Award 2018 Nominee
The Demons of Lake Chad
The jihadist rebel group Boko Haram, which has found one of its refuges in the labyrinth of channels and islands of Lake Chad, in Africa, has been the cause of a wave of suicide attacks, thousands of abductions and a desperate exodus. The violence of the islamist group, the abuse of local authorities in its fight against terrorism as well as inadequate humanitarian assistance have left millions of people in an extreme situation.
For Djanafa Ali, the name she gave to his fifth child was an act of rebellion. A fleeting gesture, almost retaliation, but one laden with pride. But the person who raped her was less sophisticated: only a matter of weeks after being abducted in April 2015 by the Nigerian Boko Haram fundamentalist group, a jihadist opened the door of the corral where Djanafa was kept along with hundreds of other women – at a guess she calculated there must have been some 700, split up into different groups – grabbed her by the arm and took her off into the woods to abuse her. He had chosen her as his wife and lost no time in getting her pregnant. A couple of days before her abduction, Djanafa had left her four children with her husband in her native village, Méléa, in the hinterland of Chad, to go and look after her sick mother who lived alone on the island of Boudouma, in the middle of Lake Chad. She knew it was a risky journey. The labyrinth of channels around the lake, the natural frontier between Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, in recent years has become a refuge for the jihadist group which is hiding in its many islands (Chadian, Nigerian, Cameroonian and Niger). But her mother was ill and so Djanafa set out. A couple of hours after meeting up with her again, Boko Haram reached the island and abducted the young women and children.
Djanafa spares us the details of what happened next. All she says is that they would open the door, grab a woman and give her to a fighter. If one of them refused, they would consider her a prostitute and afterwards either kill her there and then or declare her free for all.
Amongst the hostages there were young girls of 10 to 12, who were also part of the scheme. Djanafa, age 33, was already married, because in her region all the women get married very young, but nobody asked or seemed to think it mattered. The rebel kept her always locked up in a hut and would appear only from time to time to satisfy his urge. She remained kidnapped on the island for eighteen months by the extremist group which had allied itself to ISIS since 2015. She never had a single conversation with her guerrilla husband. He was never once nice to her. He always kept her hungry. Today, four months after escaping and returning to the security of her village of Méléa in Chad, the jihadist threat in the interior of the country has lost its intensity over the last year, even if it is the same on the islands of the lake – Djanafa refuses to utter the name of the man in question.
Names, or choosing to forget them, are oftentimes a sort of revenge. Perhaps the only one that you have left. Thus, the name she chose for the child that the islamist sired on her and who now, age one year, is eagerly clambering on her to take the breast, was Hissein, the name of her deceased husband.
Djanafa fled with several hundreds of women when at the end of 2016, Nigerian army helicopters attacked the island held by Boko Haram. Greater military pressure starting from mid-2015 routed the rebel group from the majority of the territory that they controlled in the north of Nigeria and forced them to withdraw into the impenetrable reservation of Sambisa, on the frontier between Nigeria and Cameroon, and into the labyrinth of tiny islands and channels of Lake Chad. There they are vulnerable only from the sky. As on the day that Djanafa escaped. That morning bullets and bombs killed dozens of militants and hostages, but nearly 500 of those who had been abducted took advantage of the chaos to escape.
Since nobody came to rescue them, they tramped for days to reach the shores of Chad. Crossing the lake from island to island, the tallest women on foot carried their babies on their heads to avoid their drowning. Only a hundred women reached their final destination, although Djanafa thinks – and who wants even to think of it? – that many of them perhaps took other routes. When she reached Méléa, she learnt that her husband Hissein had fallen ill during her captivity and had died. She will not tell her son who his father was when he grows up. « I wouldn’t even dream of it, although maybe someone else will tell him ».
