Baga, a town in northern Borno State on the Nigerian border with Chad Republic, is famous for its economic potentials in trading in stock fishes, which are produced, processed and transported to places both within and outside the country. But last week, the town made news headlines as a result of the massacre of about 200 people following a clash between soldiers attached to the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and Boko Haram insurgents.
The mayhem turned the place into a ghost town after the residents fled to find shelter in neighbouring communities. Weekly Trust visited the community on Wednesday and Thursday and observed that the people of the community are yet to recover from the shock. It was learnt that one of the reasons why the massacre took time before it was known to the public was that the town had been cut off from the rest of the country after telecommunication masts in the area were burnt down by suspected Boko Haram members.
Weekly Trust gathered that since last year when the onslaught on telecommunication masts began in the town, the community had problems communicating with other parts of the world through mobile phones. Many, Weekly Trust was told by residents, devised a means of going to neighboring Bakaka Goni to make calls.
In some cases the residents have to climb trees before they can get network access to make calls.
A motorcycle rider in the town, Modu Mahmuda, said most times, he takes people on his bike to Monguno to make calls and when they are through, he takes them back to the community.
Some residents lamented that it was due to lack of communication means with other parts of the country that made it difficult for the message to reach out.
“It almost went unnoticed but for providence that made the atrocities known days after it happened,” a community member stated.
When it actually began
Contrary to media reports that the incident began at the weekend, sources in the town said it took place on a Tuesday and lasted till the weekend.
Malam Bukar Maina, a resident of the area, said they were in their houses when they heard gunshot sounds which lasted for five minutes.
He said speculations went around the community that a soldier was killed by unknown gunmen at around 8:30 pm
“After an hour, we continued to hear more gunshots that lasted till 4:30am and by this time they had started burning people’s houses uptill the following day,” he alleged.
Another resident alleged that soldiers have been looking for an opportunity to deal with members of the town because they believed they were harboring members of the sect in an area called ‘Bayan Hospital’.
“I wonder why they should punish many people of the community for the sins of one or two persons,” the middle aged man said.
Some victims of the mayhem told Weekly Trust that they will never forget in a hurry the trauma they experienced when their village was invaded by soldiers. The Joint Military Task Force however denied all the allegations, insisting that the number of casualties has been exaggerated.
Many still missing
A 27-year-old man called Bukar, said his brother, the man’s two wives and three children have been missing since the battle erupted last week Tuesday.
He alleged that his brother’s house, including all his property, were completely burnt in a fire set by the soldiers.
“Since the incident, we have searched for the family members to no avail. We searched the burnt house for their remains, but did not see any and we are afraid that something bad might have happened to them,” Bukar said.
While recalling how the incident happened, he said they were at home at around 8:30pm Tuesday last week, when the sound of gunshots was heard.
“Before we knew what was happening, some houses were on fire including that of my neighbor and I ran to a nearby village but later returned on the day the governor visited our community and found that my own house was also burnt,” he added.
A resident, Mohammed, appealed to the state government to fulfill their promise of rebuilding burnt homes in the town.
Thirty year old Aishatu Sani Bagobiri and mother of seven, said her husband Sani Bagobiri is still missing since the crisis erupted.
The woman and her children were among those evacuated to a refugee camp, which is about 10 kilometers away from Baga town, by officials of the National Emergency Management Agency.
“It was just like a dream that night as we were all asleep when we heard gunshots and before we knew what was happening, our house was on fire and we ran out for safety. Since then I have not seen my husband and pray nothing happens to him,” she said.
Aishatu lamented their present condition in a refugee camp and said it was a Good Samaritan who gave clothes to her children and herself to wear as they lost everything in the inferno that consumed their house.
Twenty years old Maimuna Mohammed, whose marriage was to take place in less than a few weeks’ time, said the fire that ravaged her house consumed all she bought for the wedding, but did not kill anybody.
“In our house, they did not kill anybody but all the materials I bought for my wedding went with the fire that engulfed our house,” she said.
A middle-aged woman, who simply identified herself as Mama Musa, narrated how soldiers allegedly set her house on fire.
“They came in the night, set fire on property we have worked for over the years. My son’s three brand new motorcycles which he wanted to sell were also burnt,” she said.
Goni Muhammed, a middle-aged man, also lamented that all what he worked for all his life vanished within a twinkle of the eye.
“The military just came in one night and destroyed all what I worked for and we are appealing to the state government to come to our aid,” he said.
