nothing.” But when they are gone, he will park on the side of the road and pretend to be repairing something until he comes back fully to his senses.
I met these boys in hotel rooms that felt in turn like safe houses and prisons. None of the boys know their exact age. Fannami and Zanna estimate they are now 15, Kolomi says he is 14 and Mustapha thinks he is around 18, but looks younger. They all chose the names that were used in this article. Day after day, they returned to tell me about things they had all tried to forget. They came before or after work, between jobs, after school, on the weekends. I began to wonder why. Unlike the abduction of the Chibok girls, which briefly turned into a global sympathy saga, no one seemed to care about the boys from Baga. These children walked out of hell into a world that didn’t seem to want them. The stories they told me about rituals like infant slaughter and bathing your hands in blood have not been previously reported as part of life under Boko Haram. But their stories were consistent, and rumors of such acts have circulated around northeast Nigeria.
While the rest of the boys would come to the hotel and drape themselves over the furniture, their teenage frames straining with muscles and hormones (they closed their eyes midinterview, crinkled plastic soda bottles, cracked their knuckles, burped and laughed), Mustapha always sat straight and still. He was always on time. Unlike the other boys, he asked me nothing about myself. He made wry rhetorical jokes, like when I asked him if during his abduction, from the back of the truck, he could see the stars. “How could I pay attention to the sky?” he told me, laughing. “It didn’t come to my mind. I didn’t know there was something like sky existing.”
I asked him to draw me the layout of the emir’s palace. When I handed him my pen, he looked at it bemused, asking the translator what he was supposed to do with it. “I have never handled a pen,” he remarked. When he was done, he told the translator he thought his drawing was terrible. “Do you see how the lines I drew bent?” he asked us. I told him things bend in real life.
A few months before I spoke to him, Mustapha leased his own vehicle. In a few more months, he will own it. I asked Mustapha if he ever contrasted any of the luxuries of life as the second emir to his new life as a driver. Sitting on the carpet floor, he leaned back on an armchair with his legs stretched out and spoke slowly. “If you look at what I told you, I started as someone washing other people’s vehicles. I came to be driving as a second driver to the main driver. Then I became a driver. Now I’m driving my own. So there is improvement,” he said. “I never in my life contemplate that the other life was better. That life was life as an abductee, life as a slave. This one is life in freedom.” He has a girlfriend now who had been a passenger; he thinks he may marry her one day. “If I’m angry, I go to her, and she knows how to talk to me. We end up laughing, and I will forget I was angry.” He will never tell her his story. If she asks, he says, he will tell her, “There was a time they drove us away, and we ran.”
Photographs by Glenna Gordon.
This story was created with support from the Pulitzer Center.
A version of this article appears in print on June 25, 2017, on Page MM42 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: The Boys From Baga
Sarah A. Topol is a writer based in Istanbul. She has written for The Atlantic, GQ, Harper’s, The New Republic, Outside and more. She won the Kurt Schork Award for her coverage of the civil war in Libya.
Glenna Gordon is a photographer and has worked regularly throughout Africa since 2006.
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