Since being freed, Djanafa has been living in Méléa, a village of straw huts in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but sand and arid bushes as far as the horizon, with the wind searing your skin. At midday life comes to a standstill, slows down to the break, and the men, gathered together in the shade, remain in silence, but for a whispered phrase or two, before submerging once again into a state of lethargy. Only a couple of children making toys out of the mud – a cow, a pot, a radio with a piece of string for earphones – bring any life to the scene. The women would carry on working, two of them grinding grain (very little of it) in a wooden bowl with rhythmic blows. Djanafa lives not far from there. The furniture in her home is sparse. Over the sand she has placed a dark mat , and in the corner there is tiger-striped blanket, a blue plastic bucket, two crumpled pieces of canvas, and on the other side, a silvery bowl. Djanafa lives with her baby Hissein and her four other children, aged between four and fourteen years old, and complains that nobody helps them.
Since they are not in a refugee camp, they receive no food, and her children go hungry. She has a weary look in her eyes and remembers her wounds in a dismal tone of voice. Despite the fact that she is recounting stories of mass rape and horrifying executions, one of her daughters, Fatima, remains all the while at her side, with the concentrated and innocent expression of any child listening to a story or hearing a song. Djanafa is wearing a black tunic with red, orange and yellow details; she covers her head with it and has removed the golden ring in her nose, which in her tribe, the buduma, announces that she is a married woman. Her face is furrowed with scarifications which since the age of six has distinguished her ethnic ity and her family, but these are not her only scars. She has recent ones still on her arms, made on the day of the air attack on the island, during which the jihadist who sired her son died. Little Hissein also has some on his head.
These only half-closed wounds are those of the entire region: Lake Chad, a land shared between peoples from Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad, all of whom have been living for eight years now through unbridled violence. The insurgency of the extremist Boko Haram group in the north of Nigeria and its spread through neighbouring countries has caused 50, 000 deaths, thousands of abductions and desperate flight. According to the United Nations, nearly two and a half million people have been made homeless. The majority have abandoned the rural areas where Boko Haram struck more habitually, to seek protection in camps for displaced persons or refugees, in the towns or in the houses of relatives or neighbours.
Despite the fact that faced with the multi-regional military force led by Nigeria and Chad, the jihadists group has lost a good part of the territory they once controlled – in 2014 they still managed to proclaim a caliphate in a region in the north of Nigeria the size of Belgium – and they still retain their deadly capability. To their guerrilla tactics of swift attacks carried out with few resources, they have added the use of ‘suicides’ to maintain their ability to create destabilisation. In the last three years, Boko Haram has carried out more than a hundred suicide attacks, according to data from UNICEF and The Long War Journal, an organisation that monitors the violence of the group. In the first term of this year, 27 young girls have been sent to blow themselves up in the region. On January 1, a little girl, who according to various witnesses, was no older than ten, blew up her suicide belt in a market in Maiduguri. It is no accident that in 80% of attacks the extremists use girls. Boko Haram takes advantage of women’s and girls’ loose-fitting clothes to conceal on their bodies explosive belts, and often after drugging them with tremadol, sends them off to blow themselves up in markets or mosques.
For the Nigerian analyst and security expert, Fullan Nasrullah, this is an effective military tactic. “It is part of the rebels’ strategy to weaken the morale of the public and the armed forces, and also a way of reducing the pressure on the battlefield, forcing countries to divert scarce resources to protect easy targets”.
The consequences of so many years of fear and the smell of gunpowder are millions of empty stomachs. Hunger has broken out not only amongst those who have fled violence, but also amongst those who cannot cultivate their land for fear or who have suffered from the generalised collapse of the economy: since trade has been stopped by the war and the price of food has shot up, many are deprived of food. The scale of the disaster presages more death: according to the UN, more than seven million people need urgent assistance and famine has broken out in the Nigerian regions most afflicted by the presence of Boko Haram.
