Geopolitics

Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Tell Of Horrors

In Chad, savage accounts from the first wave of refugees after reported massacres in Nigeria. Meanwhile, forces Wednesday have begun to step up the military response to Boko Haram.

Nigerian refugees fleeing on Lake Chad
Nigerian refugees fleeing on Lake Chad
Christophe Châtelot

BAGA SOLA — Idriss Déby is a living miracle. To be clear, this is another Idriss Déby, not the Chadian President, who shares the same name, and who is also in his own way a lucky survivor after resisting countless rebellions. The latest of course, as of mid-January, is a new war being waged against Boko Haram and its Islamist fighters terrorizing the populations along the border with Nigeria.

This other Idriss Déby is instead a newborn baby, brought into the world in a dugout canoe by a Nigerian family fleeing on Lake Chad from the murderous Islamist sect in the northern region of their country, just 70 kilometers from here. Little Idriss now lives under a tent of the United Nations Refugee Agency in the hastily set-up camp of Dar es Salaam, Chad, about 10 kilometers from the port of Baga Sola.

“Idriss Déby is Chad’s leader. And so it’s thanks to him that we’re here, alive. So I named my son in his honor,” explains the father, Oumara Estivi. He, his wife Aïcha and their seven children washed up, destitute but alive, on the Chadian shores of the lake where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad meet. Seven children of their own, plus a two-year-old girl they rescued during their escape.

Like most of the 5,000 refugees in this camp, the Estivis bolted from northeastern Nigeria during the series of Boko Haram attacks on the city of Baga and the surrounding villages in early January, during which 2,000 are believed to have been killed.

“We’re from Doron Baga, on the lakefront,” says the father, a fisherman like many others in the region. “When we heard what had happened in Baga and I saw Boko Haram approaching, I immediately took a canoe and we went to Kangalam, the first Chadian village, on an island.” The Chadian authorities came for them a few days later and drove them to Dar es Salaam.

“We were lucky. We’re all here, thanks to God and to Idriss Déby,” he says.

No news

Boulama Biké was not so fortunate. This 38-year-old accountant has has had no news from his parents, his wife, nor his seven children since he lost contact with them during their frenzied flight. He has nothing left but the clothes he’s wearing.

“Boko Haram attacked on a Saturday (Jan. 3),” he explains. “It was 5 a.m. We heard kalashnikovs and rocket fire. We’d feared for days that they would come, we fled when the Nigerian armed forces did. It was a stampede, there were dead bodies lying everywhere in the streets. Houses were on fire. We could see the Boko Haram fighters. I ran and I lost sight of my family,” he recounts.

For three days, he hid, first in the scrubland, then in the swamps near the lake. “They chased us there. Bodies were floating on the water. It was horrible.”

According to two Nigerian sultans (the traditional local authorities), 70,000 people from Baga and its surrounding villages fled, says Dimouya Souapebe, Baga Sola’s deputy prefect. “It’s impossible to say how many of them died,” he adds.

Some are still in Nigeria, other have managed to reach one of the islands on Lake Chad. “Some of them are on Chukutalia, but we don’t know what’s really happening there. It’s too dangerous to go there, too close to Nigeria,” says Jean-Claude Kourouma, the UN Refugee Agency’s chief in Baga Sola. “A total of 17,000 Nigerians fled to Chad and 7,000 others, probably, are on the islands,” he says. “They arrive here in a state of complete deprivation, families are broken up, separated. Some 150 children arrived here without their parents.”

Supply lines cut

On the other side of Lake Chad meanwhile, the fighting continues. On Feb. 1, Boko Haram launched its second attack in a week on the city of Maiduguri, the cradle of the Islamist sect in the 1980s, before it turned to armed action in 2009. The terror spreads from village to village, forcing countless destitute people to run for their lives.

“We’re expecting more waves of refugees, especially now that Chad is involved in the war. This means more fights and more people displaced,” Kourouma says.

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Nigerian refugees in Ngouboua, western Chad — Photo: Chadian Red Cross/H.Abdoulaye/UNHCR

For months, Chad has been alerting the world about the danger that Boko Haram represents. And yet, the news of the massacre in Baga, the then-future base of the multinational anti-Boko Haram forces, was a wake-up call in the capital N'Djamena.

“The Islamists are now at the border and they’re cutting our supply lines from Nigeria and Cameroon. We can’t just stand here and watch,” explains Gen. Banyanan Kossingar, governor of the Lake region.

Answering the call of Paul Biya, the president of Cameroon — a country also touched by the violence — the Chadian authorities thus deployed some 2,500 troops in northern Cameroon, including in Fotokol where three of their soldiers have already been killed in bomb attacks.

The Chadian forces have started bombing Boko Haram positions, showing they are committed to the fight. Another contingent is stationed in Dabua, on the lake’s northern shore, at the border between Chad and Niger. The whole operation looks like a pair of pincers ready to close on their goal, according to President Idriss Déby — i.e. to intervene on the ground in Nigeria and “retake Baga.” That is, if Nigeria, which has been criticized by its neighbors for its failure to act, accepts Chadian troops on its territory. So far, Abuja has refused, despite pressures from the African Union.

(The Associated Press reported on Wednesday, what appears to be the strongest response to the Boko Haram onslaught, as ground troops and air strikes were launched against the Islamist group's forces by the militaries of Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria.)

Nigeria’s recent unwillingness was also plain to see at a recent crisis summit in Niamey, in Niger. Even as the campaign for the Feb. 14 Nigerian Presidential election is in full swing, Abuja sent only one ambassador. Last week, in Addis Abeba, the African Union — of which Nigeria is a member — agreed on principle on the constitution of a 7,500-strong task force. But it could be weeks until the UN gives its approval and the troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin meet Boko Haram on the ground.

In the meantime, the Islamist sect continues its gruesome work, to the woes of N’Djamena. “We know that Boko Haram is trying to recruit in Chad,” Gen. Kossingar says. “But we don’t fear that they might take root here so much as the infiltration of jihadists or the activation of dormant cells that probably already exist to carry out attacks in our country.”

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