During a visit to Muna Garage, a Borno State settlement that has experienced multiple attacks by suicide bombers, OLALEYE ALUKO writes on how Boko Haram terrorists infiltrate the community to get children for deadly missions
Bang! The bomb went off. There was a deafening noise, followed by thick smoke, fragments and human screams. Everyone started running and falling on one another inside the Muna Garage market. The bomb exploded on the main road but its impact was felt as far as two kilometres away.
“I thought the world was ending. I was just 12 buses away from where two teenage girls detonated their Improvised Explosive Devices,” said Aliyu Yahaya.
Yahaya, who was an Islamic school teacher residing in Muna Garage, Borno State, recalled the explosion he witnessed on Wednesday, May 3, 2017, in the community.
“Emergency and rescue workers flooded the area. They tried to help people trapped in the fire into vehicles to be taken to the hospital. After about an hour when the smoke had reduced, we saw the mutilated bodies of the girls. Their eyes were open and one wore the hijab. Up till now, every week, there is a bomb explosion in Muna area.
“The child bombers usually target crowded areas. They run into crowds of people and explosions follow. They also run into the mosques. They wait for people to start praying before they run into the mosques. Within seconds, there will be an explosion. Most times when it is 6 pm, I am already indoors,” Yahaya explained.
Yahaya had a close encounter with a bomb explosion, but another resident, who gave his name only as Isah, was actually injured by it.
Isah, stretching on an old wooden chair inside his shop, lost his left leg to an explosion in the last week of October 2017. He recalled that he was buying watermelons by the roadside around 7.30pm when a bomb went off.
“I saw my body literally burning. I couldn’t leave the spot because my left leg was hit badly. Minutes later, I became unconscious. There were four teenagers who carried out the attack. They killed more than 10 persons and injured about 20 people in the incident,” said Isah.
Isah is an Internally Displaced Person staying in one of the self-help camps at Muna Garage.
While some residents of Muna Garage area said they had lost count of the number of bomb explosions they had witnessed, others noted that they had imposed a curfew on themselves from 6 pm daily or thereabouts.
As our correspondent went on the road that runs through Muna Garage, at least four Internally Displaced Persons’ camps could be seen on either side of the road. It was learnt that the camps were spontaneously put up by those IDPs, who were displaced from the villages surrounding Maiduguri.
Muna Garage area is actually an exit route from Maiduguri, connecting Dikwa and remote Gamboru and Ngala towns.
Sympathisers give away children to Boko Haram
Inside the IDPs’ camp behind the Muna Garage market, our correspondent observed that some of the sheds donated by the United Nations International Organisation for Migration were made using tarpaulins.
A large number of children, who have become dropouts as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, played on a nearby field at about 9.30 am.
Another common sight was that of women standing in twos and threes under the sheds doing some chores. The atmosphere was eerily calm.
There was no noise except the intermittent sweeping of dry dust by the harsh harmattan, which made the residents of Muna Garage look paler.
It was challenging to get many IDPs to speak on the recurring suicide bombings as most persons were afraid of talking to the Boko Haram informants.
However, a woman, who worked with an international aids agency in the camp, was more disposed to talk about the insurgents. The woman, Memunat Kabu (not real name), spoke about how the Boko Haram terrorists recruited children for suicide bombings in the Muna Garage community.
She said, “The terrorists live with us. They eat with us. They have brothers, sisters, and parents in these sheds. It is just a few violent terrorists who are hiding in remote bushes; there are many others in the camp, who are Boko Haram sympathisers.
“The sympathisers are worse than the terrorists because they are the ones who gather information for the Boko Haram insurgents. They tell them when the security is down and they also take food and other materials to the terrorists. And worst of all, they are able to give their children to the insurgents to use as suicide bombers. They are told that the children are going to do the work of God. You know if I were a Boko Haram member, my children would automatically belong to the group. I could give them up for what I believe.
“The incidence of child suicide bombing has not reduced at all in Muna Garage. Every week, it happens. The people that are worst hit are those on the main road. The blasts don’t actually occur in the IDPs’ camp. The terrorists know they cannot get many victims that way. They target the main road where crowds are always gathered. And one can happen to be on the road at any time.”