Thus, in the areas around lake Chad, the babies have cold hands. At the end of a strip of desert separating Niger from neighbouring Chad, a no-man’s land where the proximity of the jihadists makes a military escort obligatory, Aché Gomborom’s hands are frozen. He has the other symptoms of chronic malnutrition in young children too: ribs sticking out, legs as thin as spindles, a forlorn look. His reactions are slowed down and he wrinkles his face when he’s placed in the hanging scales to be weighed. He barely cries, just emits a monotonous moan, almost no strength left. The gesture of the Chadian doctor treating him is clear: for a child of seventeen months, his weight is alarmingly slight. As soon as they give him back, his mother, Bakou- li Malloum, wraps the child’s naked body in a red shawl and stares at the ground. After a while, he falls asleep and she speaks her mind: “On our island we used to fish and till the land, we had a normal life. Now everything is changed. When Boko Haram comes across you, they slit your throat. How can you go on living here? Bakouli, a native of the island of Kindjira, a small island in Lake Chad, on the border between Chad, Niger and Nigeria, wears two black bracelets on her right wrist and green pendant earrings. The jihadistas stole all the rest.
Although Islam is the religion of the majority in the north of Nigeria and on the banks of Lake Chad, only a couple of tribes, such as the buduma, combine faith in Allah with traditional rites and the few Christians who lived there have fled years ago. The fundamentalists make no distinction: anyone who does not follow their radical version of the faith is an infidel and must be punished and eliminated. Bakouli is familiar with this deadly contempt. “They say that we are Christians, that’s what they call all of us whom they do not consider to be good Moslems, they say we believe the wrong way. That’s why they kill us. That’s why they slit our throats, why they treat us like animals, unworthy ones”.
At the entrance to the tent which stands in for a mobile clinic, a huddle of womenfolk and emaciated children are waiting their turn in the shade of a tree. There are so many of them that they don’t all fit and some have to stand in the sun. Dozens of flies swarm over their eyes, their noses and the mouths of each child. Nobody even tries to shoo them away. All around about are some 1,500 huts made of branches, straw and sheets of plastic which speak of hundreds of exoduses in the region which have been forgotten. Nearly nine thousand people, formerly inhabitants of the islands, now live in a patch of desert baptised as Magui, at the mercy of aid arriving. The sand is so plentiful that it stops any kind of fast movement, the sun stings your forehead and the wind makes you screw up your eyes as you try to go forward
Ngandolo Kouyo, a Chadian nutritionist from UNICEF, smooths out his white coat before sitting down in a plastic chair and asks us to be brief – « we have a lot of work to do today » he apologises – and he proceeds to analyse the future of his patients. The haste, or maybe the fact that he lives every day side by side with catastrophe, means that he does not mince his words. “These people depend on humanitarian aid; if it doesn’t get through, there will be many deaths. They will all die. That’s for sure. There’s no food or water. They have no health facilities, and where they do exist, they don’t have the means to reach the centres. So there will be many deaths”. In effect, the quiet desperation of Kouyo gives voice in short phrases to the alarm raised at the end of 2016 by 19 international organisations for the defence and protection of human rights 2017: of the 1,500 million dollars requested by the United Nations to tackle the food crisis in the area of Lake Chad, in the first three months of this year only $169 million were received, a little more than 11% of the monies needed.
Some tens of kilometres to the south, the frayed and half empty nets of Barkay Idriss foretell that it is not going to be easy to get out of this rat-trap. As the light of day wanes in Tagal, a village on the Chadian bank of the lake, barely a dozen fish are flapping around on the bottom of his dug-out canoe. The air here is cool, the green of the landscape softens the horizon and from the bank comes the stench of piles of fish placed on wooden grates in the sun. Squatting at the end of his boat, the seventeen-year-old Barkay, surveying the day’s catch, nods his head, half in vexation, half in shame. “The net is very old and the fish, when they stretch it, escape”. His father taught him to fish when he was twelve years old and he now knows all the tricks of the trade. He knows for example that you have to lay the nets early in the morning because shortly afterwards the hippos come along and it is as well to give their fangs and fleas a wide berth. He also knows that it is better to fish in deep and remote waters…and that that is now impossible. “Boko Haram is in hiding on the islands and as we are scared of them, we all fish close to the bank. There are too many of us here, that’s why there are so few fish”.
