Written by Ibrahim Sawab, Anemona Hartocollis and Mike Ives
Villagers in northeastern Nigeria are fleeing their homes, leaving everything behind, after armed men on motorbikes roared into their area and gunned down funeral mourners Saturday, killing at least 65 people, officials said Monday.
Officials attributed the attack to Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that has terrorized the region for the past 10 years, although there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assault.
The attack Saturday, in the village of Badu Abachari, north of the city of Maiduguri, was in retaliation for an earlier clash, officials said.
Villagers have formed defense groups, armed with hunting guns and knives, to resist Boko Haram. People in the village that was attacked had repelled a militant assault two weeks earlier, said Mohammed Bulama, council chairman of the Nganzai area in Borno state. He said the villagers had killed 11 Boko Haram fighters and seized 10 AK-47 rifles.
Bulama said that Boko Haram gunmen had been moving freely around Borno state, rustling cattle and “carting away foodstuff from our people.” Villagers who inherited their cattle and had spent all their lives herding them felt the “unbearable pain” of losing them, he said.
Around noon Saturday, the Boko Haram fighters “came on a reprisal mission, attacking mourners at a graveyard in the area,” Bulama said. In addition to those confirmed killed, at least 10 people were injured and dozens were still missing, so the toll could rise.
One survivor, Aji Gaji Mallam, said he had escaped death by pretending that he was dead as the slaughter went on around him, lying still for three hours. He said that four of his brothers had been killed in previous Boko Haram attacks.
“These people have been stealing from us so we decided to come together because we could no longer wait for an eternity for soldiers to defend us,” Mallam said.
Another villager, Ba’ na Modu, survived the attacks with gunshot wounds in both upper arms and was taken to a hospital in Maiduguri. But he had not heard from his wife and seven children since the attack, and no one could tell him what had become of them.
“I don’t know their whereabouts,” he said. “It is just unbearable for me. Where do I start from?”
Villagers said that the militants had attacked the funeral procession and then returned and attacked people who went to help. Most of the dead were in Badu Abachari, but the killings spread to at least two other villages, and bodies were recovered from the bush around several other villages.
The attack came just more than a month after at least 30 people were killed in a triple suicide bombing in Borno that bore the hallmarks of a Boko Haram operation.
Last week marked 10 years since the first outbreak of violence by the group, which has declared allegiance to the Islamic State group but has operated independently.
In a region devastated by violence, displacement, climate change and the resulting widespread malnutrition, confrontations have occurred when Boko Haram fighters demand food from villagers who are themselves hungry and dependent on donations from humanitarian organizations, said Hamsatu Allamin, a Nigerian human rights advocate who has worked with foreign aid groups.
“Food insecurity is an issue for everyone,” she said. “So these Boko Haram boys now go to these villagers demanding food, demanding money, demanding the animals. The pressure is all on the common man. And if you deny them, the government will not come to your aid.”
Beginning in 2015, Nigeria’s government and military have claimed repeatedly that Boko Haram was being subdued, even on the brink of defeat, its hiding places decimated.
But human rights groups, aid organizations and local Nigerians have long disputed such claims, and attacks have persisted.
“People like us who have been operating in the field, we know that what the government is saying is far from the true reality on the ground,” Allamin said.
President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack in a statement issued Sunday and ordered the military to hunt down those who carried it out.
Boko Haram, whose name is often approximately translated as “Western education is forbidden,” has been blamed for tens of thousands of deaths, and has prompted more than 2 million people to flee their homes in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring areas of Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
The group has kidnapped women and girls, forcing them into marriage and slavery, and has used children as suicide bombers. It is perhaps best known for having kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the village of Chibok in April 2014, many of whom are still missing.