ABUJA, Nigeria — Before engaging in decisive battles with Nigerian and foreign soldiers this week, Islamist militant group Boko Haram slaughtered the elderly, the infirm, and women its members had taken as forced wives, according to multiple accounts.
Relatives of those who fled Bama, one of the areas that saw recent fighting, told BuzzFeed News that the militants initially tried to bring the women with them. When the women refused to follow, Boko Haram fighters killed them.
"To them it's an abomination for their wives to be married by any other person," said Hamza Idris, a journalist for the independent Daily Trust who has been covering Boko Haram since its inception in 2002.
"When it was evident — I'm telling you this based on witnesses' accounts, survivors' accounts — when they realized that they [Boko Haram] would definitely be subdued by advancing Nigerian soldiers, they said it's better for them to kill their wives before proceeding to go [to the place] where they would wait for another round of fighting," Idris said by telephone from Maiduguri, where he is based.
Maiduguri is the capital of Borno State, the birthplace of Boko Haram. Last year, after abducting more than 300 schoolgirls from their dormitory in rural Chibok, Boko Haram sacked and torched town after town, claiming the majority of territory in 10 of Borno's 27 counties — and overtaking completely another 10, Idris said.
But a recent multinational offensive against the group is beginning to bear fruit. Chad and Cameroon have been conducting cross-border operations in northern Nigeria since early this year, and Nigeria brought in South African mercenaries to help their own military fight the group.
Agence France-Presse reported on Thursday that the group slaughtered "dozens" of women it had taken as wives before it left the area of Bama. International human rights groups said they could not confirm or deny the report, but multiple sources in Maiduguri confirmed that story to BuzzFeed News, based on conversations they had had with multiple witnesses.
Experts say this is the first such report of its kind: the murder, in advance of a skirmish, of women married to Boko Haram fighters. Baba Bukar, who works in Maiduguri for the conflict prevention organization Search for Common Ground, and Idris said the move suggests Boko Haram suspects its advantage — facing a single, hesitant foe — is beginning to erode.
Prior to the involvement of foreign troops, and the ramping up of President Goodluck Jonathan's re-election campaign, "the [Nigerian] government had been responding to Boko Haram with a lot of reluctance and a lot of disinterest," Bukar said.
Most independent experts inside and outside Nigeria say that the Nigerian soldiers in the northern operations, who were mostly low- and mid-ranking, were more likely to flee rather than fight Boko Haram. (The Nigerian military, which has on multiple occasions claimed victories that didn't happen, disputes these claims.)
"Now, even the brigadier generals of the Nigerian army are leading some of the operations, so there's no way the army will run away when the most senior officer in charge of that area or that command is willing," Bukar said. That means that now, Boko Haram "knows they have no option ... that when the Nigerian forces strike, they will not run away, as was the case last year."
This newfound political will to confront Boko Haram seems to surprise the group's members. "I don't think the Boko Haram ever thought that their empire would be crushed," one 60-year-old woman told the Daily Trust. "They had everything, a chain of command, including judges, imams and administrators."
That's also meant the group doesn't know how to deal with so many civilian hostages, observers on the ground told BuzzFeed News. So it's made two moves not previously seen: assisting some civilians in escaping, and murdering others, in advance of military confrontations.
According to field reports received by Search for Common Ground, Boko Haram knew in advance it would face a fight for the strategic town of Bama, near Maiduguri and the group's stronghold of Gwoza. The militants asked able-bodied residents to flee in advance — ostensibly because fewer civilians would reduce chaos and distraction and make it easier to fight, and because the civilians were too many in number to relocate.
But those who couldn't leave — the sick, the elderly, and anyone with disabilities — were killed, the report said. So, too, were women who'd been forced into marriage with fighters.
Some human rights advocates say these marriages amount to abductions, and women who are able to flee the group's outposts routinely turn up in Maiduguri with stories of being prepared for weddings.
But in the group's twisted logic, the role of these women as "wives" seems to hold sway over its fighters.
"It's better for them to kill [the women] themselves than for them to be killed by the army," Bukar said. Indoctrinated fighters, he continued, might believe that wives "killed by their own husbands they will go to heaven. But if you are killed by the army, who they call infidels, you will go to hell."
This story was updated to reflect addition information from relatives of those who fled Bama.