In the last two years, thousands of people have abandoned the islands to seek relative safety – often the rebels are hiding only a couple of kilometres away – on terra firma, where there is a greater military presence and the humanitarian organisations can provide assistance. The wave of recent arrivals on the Chadian bank has meant where there is a greater military presence and the humanitarian organisations can provide assistance. The wave of recent arrivals on the Chadian bank has meant a demographic bomb has gone off : the population of the region has already tripled.
Barkay wears a nice pale blue shirt and yellow trousers that are showing their age, but speak of times past, when things were better. When he lived on the islands, he assures us, we would easily earn forty dollars a week, he had a solid canoe and plenty of nets. Now he barely makes thirty dollars a month and has to share his boat with two other colleagues. This he explains with only relative bitterness, for he knows that he is lucky to be able to tell the tale.
He escaped because of screams. The Boko Haram rebels arrived in his village on the Chadian island of Bulari around three in the morning and the first thing they did – “they always do” – was to go for the marabou or healer of the settlement. Since, for the jihadists, belief in spirits and magic powers that the marabou feeds on are a sin, they slit his throat in front of his house. With this gesture they knifed one of the most authoritative voices in the village. “His shrieks woke me and that was the reason I took to my heels”. Like Barkay, hundreds of people left behind their animals and all their belongings only for them to fall into the hands of the jihadists as war booty.
The violence of the conflict has put a stop to the trade routes between all the countries of the area and the economy has collapsed. In addition, the decision of the local governments to ban any kind of trans-border vehicular traffic whatsoever, so as to prevent movement by the jihadists, has combined with another death-blow: since the militants finance themselves, amongst other things, by selling stolen livestock – thousands of heads of cattle, hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth – a complete stop was placed on all forms of trading in domestic animals, one of the most entrenched commercial activities in the region. The international fall in the price of oil, one of the bulwarks of the economies of Nigeria and Chad, and the major investment in defence to combat the insurgency of Boko Haram to the detriment of social policies, only deepened the wound.
However that may be, Barkay has no intention of returning home – “What I saw there I never wish to see again, I shall stay here forever” – but his future looks burdensome. He would like to marry and start a family, but he needs money to pay for a wife’s dowry, an agreed quantity of cows or goats to be delivered to the betrothed’s family. Ususally, Barclay points out, it would come to a sum of around 800 dollars, although the figure could vary, depending on whether the girl comes from a rich family or if she has been educated. An unattainable fortune in a place such as this, at a time such as this. But unless Barkay gets this money together, he will be dishonoured. “In our culture, a man must marry. It’s shameful, a humiliation, if you don’t manage to”.
Boko Haram knew how to benefit from this trap hallowed by tradition. Right from the outset, both from its origin in Nigeria and throughout its expansion to neighbouring countries, it has gone hand in glove with poverty and historic injustice: the wealthy southern region of Nigeria, now developed and brimming with modern towns, however unequal, contrasts with the neglect of the impoverished regions of the northern part of the country, with hardly any asphalted roads or infrastructure.
In the Nigerian state of Borno, the region in which Boko Haram originated in 2002, UNESCO estimates that the literacy rate is barely14.5%. In Lagos, in the south of the country, it is at 92%. The radical wing took note: in 2014 there was a wave of massive abductions of women which still persists – the infamous 219 schoolgirls abducted in Chibok, in the north-east of Nigeria were initially one more element of this tactic – to offer wives for free to those who fought with them. Recruitment shot up: the option of having access to a wife attracted hundreds of young men who saw in their allegiance to the group the possibility of having a wife and children and not feeling humiliated for not having married because of not being able to measure up to the cost of the dowry.
