Johannesburg — Satellite images reveal massive destruction of civilian property from a military raid on April 16 and 17, 2013, in the northern Nigerian town of Baga, undermining the military's claim that only 30 houses were destroyed, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Nigerian government should thoroughly and impartially investigate allegations that soldiers carried out widespread destruction and killing in the town.
Baga residents told Human Rights Watch that soldiers ransacked the town after the Boko Haram militant Islamist group attacked a military patrol, killing a soldier.
Community leaders said that immediately after the attack they counted 2,000 burned homes and 183 bodies. Satellite images of the town analyzed by Human Rights Watch corroborate these accounts and identify 2,275 destroyed buildings, the vast majority likely residences, with another 125 severely damaged.
"The Nigerian military has a duty to protect itself and the population from Boko Haram attacks, but the evidence indicates that it engaged more in destruction than in protection," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The glaring discrepancies between the facts on the ground and statements by senior military officials raise concerns that they tried to cover up military abuses."
Since the attack, the military has restricted journalists' access to Baga, a remote fishing community on the shores of Lake Chad, 200 kilometers northeast of the city of Maiduguri.
Boko Haram has destroyed mobile telephone towers in the area, claiming that security services used mobile phones to track down its members, making communication particularly difficult for survivors of the attack.
Human Rights Watch interviewed seven residents of Baga who fled the town on the night of the devastation. Many survivors spent several nights hiding in the bush and expressed fear in describing what they saw, fearing military retaliation.
Military officials publicly said that on the evening of April 16, Boko Haram attacked a military patrol in Baga, killing a soldier and wounding five others.
Military reinforcements responded by engaging Boko Haram militants, whom the military said were armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and improvised explosive devices. There were running gun battles through the town, the military said.
In a statement released the week following the attack, Brig. Gen. Austin Edokpaye, the commander of the troops in Baga, asserted that "[c]ontrary to media speculation that hundreds of houses were burnt down, instead, it was the explosions from Boko Haram terrorists'" weapons that "triggered fire to about 30 thatched houses."
Residents recalled hearing some explosions as well as gunfire on the night of the attack. Many fled the town. One resident, a 42-year-old-fisherman, told Human Rights Watch that while he was fleeing he saw two men in civilian clothes, whom he assumed were Boko Haram members because they were not in uniform, running while firing assault rifles.
Residents said that, as they were fleeing the heavy gunfire, they saw bodies in the streets and in front of houses.
Some residents said that they saw soldiers in uniform kill residents and burn houses. A 27-year-old woman, who stayed in her house after the gunfire erupted, described to Human Rights Watch how soldiers went door-to-door looking for any men that remained in her neighborhood.
"I saw the soldiers drag a man out of another house. They started beating him with their guns. They were beating him severely and he was crying," she said.
"The man then ran, and I saw the soldiers shoot him. I heard the gunshots and saw him fall. On the other side of the road the soldiers were beating other people."
Another resident, a 32-year-old fisherman, believes soldiers killed his uncle, whose bad leg kept him from fleeing the town. He discovered his uncle's badly beaten body after the attack.
"We had heard the soldiers say before [the attack] that since you people are not cooperating with us and are hiding your brothers, we will treat you as one of them," the fisherman told Human Rights Watch.
"I heard the soldiers say this. Everyone heard them say this. They were saying this in the open."
The area where the attacks took place, Borno State, is Boko Haram's stronghold. Military officials have accused Borno State residents of harboring Boko Haram members.
Boko Haram has killed numerous Borno State residents, including community leaders whom it accuses of helping authorities identify group members, which has created a climate of fear in the area.
There are conflicting accounts as to how many people were killed in the attack. A community leader who participated in the burial of victims told Human Rights Watch that 183 people were buried on April 18 in individual graves within two cemeteries. Other victims were also later buried, he said.
The military called these figures "terribly inflated," and in an April 22 statement, Edokpaye claimed that only 37 people were killed - 30 of them Boko Haram members. He said that only one soldier and six civilians died.
