Feature: The Boys From Baga


After the training ended, the boys were taken back to the palace in Malam Fatori. The largest building was used as the private quarters of the leader, or babban emir, but there were other structures, too — a labyrinth of spaces for purposes the boys did not know. Gathered in the sandy courtyard, the babban emir stood before them with his two subordinates, whom the boys called the second emir and the third emir. Tall and mature, the babban emir wore a traditional white jalabiya and cap. Mustapha wasn’t sure how old he was, no more than 30. The babban emir divided the assembled boys. Kolomi was sorted into the third emir’s unit and told to get up and follow his new leader. Mustapha and Zanna, bigger and stronger, were assigned to guard the babban emir’s palace.

Zanna took a post at the back side of the palace with 20 others. He tried not to talk to anyone — it wasn’t safe. Every day, from the time of his abduction through his training, he prayed in his heart for a chance to escape. Mustapha, too, was afraid, but more, he was confused. This was a problem with no solution. No help was coming. What to do?

The rhythm of camp life enveloped the new abductees. Activity was concentrated around the palace, everyone working to fortify the heart of the base against the Nigerian military, which periodically probed their defenses, trying to retake Malam Fatori. Boko Haram had declared itself a caliphate and pledged its alliance to ISIS. A tug of war for the arid earth had ensued. Every morning, the deputy emirs, whose units lived in the surrounding villages to protect the center, would come to greet the babban emir, entering his building for a private audience. Directives from Shekau may have been conveyed by satellite phone. There was coordination with the other babban emirs as well, but the boys of Malam Fatori never interacted with neighboring fiefs. Though Boko Haram was hierarchal, it was also fragmented, each division preoccupied with ensuring its own survival.

In the morning, groups set out on patrol in their trucks, checking the areas around Malam Fatori for traces of movement overnight — new tire prints, footsteps or animal tracks. Mustapha would quietly accompany the insurgents on patrol. He wanted to see how everything worked. Throughout the day, women who had been captured from nearby towns cooked food, which the insurgents ate from communal troughs. At night, the boys could sleep in any room in the palace compound, so long as it wasn’t in a room where women were kept. They barely prayed, and no one knew what day it was — only Fridays stood out, because on that day, they were fed rice with meat stew.

Mustapha again drew close to those who whispered. This was not a place to isolate yourself. He noticed the senior insurgents didn’t like people who didn’t have action. Those without action are lazy. When they talk, they cannot command, so they cannot send fear into someone. Men of action, however, were free to go where they wanted: to the market, to the tarred road outside the camp, even to other Boko Haram-controlled villages, where they could stay overnight.

One night after dinner, Mustapha was sitting in a room with the guards, reflecting on his problem. Boys chatted lazily by torchlight. There was no solution. No help was coming. What to do? If you do not put in effort, they will not draw you close. You will just be among those that they could do without. He turned it over again. What to do? Look, Mustapha told himself, if I want to get out of this place, let me obey whatever they say. Let me do as they want. Is it not by cooperating with them that I can get my freedom? If I want to survive here, let me just be doing what they like. When they notice that, they will trust me. No, more, let me do what will earn me commendation.

Mustapha started looking for his chance.

After weapons training, Fannami was taken to a village on the outskirts of Malam Fatori to join his unit. Their leader, the second emir, was fat and well kept, his house cooled by an air-conditioner powered by a generator. He told his new recruits that they were the Special Forces, a strike force for dangerous missions. Fannami learned his group did not accept anyone older than 15. They didn’t want people who would be thinking about their family. “We want people who when they are determined to do something, they will just go ahead and do it,” their emir told them.

A second round of training began. The boys in his unit were taught how to climb trees and lay ambush on soldiers, how to counter military attacks, how to use a rocket launcher. They now learned to work different types of bombs — heavy ones that could be exploded by remote control, others they threw by hand and some they buried in the ground for vehicles.

