[Yet Boko Haram maintains control over many pockets of the region, even some areas that were once cleared of fighters. The more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls from the village of Chibok, whose abduction inspired the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, are still being held hostage after more than two years. Boko Haram flaunted their continued captivity in a recent video contending that some of the girls had been killed in Nigerian military airstrikes, an assertion officials have denied.]
By Dionne Searcey
Displaced people taking shelter from the rain at a camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria,
in June. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — It had been more than a month, and Dije Ali was still locked in a military prison with her seven children.
She had thought they were being taken to safety. Her family and other villagers had been low on food and feared that Boko Haram was closing in. They ran to Nigerian soldiers for protection.
“Get in the vehicle,” Ms. Ali recalled the soldiers telling them.
But instead of being whisked to freedom, she said, her family wound up in a military detention center with 130 other women and their children, uncertain when they would be released — and why they were there.
“I didn’t know what I’d done wrong,” she said. “I was just praying God would get us out.”
Here in northeastern Nigeria, soldiers are fighting a brutal battle with Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that has terrorized the region for years with its campaign of murder, kidnapping, rape and thievery.
But in its aggressive hunt for Boko Haram fighters, the Nigerian military has ensnared and detained scores of civilians, including toddlers and infants, for weeks or months. And sometimes, activists say, innocent people are never heard from again.
Nearly 150 people have died this year in just one of the detention centers, Giwa barracks, where Ms. Ali was held with her family, according to Amnesty International.
Eleven of the dead were children younger than 6, including four babies, it said. This spring the prison held 1,200 people, at least 120 of them children, Amnesty found.
“Many were arbitrarily rounded up during mass arrests,” the group said, “often with no evidence against them.”
Nigeria, which denies the claims, is not the only country in the region criticized as going too far in the fight against Boko Haram. Cameroon has been accused of detaining 1,000 people suspected of supporting Boko Haram, many arrested arbitrarily, in horrific conditions that have caused some to die from disease and malnutrition.
The Nigerian military says it detains people it suspects of being Boko Haram sympathizers — including people who have been kidnapped — to weed out anyone who might be dangerous.
Officials have reason to be suspicious: Boko Haram has managed to turn captives into suicide bombers, including children as young as 8. Mothers, boys, girls and other suicide bombers have killed hundreds of people, striking crowds at markets, schools and even camps for people who fled their homes to escape Boko Haram’s violence.
“Questioning suspects is a lengthy process,” said Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman, an army spokesman, explaining the detentions. “It is better to take time to screen them out than to allow a single terrorist to go free and carry out a suicide bombing.”
Colonel Usman said the military followed “international best practices” and had sniffed out Boko Haram terrorists during screenings.
“There is nobody, no army in the world that is respecting the rule of law the way we are doing,” Colonel Usman said.
But legal experts accuse the Nigerian military of breaking domestic and international laws in the process. The military has no authority to detain civilians under Nigerian law, argued Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer in Lagos. Other critics cited a long pattern of abuse by the military.
“No matter how the Nigerian government seeks to justify abusive treatment of the detainees freed from Boko Haram control, their individual rights appear to have been grossly violated,” said David J. Scheffer, a former American ambassador at large for war crimes issues. “That failure of accountability, which has persisted for years, hangs over the Nigerian government as a sword of Damocles.”
Amina Umar said she was captured by Boko Haram two years ago, when she was 16, and almost immediately forced to marry a fighter.
One night this spring she escaped, trekking for hours to her sister’s house in a nearby village. But a member of an anti-Boko Haram militia spotted her, knowing she was out of place, and notified military officials.
Soldiers took her and her sister into custody in a military facility where they were kept in a locked cell and periodically questioned, she said. After seven days, soldiers took the two to Giwa barracks. She said it took two months and four days before she was released.
“I was confused,” said Ms. Umar, who is now 18. “At first I thought it was unjustified. Then I just got used to it.”
For years, Nigerian forces have struggled with how to combat Boko Haram. Soldiers have been accused of carrying out arbitrary detentions, torture and killings of civilians, often without trying to distinguish fighters from the innocent.