The Nigerian Army had in August 2017 confirmed the trend of some parents in the North-East giving their children to the Boko Haram insurgents as child suicide bombers.
The army reached out to the religious, traditional and community leaders in the North-East to dissuade parents from giving their children to Boko Haram to carry out terror attacks.
The Director, Army Public Relations, Brig. Gen. Sani Usman, said the appeal was consequent upon some “revelations” made by suicide bombers arrested by the troops.
He said, “We appeal to religious, traditional and community leaders in the North-East to help dissuade people from giving their daughters or wards to Boko Haram terrorists for indoctrination and suicide bombing missions.
“This is expedient in view of recent revelations by some intercepted female suicide bombers during interrogations. It was discovered that most of these hapless minors were ‘donated’ to the terrorist sect by their heartless and misguided parents and guardians, as part of their contribution to the perpetuation of the Boko Haram terrorists’ dastardly acts against the Nigerian society and humanity.
“The acts of these parents and guardians are not only barbaric but condemnable and unacceptable. Nigerians have a responsibility and obligation to collectively mould our children and wards.”
Other children abducted by Boko Haram
Our correspondent met with an IDP, a local volunteer in the camp, who works for an international health organisation.
The volunteer, Bako Ishaya (not real name), explained Boko Haram also recruited suicide bombers through the abduction of wandering children, especially in the evenings.
“Just two weeks ago, they abducted eight teenage girls from a village behind us. The girls have not returned. The terrorists will marry them and start training them to figure out the ones that could be sent out to attack people. It is true that some sympathisers in the camp give their children to the terrorists, but some other children are simply abducted. They are taken away for weeks for indoctrination.
“I know about some IDPs who voluntarily released their children. A man I know had a 13-year-old girl and he made her go and stay with his brothers – who are terrorists – in the forests. I hope the terrorists will not wake up one day and tie the IEDs around her. These children are ignorant; they do not know anything. The terrorists tell the children to walk to a certain location and press a button.
“It is after they die that they may remember in heaven that they were deceived into killing themselves. Most times, once they have the IEDs on, it is hard to remove them on their own, unless there are security operatives around to painstakingly do it,” Ishaya said.
Our correspondent observed an army security post in the community. There were two Civilian Joint Task Force members sitting under a tree near the post, but they declined to speak about the suicide bombings in the community.
An IDP, who gave his name simply as Audu, said he came to live in the Muna Garage area with his family after they were displaced by the Boko Haram terrorists from the Gamboru-Ngala Local Government Area of Borno State.
Audu, who is a fairly educated trader in the camp, said, “The Boko Haram group is a cult. You pledge your loyalty to it. They give their lives, their family members and their property. The terrorists are not Muslims. I am a Muslim, but the terrorists see me as someone to be killed because I am not a part of them.
“If you catch a Boko Haram bomber and you take them to court; do you think they fear death? Someone who tied an IED to his body, was he not planning to die before? Therefore these terrorists are no longer afraid of death. They have a wrong psychology. They are prepared for death and to rehabilitate them is a problem.
“My brother once saw a Boko Haram child soldier in Bama town. My brother was being pursued by the insurgents and he climbed a tree. From the tree, he saw a child Boko Haram soldier holding an AK-47 rifle and shooting. The boy held on to the gun with a napkin because it was hot as he continued shooting. Such a boy must have been told that he was not killing human beings but animals. His mind had been twisted. That is why they can kill hundreds of people without showing any remorse. They don’t care. Only God will help us.
“The terrorists are within the area, but we don’t know them. Some of them live near the camp. They are very smart. They will not produce the IEDs where they can be seen.”
UN psycho-social supports
As Muna Garage area continues to grapple with the spate of children suicide bombings, the international community is not left out in the efforts to stem the tide.
According to the UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator, Peter Lundberg, more than 110 children were used for suicide bombings in 2017 alone in the North-East.