Training took place every day in an open field. As they practiced, instructors circled them in a kiriku, a small armored tank not much bigger than a car. The kiriku dropped bombs on the ground, unleashing heavy booms. The explosions initially scared Fannami, but he grew used to the sound. They learned to drive the kiriku, as well as cars and motorcycles. They were taught how to arrange themselves in the trucks for operations: The front seat was for those people who killed without a second mind; the rest piled into the back.


Ali was kept alive by Boko Haram for his farming skills but severely beaten and burned when he refused to go to a training camp. After he escaped, he was held in the Army’s infamous Giwa Barracks for months.

Glenna Gordon for The New York Times

At the end of the training, the insurgents returned them to the emir’s palace, where Fannami found some uniformed persons — military or police — tied to a stake. “Shoot and kill,” the instructors commanded. If a boy was not able to kill, the men would take the boy away and beat him seriously, then bring him back another day to shoot and kill. So it was then that Fannami learned to kill human beings. Fannami knew the insurgents were always watching. He learned that if they were to go out on operation, they would identify those who performed excellently and reward them. They could promote them to the front seat of a truck, or let them go and friend a girl from the two rooms where abducted women were kept. The boys would be killed if the magic dates or charmed water failed and a person returned to his senses, making unguarded statements about wanting to go home or that what they were doing there was wrong — saying so many things.

At night, the boys would sleep in the village’s deserted houses in shifts. Some rooms held up to 10 boys. They didn’t have mattresses, they didn’t even have mats. There were so many mosquitoes. When the wind blew, it got cold. Fannami would squeeze himself into his clothes — all he had was what he was abducted in, a red T-shirt and black trousers, and his new turban. Sometimes, the cold entered his body while he slept, and he would wake up and remember Baga. There, if it was cold, he would wake to find himself covered in a cloth. In the morning, he would ask his mother, and she would say she was the one who covered him. If there were many mosquitoes, his mother would come and use a cloth to drive them away and light a mosquito coil in his room. All those things — anytime Fannami woke up, he would realize he was missing them.

It was after Mustapha’s first raid on a village — after they’d killed many people and returned to find their men rejoicing and were fed a great celebratory feast of jollof rice with fish. It was after he was ordered to shoot an elderly man for an offense — he didn’t know what. It was after he was asked to go with five insurgents to a village for “a small thing,” which turned out to be a beheading, and where Mustapha, being the newest of the group, was told to do it. It was after he killed a man on a motorcycle just to commandeer the shiny bike. (When Mustapha thinks of it now, this is the one he mourns. “The first two, I killed them on instruction,” he explains. “The last one, nobody asked me to kill him.”) It was after all these attempts to gain Boko Haram’s trust that one day, some weeks after training ended, he volunteered to go and find two fellow insurgents who had been arrested and detained by the authorities.

Mustapha tracked them to a nearby police station. When he arrived, playing the part of a local villager, the police stopped him and inquired what he was doing. He asked if there was anything he could help them with but was sent away. Back in Malam Fatori, he collected a few others and led them to the station, where they opened fire. The group killed six policemen. They abducted two girls and freed the insurgents.

When the babban emir heard of this, he gathered the men of the camp and addressed Mustapha. “You went,” he said. “You rescued these two without any injury. You killed those policemen. You took their vehicle and brought it to us. You are definitely going to be very useful to us. I’m proud of you.”

“I thank you so much,” Mustapha responded and presented the babban emir with the girls they abducted. “I dash you these ones.”

“You are now the second emir of the camp,” the babban emir told Mustapha, and gave him a new name. The other emirs were demoted to third and fourth in the camp. Everyone cheered “Allahu akbar!” and shot their guns into the air. The babban emir divided those assembled before him again and led Mustapha to his new base — an abandoned village on the side of town. They inspected the terrain together. The babban emir told the second emir which house should be his. Mustapha’s new home had a master bedroom with a bed and a mattresses and, what Mustapha liked most, a sitting room with a big rug, two wooden chairs and enough windows to allow a gentle cross breeze. He now had three trucks at his disposal, though he did not know how to drive.