Witnesses have even described Nigerian soldiers deliberately carrying out revenge killings against villagers, prompting the United States to block the sale of American-made attack helicopters in the past over human rights concerns.
But the nation’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, a former general from the north, was elected more than a year ago after vowing to clean up the military. Since then, Nigerian forces have made headway in routing Boko Haram from its strongholds in remote villages.
Last month, the military rescued 80 women and children who had been held by Boko Haram, and officials have adopted increasing bravado about their victories against the group. Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau, the interior minister, recently said the war against Boko Haram in the nation’s northeast “has been fought and won.”
“The victims are gradually returning to their homes, and the government is rebuilding, reconciling and rehabilitating the victims,” he said.
Yet Boko Haram maintains control over many pockets of the region, even some areas that were once cleared of fighters. The more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls from the village of Chibok, whose abduction inspired the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, are still being held hostage after more than two years. Boko Haram flaunted their continued captivity in a recent video contending that some of the girls had been killed in Nigerian military airstrikes, an assertion officials have denied.
In the chaotic war with Boko Haram, determining who is a victim and who is a sympathizer can be complicated.
Boko Haram often kills young men and boys who refuse to join the insurgency, leading soldiers to believe that any male of fighting age found alive may be a militant.
Some of the women and girls captured by Boko Haram face death unless they agree to “marry” fighters, a term often used here to describe the rape they endure. Many of the girls are teenagers. Some are not even 10 years old. Some of the captured women bear fighters’ children.
Many people in northeastern Nigeria, not just soldiers, view anyone who has been held by Boko Haram with deep suspicion, wary that they may have been swayed by the group’s violent interpretation of Islam.
So in areas like Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, where residents have witnessed the horrors inflicted by militants, the detentions have picked up some unlikely supporters.
“These women can kill,” said Ann Darman, director of the Gender Equality Peace and Development Center in Maiduguri. “They are used to killing and slaughtering people. You can’t be absorbing people into your communities without deradicalizing them.”
Zainab Muhammed said she traveled to her home village this spring thinking it was safe from Boko Haram. It was not, and she and 30 other women and their children ended up being captured by the group’s fighters.
Three months later, the Nigerian military invaded. “I thought I was free,” said Ms. Muhammed, who has seven children.
But soldiers took the group to a federal prison instead. “It was my first time in prison,” she said. “I’d never been to jail.”
For five nights, the women and children slept in a single locked cell. For about two hours a day, one by one, the military questioned the women. Do you know the boys in Boko Haram? What is your relationship to them? Are you a fighter’s wife?
“I told them no, and they believed me,” Ms. Muhammed said.
On the sixth day, she and her group were released and taken to a camp for displaced people. She has been there since early June. But other women she met at the prison were left behind, she said, along with their children.
“Maybe they didn’t believe them,” she said.
Interviews with detainees and a detention facility employee revealed a pattern of prolonged confinement, interspersed with hours of questioning.
Those determined to be militants are often imprisoned, or can surrender to a military-run “deradicalization” program, which has about 900 participants.
Typically, women are questioned, but boys and men are interrogated more intensely. If they show any resistance, their legs and hands are chained in front of them, according to one employee who was not authorized to speak publicly. The screening then escalates to beatings with a stick, he said.
The employee said that he had not seen anyone badly hurt in the process, and that the detainees receive food, water and access to medical care.
Ms. Ali, the mother who described being held at Giwa barracks with her seven children, said she was led from the cell only twice — once the day she arrived, and once the day she was freed.
She was taken under a shady tree for questions to determine her Boko Haram leanings. Each time, she said, she told the soldiers that she opposed the militants who had torn through the region. After five weeks, she said, they released her and her children, the youngest of whom was still breast-feeding.
Her husband had been held in another part of the facility, away from his family. During her detention, Ms. Ali said she caught a glimpse of him through a small cell window as he was being taken for questioning. She has not heard from him since.
“I just am leaving it to God,” Ms. Ali said at a camp for 8,000 other displaced people who were all waiting until their villages were safe enough to return home.
Follow Dionne Searcey on Twitter @dionnesearcey.