He said, “Since the start of the conflict in 2009, thousands of women and girls have been abducted. Children have been used as ‘suicide’ bombers. This year alone, more than 110 children have been used as ‘human bombs’ by the group known as Boko Haram. They are being forced to wear vests or belts packed with explosives and blow themselves up in a crowd.
“There are attacks on camps for internally displaced people, marketplaces and mosques which occur on a weekly basis and spread fear among people who have already witnessed the horrors of this conflict.
“But we must keep up the life-saving work. We must continue to hope that peace is right around the corner. That is what will bring this humanitarian crisis to an end.”
Back to Muna Garage, our correspondent observed that the United Nations International Organisation for Migration was on the ground to offer psycho-social support to both the IDPs and the residents of the community.
The IOM said this was in a bid to enable the IDPs to start new lives and dissuade them from spreading the ideologies of the terrorists.
The IOM Coordinator in Muna Garage, Jerry Balami, said despite the recurring bomb explosions, the residents were resilient because they bounced back after every attack.
He said, “We basically offer counselling, conflict mediation and focus group discussions among the IDPs. When there are issues in the camp, they come to us. We advise them and make them come up with solutions.
“As a result of the insurgency, some people have lost their parents, husbands, wives and children. So you find out that there is this imbalance among them. They normally come to us when there are issues. We support them and take them through informal education classes. We teach the women how to make caps. They can make caps and sell them to feed their families.
“The most important problem is that in this area, we always have bomb blasts. But a keyword for the residents is resilience. The Muna Garage community is resilient. They have an ability to bounce back after each bomb explosion. They have an ability to move on with their lives.”
Over 110 children used for suicide missions in 2017 –Army, others
Over 110 children have been deployed by Boko Haram as suicide bombers in 2017, our correspondent gathered from military records as well as releases from the National Emergency Management Agency and the Borno State Police Command.
It was learnt that Boko Haram terrorists had used well over 115 children for suicide bombing missions between January and October 2017 in Borno State alone.
The figure could as well be higher as some suicide missions might not have been reported to the military or the emergency agencies.
It was learnt that the targeted locations were usually military checkpoints, Internally Displaced Persons’ camps, mosques and bus stops.
Muna Garage area also experiences such attacks. Other areas that have experienced child suicide bombing on many occasions include Usmanti village, Jiddari Polo, Ummarari and Dalori in Borno State.
On April 26, 2017, NEMA confirmed the death of four teenage bombers, who attacked Muna Garage and Muna Usmanti areas of Borno. Also on May 3, three children bombers were killed, while trying to attack a military base known as Guantanamo in the Muna Garage area. The corpses were removed by NEMA officials.
It was said that since July 2017, there had been an upsurge in the suicide bomb attacks, as attested to by the police.
The Borno State police on July 12, confirmed the death of four child suicide bombers who detonated bombs at a funeral, killing 12 Civilian Joint Task Force members and injuring 23 others.
The Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, the military anti-insurgency operation in the North-East, Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Attahiru, in August 2017 confirmed the recent spate of using child bombers by the Boko Haram terrorists.
Attahiru, in his quarterly briefing, said the military also recorded cases of children being given by their parents to the insurgents for suicide bombings.
Attahiru said, “The Boko Haram terrorists have continued to undermine international humanitarian laws and fundamental principles of human rights through the forceful use of women and children to carry out suicide attacks on soft and vulnerable targets.
“During the period, two cases of children given by their parents to the Boko Haram terrorists to be sent on suicide missions were recorded. In Molai Kalmeri , when unsuspecting people gathered at a local tea joint, they were infiltrated by a child bomber, who joined the queue to buy noodles and in the process detonated her suicide vest.
“Regrettably, seven persons were killed in the incident while two Civilian Joint Task Force members were killed by a second suicide bomber in the same area.”
Our correspondent learnt that a good number of the children used by the Boko Haram insurgents, who were arrested by the military during clearance operations, were at the army facility in Giwa Barracks, Maiduguri.
It was gathered that few of them, through the efforts of the state Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, were taken to the United Nations Children’s Fund shelter in Maiduguri, where they are undergoing rehabilitation. Punch