Senator Maina Lawan, the federal senator representing Baga, told Human Rights Watch, based on a two-day site visit on April 25 and 26, that some 220 people had been buried in three cemeteries, while six others had been buried in separate locations.
None of the residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch saw how the fires were started on the night of April 16, but they all described seeing parts of the town alight.
Two residents who returned to the town the following morning, April 17, said they saw soldiers in military vehicles setting fire to houses.
"I saw a group of soldiers throw explosive devices into houses," one of the residents, a farmer, recalled. "They would throw [the explosive] and then fire would come out of it. I saw them do this to about 10 houses."
Satellite images analyzed by Human Rights Watch indicate that damaged structures were likely caused by intense and widespread fires.
Additional satellite data detected the presence of active fires in the southern part of the town on the night of April 16 and during the day of April 17, consistent with witness accounts and the location of identified building damages.
Because of the number of buildings destroyed by fire as well as their distribution across large sections of the town, Human Rights Watch believes that such fires were intentionally set and not inadvertently sparked by the detonation of rocket-propelled grenades or improvised explosive devices.
Such weapons could not ignite fires on such a wide scale, nor could they set fire to non-attached structures. Small arms and light weapons do not contain the amount of explosive or incendiary material to produce such a scale of damage, Human Rights Watch said.
"The destruction and killings by soldiers in Baga are serious human rights violations," Bekele said. "The government needs to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, regardless of rank."
As reports of the Baga attack filtered out, President Goodluck Jonathan ordered a "full-scale investigation into reports of high civilian casualties." The Defence Headquarters in Abuja sent a military team to investigate the incident.
Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, the director of defence information, and a member of the military team sent to Baga to investigate, told Human Rights Watch after his visit that reports of civilian casualties and homes destroyed were "grossly exaggerated."
He said that "the atrocities, if any, were carried out by the insurgents in an attempt to cause destruction and attack people not sympathetic to their cause." The military team said they visited two graveyards in Baga but could only identify 32 fresh graves.
Community leaders, including a senior politician interviewed by Human Rights Watch, allege that the military is trying to cover up evidence of what happened.
In the past, Nigerian military authorities have repeatedly denied or even covered up reports of security force abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which in 2010 opened a "preliminary examination" of the situation in Nigeria, has indicated that crimes committed by Boko Haram members might constitute crimes against humanity, and members of the Nigerian security forces might also have committed serious human rights violations in their operations against Boko Haram.
This incident in Baga should be added to the prosecutor's preliminary examination of Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said.
"There's a tragic lack of accountability for atrocities with high body counts in Nigeria," said Bekele. "The government needs to end this murderous cycle of violence by bringing all those responsible to justice."
A 27-year-old woman who lived in the "Hausa Quarters" of Baga told Human Rights Watch that on the night of April 16, soldiers dragged a man out of a house in her neighborhood and shot him:
I was in my house at night, after prayers, when we heard gunshots. Everybody was in a panic and people were running. My husband wasn't home, so I was very disturbed.
I asked my neighbors what am I going to do because my husband isn't around? My neighbors ran, but I couldn't carry my two children, so I stayed inside the house.
I saw soldiers come into the community. They came in military vehicles. The soldiers were shouting "Come out! Come out!" They asked me if there any men in the house. I said there were none.
One of the soldiers came inside and searched the house. He then told us to go outside. When we were outside I saw the soldiers drag a man out of another house.
They started beating him with their guns. They were beating him severely and he was crying. The man then ran, and I saw the soldiers shoot him. I heard the gunshots and saw him fall. On the other side of the road the soldiers were beating other people.
The soldiers told me to leave the place, pushing me to go. I held one of my children in my arms and the other one I dragged. I was with two other women. We heard gunshots everywhere, so we did not know who was who.
When we were running we saw dead bodies on the road and some outside houses. Some [of the bodies] were women and children, but the children were fewer. Army vehicles were passing from here to there, and we saw things with the lights of the vehicles. We were trying to run to save our lives.
We went into the bush and were moving without knowing where we were going. There were a lot of people inside the bush. When we went about half a kilometer, we saw fire everywhere [back] in the town. Almost at midnight we reached one place and slept there. The following day we woke up and found our way toward [name of location withheld].