The second emir’s men — 60 of them, of all ages — carried things from the babban emir’s stores: food, women and ammunition. Mustapha told them where everything should go. He let his people select the best houses in the village. That night, all those earlier confusions vanished. Mustapha had found his solution. I will go all out to execute the babban emir’s instructions, he decided, rightly or wrongly.

The night the third emir announced the operation, Fannami had trouble sleeping. Before morning prayer, he readied himself, tucking his shirt into his trousers, tying on his turban and putting on the big green military helmet snatched from a dead soldier. Fannami never found a uniform to fit his scrawny frame. The boys stuffed handfuls of dates into their pockets and climbed into the backs of the trucks, eating as the convoy moved.

The trucks stopped in an open field. Hopping down, they saw that the senior insurgents were standing near thick bundles of grass that concealed holes in the earth: entrances to tunnels. The insurgents had honeycombed the area around their base. The most experienced knew which tunnel would take them beneath the soldiers and which one could turn you into a target. “Go into that one!” they commanded. “Go around. Go to that side!” Fannami bent down and walked through one for a long time. When he emerged, he found himself directly behind a large group of uniformed soldiers.

The insurgents were still organizing when the fighting began. They had not expected such a large enemy force. These soldiers were not like usual Nigerian military units, who spent more time shooting into the air and running back and forth, uselessly. They were organized and immovable. (Later, Fannami learned they were from the Multinational Joint Task Force — special forces from Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Chad and Cameroon.) Fannami knew he was supposed to be at the front, leading the attack: The insurgents had told him the soldiers didn’t like killing young ones. But he hated it there; he always tried to go to the middle or even to the back. He scanned for somewhere to take cover. As he looked ahead, he realized how many in the front had been killed. His mind cut, and his heart thrummed. His legs were too weak to carry him. Others must have felt the same, because many were turning back, so Fannami tried to run, but he tripped and fell. Something metal pierced his flip-flop.

Fannami watched as a boy running past him stopped. He threw his gun to the ground and heaved Fannami onto his back. There was so much blood. As the boy ran, Fannami’s blood trickled down the boy’s pants. When the boy tired, he put Fannami down.

“Thank you,” Fannami said.

“I was afraid, but I couldn’t leave you there,” the boy replied. “I had to carry you.” His name was Sale. It was then that Fannami decided this boy would be his friend.

Fannami and Sale began finding each other at meals. They liked to take the individual plates they were served and mix them into one big pile to share. Sale told Fannami his mother died when he was born. Fannami told Sale his father died when he was small, but he still remembered him. He talked about his kind mother. They wished over and over again that they could go home.

“Don’t worry,” Sale told him, “by the special grace of God, sooner or later, we shall leave here. God will not leave us in this place.”

“That is true,” Fannami replied. “We shall surely leave, by the will of God.”

They repeated these words to each other cautiously, aware that if insurgents realized you were fond of spending time with someone, they would also suspect you might be planning an escape. So Fannami and Sale mixed their food only once every three days. When they did, they made sure not to sit together for more than an hour. If they really wanted to stay in each other’s company, they would go into the bush and pretend to hunt.

One night Fannami dreamed that the insurgents told them that the war was over, that they had conquered Nigeria. “Everybody go back home!” they said. When Fannami returned, his mother saw him and was crying: “Where have you gone? You have spoiled yourself. You have carried a lot of sins.” She put him in a room, bathed him and changed his clothes. In his dream, he was happy.

Fannami’s mother had taught him not to fight, even when people insulted him. It was a sin to do so. But in the bush, Fannami saw everyone’s bad habits were magnified. Those who were bad now had the opportunity to be worse, and they were. Now that I have found myself where I should not be, Fannami told himself, I should not make my situation worse by fighting people. The best thing is, let me be showing gratitude to God by exhibiting good habits.

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