Baga, a community in Borno State, has always been a quiet town until penultimate Friday when the people of the community were caught in the crossfire between Boko Haram insurgents and the Multinational Joint Task Force that left the community in sorrows, tears and blood, reports Michael Olugbode
Her children were still playing in the dry and dusty earth by the time the soldiers arrived. The fishes were splashing in the lake near the community as usual, but a moment later, Baga became a bleak and empty place.
To the outside world, Baga, a community in Borno State, was relatively unknown until penultimate Friday when the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) claimed that it was provoked to launch a counter attack against insurgents who had held the town by the jugular and thereafter left about 36 to 200 people dead (depending on who is to be believed) and 2,000 houses burnt.
A town, which serves as the administrative capital of Kukawa Local Government Area, located in the northern part of Borno State and shares a porous border with the Republic of Chad and is demarcated by Lake Chad, was known more for fishing and the processing of seafood of all types.
The fish from this border town has provided a good food supplement in many homes across the country through the work of merchants who bought and transported the normally smoked fish to the far reaches of the country.
Even with the smoked fish from Baga arrived on many tables in the country, the name of the town, which boasted merchants from diverse ethnic groups, remained a mystery to many.
But that has become a thing of the past. Baga has become a song; a dirge on everybody's lips. One of sorrow, tears and blood with graves scattered over the hills. Indeed, the wounds in Baga would take time to heal and the losses would hardly be recovered just as the story of the carnage will always have its place in record books.
To be frank, the bloodbath in Baga was a disaster waiting to happen. All the signs had been visible for a long time until it happened a few days ago. That was attested to by the commander of the MJTF, Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye, who claimed that the soldiers had exercised restraint for so long under intense provocation from the insurgents and that the recent clash that led to the reported death of about 200 persons was highly provoked.
He said during one of such incidents in the past, a soldier was beheaded in the town by the terrorists who took cover in the community after the dastardly act and on another occasion soldiers were ambushed by the insurgents during which a soldier was killed and the terrorists shielded by members of the community.
Edokpaye said though the terrorists had always come to Baga to extort money from the people of the town, no formal complaint had been brought to his men even as the residents of the town continued to shield the sect members. He said that the military had intelligence report that they were going to be attacked but when the people of the town were approached for assistance they were not forthcoming.
He said: “The terrorists have been taxing the people for so long and we have had information that they were prepared to attack us which we confronted the people with but they denied.”
Edokpaye, who claimed that the conflagration was never the making of the military but was caused by the weapons deployed by the insurgents, said the military was at no time unprofessional in its task in the area.
He added: “We lost an officer during the attack on our men on patrol. We've received intelligence that some suspected Boko Haram members usually prayed and hid arms at a particular mosque in town. It was around that mosque that our men were attacked, with several of them injured and an officer died.
“When we reinforced and returned to the scene the terrorists came out with heavy firepower including RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) which usually have a conflagration effect.” Edokpaye maintained it was the RPGs that destroyed the houses.
He claimed 36 persons including a soldier were killed in the clash that also left 30 insurgents and 6 civilians dead while 15 others that included 5 soldiers and 10 civilians sustained various degrees of injuries.
Edokpaye disclosed that recovered ammunitions included three rocket propelled grenade launchers, two rocket propelled grenade bombs, four AK47 rifles, 435 ammunitions, several quantities of IED materials, and three damaged Toyota Land Cruiser vehicles belonging to the terrorists.
He said contrary to media reports that hundreds of houses were burnt, it was the explosion from the Boko Haram terrorists’ bombs that triggered the fire that torched “30 thatched houses in the predominantly fishing community.”
The claims by Edokpaye and other military sources have however been disputed by the people of the area who said the military took the law into their hands by attacking their abode, killing them in the dead of the night and during the day, and laying their properties to waste under the guise that a group of terrorists killed one soldier.
Kukawa Local Government officials told Borno State governor, Alhaji Kashim Shettima during a visit to the area that 185 persons died, at least 2,000 houses, 64 motorcycles and 40 cars were burnt in the wake of the attack, and that the soldiers were responsible for the torching of houses that led to the death of many persons.