Djibirine Mbodou, a seventeen-year-old fisherman who was abducted a year ago and then escaped in January 2017, confirms this. From the security of the Chadian shore, he recalls precisely the night in which the jihadists attacked the island of Galoa in waters belonging to Chad, and abducted the entire population, some seven hundred people. They immediately imposed strict regulations: stealing was to be punished by the amputation of a hand and playing football was liable to the death penalty. Each day they would organise them into groups to pray: “They would shout at us that beforehand we had prayed wrong”. He stated that he still has nightmares, having witnessed a little girl of 14 being tortured because she refused to have sex with a guerrilla, or how they slit the throats of anyone caught trying to escape. Some friends and neighbours opted to enlist voluntarily. “If they didn’t go with them, they were going to kill them anyway, so they didn’t have much choice”. And with them they could rob. If you’re with Boko Haram, you don’t have to pay for food, you can go plundering and marry women”.
Converting to being a jihadist also gives you the opportunity of settling old feuds quickly. Once enrolled and a Kalashnikov in your hands, it’s easier to put an end to a dispute about land with a quarrelsome neighbour, to settle scores with those who years ago stole your bride or avenge your envy of the wealth of an especially tight-fisted acquaintance.
The fundamentalist group has changed to adapt to the times. In the beginning, it wasn’t even called Boko Haram. Starting in 2000, the radical cleric who founded the sect, Mohammed Yusuf, used to roam the streets of the Nigerian town of Maiduguri preaching and advocating a society based on a strict form of Islam and one which was against social injustice. His enemy was the corrupt and inefficient Nigerian state, which he accused of having neglected the north for decades. In his sermons which were attended by increasing numbers, he would repeat the same cry in Hausa: “Bokoisharam!, Bokoisharam!”. It was his way of saying that books – the symbol of Western learning as opposed to the wooden tablets used in the madrassas and Koranic schools – were a sin and at the origin of a failed system. In fact, they did not call themselves “Boko Haram” but went by their official name: “Persons committed to the spread of the teachings of the Prophet and the jihad”. His extremist speech quickly found favour with a population who was both young and had no hope of employment, and the movement developed into a violent youth rebellion, with assassinations of police and members of the Nigerian security forces. Its objective was national: to bring down the government of Nigeria and install a radical version of sharia or Islamic law. The movement also had powerful adherents. Although later the group would fund itself by robbing banks, extortion or plunder, when it began, its ranks included well-heeled godfathers in senior political, religious and financial circles in the north. The assassination of Yusuf at the hands of the police in 2009 while in custody and the summary execution of hundreds of his followers woke the slumbering beast. For months afterwards the leader Abubakar Shekau embarked on a blood-thirsty course of attacks and mass assassinations and used panic as a weapon of control. Ever since that time an aura of terror invests them with power. The mere name of Boko Haram has the power to paralyse…
When asked about the rebels he had lived with, Mbodou, the teenager who spent a year, kidnapped, with them, reflects the normalisation of this fear. On his knees, under a roof of branches giving protection from the sun, his words never show even a hint of resentment. “Who are Boko Haram?
They are the ones who march through the night. If you cross their path, they will slit your throat. They like doing that”.
The panic of nocturnal and surprise attacks perpetrated with naked brutality are the stuff of the tales told in the Lake Chad region. In Baga Sola, the main Chadian town near the lake , they tell a spine-chilling tale: one night, two Boko Haram guys reached a village on the outskirts of the town. They settled in the adobe hut of an elderly man, who, startled and unable to flee, thought that treating them like his best guests was his only chance of survival. He got up early to go and draw water from the well himself to make their morning tea, he put fresh straw under the mats on the bed and even roasted them a goat. He did not try to escape. The last day before leaving, the men from Boko Haram, appreciative of the friendliness of their host, made the following statement: “You have impressed us by your friendliness and devotion to us. You are a good man and deserve to go to paradise. But human beings are weak and you run the risk of mistaking the path and straying. therefore, so that Allah can grant you entry into paradise, we are going to kill you”. They slit his throat. This dialogue, more or less elaborate depending on the narrator, exaggerating to varying degrees the kindness of the old man, but always impossible to confirm because there were no witnesses, demonstrates how terror is penetrating even the region’s tales of the midnight hours. For many, Boko Haram is the devil.
