Refugees in Maiduguri. 

A survivor of what is potentially Boko Haram’s deadliest massacre spoke to FRANCE 24 from northern Nigeria Tuesday, despite the unreliable phone network that often hinders communications from this part of Nigeria. Otunba (not his real name) told us how he managed to survive the carnage, and what he thinks lies ahead for the refugees now flooding into Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s northern state of Borno.

The Islamist militants razed the northern town of Baga and nearby villages last week, killing hundreds of people – perhaps even more than two thousand – as they tried to flee into the bush. This carnage - from which Nigerian troops also fled – has prompted an exodus towards Chad to the east and towards Borno state’s capital Maiduguri to the south. Amnesty International estimates that about 20,000 people were forced to flee their homes in total.

Women and children refugees waiting in line for rice distribution in Maiduguri. Photo taken by one of our Observers. 

“There was no rescue operation to try to find the wounded, and take the bodies away”

Otunba (not his real name) fled when Boko Haram attacked Baga last Wednesday.

The insurgents have attacked the Baga area multiple times in the past, so I had already moved my family to Maiduguri a while back out of fear of a big attack like this one. I had just gone back to my house in Baga to do one or two things when it happened.

Luckily for me, they attacked from another side of town, and I was able to run away by foot with two of my neighbours. As we fled, we saw some of the insurgents in the distance. Some were carrying rocket launchers, and others had guns. They seemed to have the run of the town. We also saw some of the first victims. I saw five bodies, three women and two children. It’s terrible; I heard that women and children in particular were killed in large numbers. With their rocket launchers, they killed a lot of people who just weren’t fast enough to run away in time.

We trekked over to Niger, and from there walked back down to Damaturu and then got a ride to Maiduguri. It was a very difficult, long route – it took us a day and a half altogether. Here in Maiduguri, I’m living in the house I had rented for my family. But I’m lucky – most of the people fled with nothing, and have to go to camps set up by the state government. We live in fear that the insurgents could attack Maiduguri, too, especially with elections just a month away. But we just have to pray.

I have a lot of friends, neigbhours, even a few relatives back in Baga that I haven’t been able to get in contact with. I don’t know if they’re dead or alive. I really hope to see them show up in Maiduguri. What’s really terrible is that there are so many people dead in Baga, lots of dead bodies littered around, and that no rescue operation has been undertaken to try to find the wounded, and take the bodies away.

Some of the refugees sleep outside, in the streets of Maiduguri. Photo sent by our Observer.

“The local population is very scared of the refugees, because they don’t know if insurgents could be hiding in their midst”

Mustapha Zannah is a lawyer and the founder of an Islamic school in Maiduguri catering to children who have lost their parents on both sides of the ongoing conflict – parents who died at the hands of Boko Haram, and parents who were part of the insurgent group.

Refugees have been coming into Maiduguri in droves every day since the attacks in the Baga region. There are half a dozen government-run refugee centres set up in empty secondary schools [Editor’s Note: Public schools in the state shut their doors indefinitely following threats from Boko Haram, which translates to “Western education is sinful”]. However, this is not nearly enough to house everyone. Those who are lucky enough to have relatives here crowd into their houses, but lots of refugees are also sleeping on the streets and begging for money and food. And while it is warm during the day, it gets pretty cold here at night in this season – about 7 or 8 degrees.

Food distribution at a crowded refugee camp, located in a girls' school in Maiduguri. Photo taken by an Observer. 

The main reason people are fleeing to Maiduguri is that there are civilian self-defence groups protecting the town. In residential neigbhourhoods, local men and boys will ask whoever tries to enter their streets who they are, who they’re visiting. But of course they can’t do this everywhere – it’s impossible to monitor everyone going to the market. [Editor’s Note: There have been repeated bombings attributed to Boko Haram at Maiduguri’s busy market. Just this weekend, a bomb blast killed at least 19 people at the market. Reports suggest a girl of about 10 was strapped with explosives.]

This means that it isn’t easy for the new arrivals to move about town. The local population is very scared of them, because they don’t know if insurgents could be hiding in their midst with explosives. So while many people feel sorry for the refugees – which include many orphans – they’re also very wary of them.

I wish we could take more refugee orphans in at my school, but we’re already overcrowded. And the local authorities are completely overwhelmed. Local NGOs have little means to help, and the only international organisation operating in Maiduguri is the Red Cross, which has been giving out relief packets with some basic foodstuffs and blankets. We need more help.

The Boko Haram insurgency, which has been going on for five years now, has killed more than 10,000 people in 2014 alone. More than a million people have been displaced within the country’s borders, and hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries.

These orphan brothers fled a previous Boko Haram attack in Chibok to find refuge in Maiduguri. They earn money by washing other people's clothes. Photo sent by an Observer. 

Our Observers in Maiduguri tell us that refugees try to earn a living by selling a bit of food on the roadsides. Photo sent by an Observer. 

Post written with France 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).