Residents said most casualties especially among the aged and children happened as a result of the conflagration that engulfed the entire town. The attack started at about 8 pm on Friday and stretched into Saturday.
One of the residents, who pleaded anonymity, said: “Only God can understand what we have done to deserve this. But the soldiers were mindless that night in their approach, they killed and burnt our houses, chased everyone into the bush including women and children. So far, we have buried 185 corpses - some were burnt beyond recognition; others are hospitalised with various degrees of burns.”
According to a prominent son of the town, Senator Maina Ma'aji Lawan who was a former governor of Borno but is currently a serving senator representing Borno North, the destruction in Baga has been underreported.
He claimed that after his visit to his hometown to assess the level of destruction, he saw nothing less than 4,000 houses destroyed. “What I have seen is far, far more than the report we have received, the level of destruction of houses I have seen is nothing less than 4,000... When we are talking of houses, we are not talking of mansions, because for a farmer and his wife and two children their whole house is probably not more than twenty by thirty yards.
“There are those who are well to do with well-laid houses, but to the poor man who has a room and parlour to himself, a room for his wife, when you level that one, the devastation he goes through is much more than a billionaire’s mansion that has been levelled.
“I want people to appreciate that when we are talking about the number of houses, it is such number of houses for the poor people, low income people, or ordinary Nigerians that we are talking about. I have visited four kilometers of continuous carnage; I walked round talking to people, and pacifying them. So what I have seen with my eyes outweighed what was reported.”
He continued: “I just visited the hospital where they are… I saw people whose ages range from 7-year-olds, 5-year-olds and 90-year-olds surrounded by grandchildren. For God’s sake these are not the people that our law officers should target.”
The senator further said: “I have visited the grave yard, and I do not want to trade words with the Nigeria military spokesman as to the authenticity of his figures, because I have talked to the aid agencies which participated in the burial, and I have interacted extensively with the victims and their families. In the three grave yards that I visited and including the one inside the town, the total number of the dead is 228.”
Many residents of the area who spoke when THISDAY visited Baga claimed that the soldiers had always been hostile to them, treating them like common criminals and were not surprised that they hid behind the excuse that one of the soldiers was killed by the insurgents to kill over 200 inhabitants of the town.
One Mallam Bukar Maina said: “We are in our houses when we heard sounds of gunshots which lasted for about five minutes and then we learnt that a soldier had been killed by unknown persons. It was around 8.30 pm and after an hour we continued to hear sound of gunshots which lasted till 4.30 am and by this time they have started burning people’s houses and it continued till the following day.”
Another resident of the area where most houses made of thatched roof were burnt down, accused the soldiers of looking for an opportunity to deal with the people because they believed they were harbouring members of the sect in an area called “Bayan Hospitu”.
“I wonder why they would punish many people for the sins of one or two people. Now many of us have been made to go through agonies while some have lost their means of livelihood to the crisis,” he lamented.
A 27-year-old man, who simply identified himself as Modu, said: “My brother, his two wives and three children have been missing from the first day when the incident happened. We do not know whether they are dead,” further claiming that his brother’s house including all his property was completely razed by the soldiers.
“Since the incident we have searched for him and members of his family, but to no avail, we searched the house to see if they were inside but we did not see them because some people were burnt inside their houses. I am afraid that something bad might have happened,” he said.
Another victim, who simply identified herself as Aminat, said: “It was just like a dream on that night as we were all sleeping when we started to hear gunshots and before we knew it, we ran out of our houses which were burnt to ashes by the soldiers. Since then, I have not seen my husband; I pray nothing has happened to him. We are now refugees in our own town. A good Samaritan provided us with food and clothings this morning,” she said with tears streaming down her ashen face.
Until this incident, the last reported attack in the area was the slaying of a Nigerian customs officer. This time, the multinational force took the battle to the “home” of Boko Haram Islamists. Reports claim that the civilian casualties were high because the insurgents used the residents as human shields from the gunfire of the MJTF.
In the aftermath of the bloodbath, several groups have called for a judicial inquiry into the Baga incident, but it remains to be seen whether a thorough investigation will be conducted and those found to have acted outside the confines of the law would be sanctioned or not.