Now, thousands of Boko Haram fighters have surrendered, along with their family members, and are being housed by the government in a compound in the city of Maiduguri, the group’s birthplace and its frequent target.
The compound is next to a middle-class housing development and a primary school, terrifying residents, teachers and parents. “We are very afraid,” said Maimouna Mohammed, a teacher at the primary school, glancing at the camp’s wall 50 yards from her classroom. “We don’t know their minds.”
Nigerian military and justice officials say that in the past month, as many as 7,000 fighters and family members, along with their captives, have left Boko Haram, the largest wave of defections by far since the jihadi group emerged in 2002.
The turning point for its fortunes appears to have been the death of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s longtime leader, who blew himself up in May after being cornered by a rival faction. However weakened Boko Haram may be, though, it does not necessarily mean an end to terror for the people of northeastern Nigeria, hundreds of thousands of whom have died and millions of whom have fled.
Fighters from Boko Haram’s rival splinter group – the Islamic State West Africa Province, or Iswap – are moving into the vacuum, observers in the region say, ferrying truckloads of military equipment from their strongholds in the Lake Chad area southward to Shekau’s former dens in the Sambisa forest. Iswap broke off from Boko Haram in 2016, and claimed an affiliation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Journalists are not allowed into the compound hosting the Boko Haram defectors, a facility known as Hajj Camp, formerly used by Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca. But we were able to interview six people who surrendered in the past month, who each managed to leave the camp for a few hours. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Most described a surrender largely for practical reasons – because they were leaderless, because the weapons supply had dried up, because they were tired of living in the bush, because they feared for their survival or because they felt the choice was between surrendering to the government or going over to the Islamic State West Africa Province, where they feared they might be treated as slaves.
“We are leaderless,” said a man who identified himself as a khaid, one of the top ranks of commander. “What do we do?” The khaid said he had witnessed Shekau self-detonate, blowing up other Boko Haram members and men from the Islamic State West Africa Province, who had ambushed him in his stronghold in the Sambisa forest.
“It was devastating,” the khaid said, his hand over his face, eyes shifting behind his fingers. “Sambisa was silent. Not even the sound of the flour grinder. The whole place was in mourning.”
The khaid had joined Boko Haram because he wanted revenge on a soldier who had beaten him up, he said, and had risen to be head of the hisbah, Boko Haram’s morality police, married to four women with 14 children. And he left because he realised he could do it without fear of dying.
He went home after Shekau’s death to the village he had left years before and tried to start farming. Recently, he said, one of his sons found a leaflet hanging on a thorn tree in the field. He took it to a friend who could read, who told him it was an offer of clemency from the government.
Torture and starvation
He had been under the impression that the government executed all Boko Haram members or took them to Giwa barracks, a military detention centre notorious for mass shootings, torture and starvation. Certain that he would be killed if he stayed on his farm, he jumped at the chance to surrender.
Public space in Maiduguri: A 28-year-old former spy in the compound said he had joined Boko Haram when he was 13 and was part of a group of 400 who decided to surrender together. Photograph: Tom Saater/New York Times
In Hajj Camp, living alongside commanders like the khaid are some of their former hostages, some abducted as children and married off to fighters. They are keeping as low a profile in the camp as possible, still fearful of being raped. Also in the camp are legions of Boko Haram fighters. One fighter was a hafiz, someone who has memorised the entire Koran. He killed 17 people, he said, and he did it joyfully, seeing it as a blessing. Around the time Shekau killed himself, the hafiz began secretly listening to recordings of sermons by imams preaching a completely different, and peaceful, interpretation. Distraught, he plotted his surrender. “I want forgiveness. But I don’t know how God will forgive me,” he said.
Another, a 28-year-old spy, said he had joined Boko Haram when he was 13 and was part of a group of 400 people who decided to surrender together. Despite admitting to killing at least 10 people with his own hands, and causing the deaths of “countless” others through his spying, he felt he might have a chance at being accepted by the community.
The group’s most infamous crime is the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from their dormitory in the village of Chibok – girls whom Shekau vowed he would sell in a market in one of his frequent video diatribes. (All of the Chibok girls not released were married off to fighters, the khaid said.)
At the Ahmed Jaha nursery and primary school, next to Hajj Camp, Mohammed and other teachers struggled to believe that the surrendered fighters, who arrived last month haggard and hungry in green and white school buses, had really repented. The low wall surrounding Hajj Camp was a problem. Soon after they were moved in, about 20 of the defectors scaled it and fled, according to Bunu Bukar, head of a local militia, who helped the military fight Boko Haram for years. A new wall was built and topped with shiny barbed wire. Police built bunkers out of sandbags in a field alongside the camp and trained their guns on that wall.
But the residents of 1000 Housing Estate, a large government housing development for civil servants next door to Hajj Camp, still do not feel safe. Some moved out as soon as they could. One, a nurse once driven from his home by Boko Haram, who lost everything but had found refuge in the estate, has started sleeping with a cutlass under his bed.
Many worried that it was just Boko Haram’s latest trick to attack Maiduguri. If so, they argued, from the terrorists’ point of view, Hajj Camp could not be better situated – close to the airport, an air base and an artillery barracks.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times