A victim, who expressed luck to be alive, said three persons in his area, namely Auwalu Chairman, a tailor, his pregnant wife Bube and four- year-old daughter were burnt to death.
Controversy over casualty figures
Since the news about the incident broke out, there have been conflicting reports on the exact number of people killed and houses destroyed. While residents of the community maintained that about 185 people were buried and others still missing, the presidency and the military headquarters put the figure at less than 30.
The Red Cross, through its Director Special Duties, Umaru Adam Mairiga, also told the BBC Hausa Service that about 2,000 houses had been burnt down in Baga, but did not say who was responsible.
Most residents still maintain that the casualty figures are even more than 185 people as many residents are still missing.
When the state’s Governor, Kashim Shettima, visited the area last Sunday, residents informed him that they buried at least 185 bodies.
The figure quoted was dismissed by the Commander of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) established by Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger to maintain security at the border areas, Brig-Gen. Austin Edokpaye, who told the governor that insurgents used heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades while attacking soldiers in the area.
“We lost an officer during an attack on our men on patrol and received intelligence reports that some suspected Boko Haram members usually pray and hide arms at a particular mosque in town. It was around that mosque that our men were attacked with several of them sustaining injuries, while an officer died,” he said.
The military commander said when the soldiers reinforced and returned to the scene, the terrorists came out with heavy firepower, including rocket-propelled grenades, which he said caused conflagration effects.
Edokpaye was however silent on the casualty figures but later came up with a statement which was circulated to newsmen in Maiduguri on Tuesday.
In the statement the commander claimed that 30 insurgents and six civilians were killed in the violence.
The press release stated thus: “Multinational Joint Task Force troops on routine patrol at Baga-Mallam Garati road had an encounter with Boko Haram terrorists at about 7:30pm on Tuesday, 16 April, 2013. During the encounter, one soldier was killed and five soldiers were injured, while 30 Boko Haram terrorists lost their lives with five arrested. Many of the terrorists escaped with bullet wounds but unfortunately, six civilians lost their lives and 10 other civilians were injured in the crossfire.
“Contrary to media speculation that hundreds of houses were burnt down, instead, it was the explosion from the Boko Haram terrorists’ rocket propelled grenade bombs, anti-aircraft guns and sophisticated IED materials that triggered fire to about 30 thatched houses in the predominately fishing community,” the statement added.
Also on Wednesday, a health worker in charge of the Baga clinic, Goni Bukar Usman, told Weekly Trust that 193 people were brought to the clinic with various degrees of injuries.
According to him, 10 victims with serious burns were referred to a hospital in Maiduguri, while all the patients have been discharged, except two victims who are still receiving treatment for malaria,” he added.
Relief for victims
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) has since Thursday gained access to the victims and started distribution of relief materials to them.
Officials of the agency and Nigeria Red Cross arrived the town on Wednesday to set up camps for victims of the incident, who have started trooping in for assistance. The camp was set up in the premises of the Local Government Council’s clinic at Baga town.
Materials distributed to victims include food items, mats, clothes, materials and toiletries, among others, while some victims who need medical attention are being attended to by medical officials in NEMA and the Red Cross’ team.
NEMA’s Director of Rescue and Search Operation, Air Commodore Charles Otebegde, who led a delegation of the agency’s officials from Abuja to the town, said they were following directives from President Jonathan to provide immediate reliefs to the affected victims.
Early on Wednesday, the North East Zonal Coordinator of the agency, Alhaji Mohammed Kanar, led a team of the agency’s staff to some villages where some of the victims took shelter to persuade them to come to the camp for better attention. Among those presently in the camps were Aisha Sani Bagobiri, a 30 year old mother and her seven children.
Our reporter observed large relief materials, mostly food items and clothing supplied by the Borno State government at the camp.
Governor Shettima has set up a committee on the crisis and also promised to rebuild the burnt houses of the victims.
Meanwhile, the high powered delegation of senior military officers sent by the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) to assess the recent operation in Baga, Borno, said yesterday that there was no mass grave in the area.
Brig.-Gen. Chris Olukolade, Director of Defence Information, who is part of the seven-member delegation, announced this to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in a telephone interview.
Olukolade said normal life and business activities had returned to Baga, following the routing out of the Boko Haram terrorists from their base by the Multi-National Task Force.
Olukolade said among other things, the team found that there was no mass grave in Baga as it has been alleged.
The Defence Headquarters sent the delegation led by Maj.-Gen. Lawrence Ngubani, the Chief of Training and Operations, to assess the Baga operation.