And when you live with Satan, uncertainty makes you have short dreams. Initially, Mbodou hesitates when he is asked what kind of a life he would like to have in the future. “In peace”, is the first thing he says. Then he gets a bit more specific: “What I’d like to do now, if I had the money, is to buy some fishing nets. If I had a canoe and nets, I could survive and well. Apart from that, I don’t know what I could do, I’ve never been to school”. Then Mbodou withdraws a couple of meters and starts praying to Allah. A couple of steps away, a group of kids in shirts from European football teams stand and observe the scene from amongst the branches of a tree full of thorns.
Over and above religious fundamentalism and poverty, there are other factors that explain how a mere handful of fanatics – between four and six thousand well-trained fighters, according to US intelligence – have taken Nigeria, the first economy of Africa, hostage and imposed oblivion and injury on neighbouring countries.
In Dar es Salam, the biggest refugee camp for those who fled to the Chadian side of the lake, Nasiru Saidu draws both factors with his two fingers in the sand. After smoothing the ground with the palm of his hand, he uses three fingers to make a wavy line and on each side of it he writes two words: lake and Doro, the name of his Nigerian village. Opposite the football pitch where the NGOs organise matches to help the kids overcome their trauma, Saidu remembers the first days of January in 2015 when his life as a seller of fish and onions changed forever. While Paris was trembling from the jihadist attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the entire world was flooded with placards expressing support with the slogan “Je suis Charlie”, on the Nigerian bank of Lake Chad Boko Haram was conducting the worst attack in its history. After crushing a military base in the area, jihadist rebels attacked for five full days, without meeting any resistance, the locality of Baga and another 16 villages. Thousands of people – two thousand victims, according to some sources, although no-one stayed around to count them – were assassinated and thousands more fled in a stampede towards the lake, making for Chad. Saidu was one of them. “When we saw a Nigerian soldier who had wounded by a bullet reach our village, brought by motorcycle, we realised that that attack by Boko Haram was something out of the ordinary”. A couple of weeks ago, after two years without going near it, Saidu gathered up enough courage to visit his old village. Since Lake Chad has been declared a military zone, he had to make a diversion, catch six lorries and travel for four days. All he met with were ashes.
“Nothing but emptiness. In some places there are still bones lying around that haven’t been buried”.
Saidu is 36 and has lost everything except his pride. He speaks unhurriedly but resolutely. “To be honest, what we need are jobs. If we just sit down and wait to be helped, we will never make any headway. Sitting around doing nothing only makes you hungry and a hungry man is an angry man. We don’t want to live off humanitarian aid”.
Although slim, Saidu is tall and stocky. He is dressed in a white tunic, has shaved his head and his features are sharpened by a black goatee beard speckled with a few white hairs. He is continually smiling and exudes confidence. He immediately starts up a conversation with the women drawing water from a nearby well.
At first sight, Saidu looks as if he is cut out to be a leader, maybe because of his plain speaking and the way he avoids seeing everything in black and white terms. For him the jihadists are not the devil and he knows what he’s talking about: he knows several members. He knows about men who enlisted from hunger, because one day Boko Haram men appeared in his village and promised wages and food. In addition, he has, or had, friends or neighbours who weren’t especially religious and who had never committed any offences, but who all the same enlisted with Boko Haram – out of resentment. Abuse by the Nigerian army and corruption, says Saidu, are as much responsible for the present situation as the jihadists. He tells us that as soon as the army got to his village, they abducted a dozen youngsters who were never seen again. Then they brought in the much feared law of one for fifty. “It happened in Baga, in a district called Flatari —he remembers—: a soldier was killed by Boko Haram and soon after the Nigerian army arrived and burnt down the whole district. They slaughtered a whole heap of people: the sick, the elderly, the blind…innocent people. And the only reason was that someone had killed a soldier, but nobody knew who it was”.
The insurgency of the Boko Haram group has caused 50 000 deaths thousands of abductions and a desperate exodus
Local organisations have spent years reporting atrocities perpetrated by the Nigerian army acting under cover of fighting terrorism. And their cry has crossed frontiers. Amnesty International published a report full of videos and evidence detailing torture and mass executions of hundreds of people and Human Rights Watch has condemned abuse of women fleeing the jihadists by their supposed protectors. It has accused the military, the police and officials in charge of displaced persons of raping young girls or asking for sexual favours in return for protection or food.