Later we heard that all the houses around where we lived were burned... We lost two people among our family: my brother and my cousin.
I was told some people saw their dead bodies in the river. Even my neighbors lost family members - both men and women. I have not gone back to Baga.
A farmer described to Human Rights Watch how soldiers set fire to houses in the "Kampala Ward" of Baga on the morning of April 17:
On Tuesday [April 16] around 8 p.m. we heard gunshots in the town. I was in the house. Our house is in the northern part of Baga. I heard gunshots and explosions in the southern part of the town.
I also saw fire. I stayed in our house for about two hours. The gunshots started to increase rapidly and we saw that a large part of the town was on fire. When we saw this, I ran to the bush with my family. We spent the night in the bush.
The following morning, I came back to the town. I saw about six military vehicles and groups of soldiers in Kampala Ward. The soldiers were putting fire on the houses. It was about 9:30 a.m. I saw a group of soldiers throw explosive devices into houses. It was a military device which as a layman I would not know.
They would throw it and then fire would come out of it. I saw them do this to about 10 houses. I was about 100 meters away. I snuck out of the place and ran back to the bush... . I [haven't gone] back to my house, but my older brother said that that our area wasn't affected. None of my family members were killed.
A 42-year-old fisherman described how he and his family fled their home in "Kalumbu Quarters" of Baga after gunfire erupted on the evening of April 16:
It was on Tuesday, around 7 p.m. we heard gunshots and all of us ran into the house. I live in Kalumbu Quarters. It is in the middle of the town. The gunshots were getting too much and were getting closer to our quarters. We came out and ran helter-skelter everywhere. I was with my family - my wife and two children - and some neighbors.
We heard gunshots everywhere. We also heard a lot of explosions. Two of my friends I work with were shot. We were running together with them. They were behind us and we saw them fall. We couldn't do anything about it. We just ran to escape the bullets.
I don't know whether it was military or Boko Haram [who shot them]. We saw two people with Kalashnikovs [AK assault rifles]. They were not wearing army uniforms. I think they were Boko Haram members. They were running and shooting. We saw some [other] dead bodies by the side of the road.
A neighbor of mine and his two children were also killed in the incident. We ran together with them - they were behind us. When we looked back we didn't see them. The other people who came from that side told us that they were killed. We ran toward [name of location withheld], because it would be safer there.
After we left the town, we saw some fires in the town... . I heard that my house has been burned and the houses of most of my neighbors were burned. We were told that 45 percent of the town has been burned. I will never go back there. What will I do there?
Human Rights Watch has documented attacks by Boko Haram in northern and central Nigeria, as well as abuses by Nigerian state security forces in response to the violence.
Boko Haram means "Western education is a sin" in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria. The group, which seeks to impose a strict form of Sharia, or Islamic law, has carried out a brutal campaign of violence across northern Nigeria.
The group has primarily targeted government security agents, Christians, and other "infidels," and Muslims critical of the group or seen as cooperating with the government.
Boko Haram has also claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including suicide bombings of police stations, the United Nations building in the capital, Abuja, and two newspaper offices; burning down dozens of schools; and bombing or small-arms attacks on more than 20 church services.
As part of its operations against Boko Haram, security forces have killed hundreds of Boko Haram suspects and other members of the public with no apparent links to the group.
During security raids in communities where attacks have occurred, the military has burned homes and summarily executed men in front of their families.
The Nigerian authorities have also arrested thousands of people in raids across the north. Many of these people have been held incommunicado without charge or trial for months or even years. In some cases they have been detained in inhuman conditions, tortured, or killed.
The Nigerian authorities have repeatedly denied allegations of security force abuses, labeling those who report such abuses as "Boko Haram sympathizers."
The International Criminal Court, which opened a preliminary examination of the situation in Nigeria, found in 2012 that there is a "reasonable basis to believe" that Boko Haram attacks, including murder and persecution, amount to crimes against humanity.
Attacks by Boko Haram or splinter groups, clashes between these groups and government security forces, and extrajudicial killings by the security forces have killed more than 3,600 people since 2009.