Djim and Abdoulhassan, two Chadian aid workers in an international agency, speak on condition their names are not published. The first worked for a spell in Nigeria and doesn’t want to go back. “The army there just shoots without thinking”. Quite apart from the fear of jihadists, which makes the soldiers overly trigger-happy when confronted with any tense situation, there are the systematic robberies. Djim learnt the lesson one day he was working late in the office and spent the night in the streets of Maiduguri, in the north of Nigeria. He was stopped by a military check. It made no difference that he explained to them who he was working for and that he was an aid-worker, the soldiers still robbed him. “They just said: give us your money and go”.
At the time when the fundamentalists were in the ascendancy, the paranoia of the Nigerian army, badly trained and paid even worse, turned into a hot country version of Russian roulette. A small bruise could sentence you: if the suspect had anything so much as resembling the trace of a rifle strap on his shoulder, this would be sufficient evidence for accusing him of being a rebel. There were other ways too: inspecting toenails, if they were sunken, for some soldiers this was proof that you had been walking for hours with boots on. The summary verdict, if you were lucky, was that you were accused of belonging to Boko Haram and put in prison. On other occasions the conviction was even swifter and executed in the gutter by the roadside: a bullet in your neck.
During the state of emergency at the end of 2015 in Chad, the Chadian army spread a warning amongst the population which was difficult to misinterpret: any living being remaining on the islands, including animals, will be considered members of Boko Haram. The islands, from having been home to thousands for centuries, became an even more dangerous place than before.
However that may be, the highest authority in the region of Baga Sola, the prefect Dimonya Sonapébé, roundly denies that there have been any civilian assassinations in his territory. The extensive area of the lake and the vast desert makes the task of rounding up the jihadist Boko Haram very difficult
He receives me in the sitting room of his office, dressed in his Sunday best, and immediately places restrictions on any criticism. “In army terminology it’s called a ‘military error’. This kind of thing happens everywhere. Show me the soldier who would shoot his own people deliberately? Never! Errors are made when you want to save a group. It may happen that for their sakes you kill others, and that is regrettable”. When you cite witnesses who report bombing on Chadian soil of villages full of kidnapped women and children, or refugees reporting extra-judicial executions on Nigerian soil, he briskly cuts you off: We are not complaining about anything. We have nothing to reproach of our security forces. We shall cheer them: bravo for having won the battle”.
Neither, must it be said, has the proliferation of civilian control units, called Vigilantes in Nigeria and Vigilance Committees in Chad, Niger and Cameroon, favoured strict adherence to the law. Men with no training or discipline, with household firearms, bows and arrows or machetes, set up check-points at the entrance and exits to settlements to stop incursions by jihadists. They are the law where there is none. There have been times when they have openly confronted a group of rebels in a clear minority and have paid for it with their lives. The vigilantes are volunteers who are trying to protect their own people from a desperate situation.
Abakar Salha and Souleymane Ousma- neissa belong, at least at first sight, to this harmless profile. The first is protected by a mauve turban, the second by a white one, and, armed with a metal detector in their hands, they are screening everyone intending to enter the Baga Sola market, including the camels. If they find nothing suspicious, they lower the cordon tied to the side of the street and give way. If they find something strange, they report it to the authorities. The vigilance committees and the check-points were set up in the region after various suicide attacks in October 2015 in the market and on the outskirts of town resulted in the deaths of more than forty people. Despite the obvious fact that if a similar attack were to be repeated, the lives of both vigilantes would be in jeopardy, Salha has no hesitation in coming to terms with the obvious.
- Aren’t you afraid of coming across a suicide?
- No, that’s why we are doing this, to avoid it.
- But if the person you are screening is carrying a bomb, she can activate it….
- We only want to protect our people. If we don’t, who will?