Hunting Big Game or Boko Haram, ‘You Kill It or It Kills You’

Maiduguri, Nigeria – Ever since he was a boy, Bunu Bukar has hunted big game in the forests of northeastern Nigeria, tracking the footprints of wild pigs, antelopes and elephants through the thick brush.

Now the prey he hunts leaves motorcycle tracks.

Mr. Bukar and dozens of members of a century-old hunting association have trained their weapons on Boko Haram, the militants who have shot, kidnapped and burned their way through villages on an eight-year campaign of murder and destruction across the region.

Nigeria has marshaled huge battalions of soldiers to carry out a sweeping operation to attack and kill the insurgents, who have since retreated to remote forest hideouts.

Last weekend, Nigeria scored a major victory in the battle with the militants, securing the release of 82 girls whom fighters kidnapped from a boarding school three years ago as they were preparing for exams in the village of Chibok.

Mr. Bukar said he was with Nigerian soldiers last fall when they came across one of the abducted schoolgirls: Amina Ali, who was scrounging for food in the forest with other Boko Haram members. She was the first of the girls to be found since the mass kidnapping shocked the world in 2014.

Mr. Bukar’s hunting group is well acquainted with the remote forest areas where the militants have taken refuge.

His group, which once gathered regularly in the bush to track rabbits, wild hens and other game, first encountered Boko Haram when the militants fled the state capital four years ago and took their rampage to the countryside, encroaching on the hunters’ turf.

“In the beginning, there was no problem,” said Mr. Bukar, 51, secretary of the hunters association. “Hunters and insurgents met in the forest, and everyone was doing their own business.”

That changed when the military started chasing Boko Haram through the countryside. The soldiers needed help finding water and shade as they passed through unfamiliar terrain. They turned to the hunters for help. It did not take long for Boko Haram to realize that the hunters were guiding soldiers, and the group wanted revenge.

Boko Haram’s first target was Mai Ajirambe, an elderly leader of the hunters’ group. Insurgents tracked him to a village near his home and kidnapped him. When fellow hunters found Mr. Ajirambe, he had been decapitated, his head carefully placed on his back.

“We decided right then, they won’t stop until they kill all of us,” Mr. Bukar said.

He and other hunters gathered their families and moved them from their rural villages to the state capital, Maiduguri, for safety. Then they joined the fight. Now, the hunters sometimes lead soldiers into battle with their own homemade, long-barreled guns.

Like most hunters, they brag about their successes and lament the ones that got away.

One of Mr. Bukar’s biggest regrets came on the day that he and the soldiers found the first girl from Chibok. He said he caught a fighter and delivered him to the soldiers, but then the man somehow escaped in all the excitement of finding one of the kidnapped students.

While last weekend’s liberation of the Chibok schoolgirls is a victory, Mr. Bukar knows the hunt for Boko Haram fighters is far from finished.

When Mr. Bukar gets ready for a mission, he follows the same routine he has used since boyhood. He rubs an herbal mix across his body to mask his scent. He puts on his lucky necklace. In the field, he stays as quiet as possible, relying on hand signals to communicate with fellow hunters. He never runs after his prey; he lets it come to him.
“Once you meet it, there are only two options: You kill it or it kills you,” Mr. Bukar said.

The hunters are relying on traditions handed down through generations. Many began hunting when they were young boys, heading to the bush with uncles, fathers and grandfathers. A handful of women who hunt have also joined the Boko Haram fight.

Some hunters carry knives fashioned years ago by grandfathers who etched squiggly designs across the blades. Before the bush became too dangerous, they would gather as many as a hundred people at a time for major hunts, combing the bush for prey.

The hunters said pursuing humans was trickier than going after animals — even elephants, which are notorious for fighting back.

“If you climb a tree, you might be safe from an elephant. But not with Boko Haram,” said Mr. Bukar, who is also the secretary of the hunters’ organization. “If you climb a tree, they’ll shoot you.”

The militants specialize in ambushes, he said. Sometimes the best strategy to catch fighters involves carving a hole in a wide tree to hide in and wait for a group of Boko Haram members to pass, typically on motorbikes, which are banned in Borno.

Most hunters have superstitions, and Mr. Bukar and the others are no exceptions. Their bodies are laden with dangling, round leather amulets.

Abba Balomi, a 20-year-old, baby-faced hunter, wears amulets around his waist and a beige, quilted cloth vest designed to look like a bulletproof vest. The items give him a sense of protection, he said.

Mr. Balomi has recovered war trophies from raids on Boko Haram hideouts — mobile phones and cash, mostly, but also the insurgents’ good-luck charms. He said he and his brothers destroyed them.

Ba Bunu, 25, is commander of a local group of hunters. His lucky charm is the tail of a black cat that dangles from a necklace.

New York Times

Uprooted by War, Threatened by Boko Haram and Desperate to Go Home

Maiduguri, Nigeria — Dozens of drivers lined up in beat-up vehicles stuffed with mattresses, cooking pots and other belongings, clogging a road outside one of the most desperate and dangerous camps that serve as refuge from the war with Boko Haram.

All were waiting for the Nigerian military to escort them back to the farms and the villages they had fled during the yearslong rampage by the insurgents here in this northeast corner of the nation.

The military and the government have proclaimed that the countryside outside Maiduguri, the busy Borno State capital where Boko Haram was born, is mostly safe now. They’ve said it’s time for most of the nearly two million displaced people — many of them farmers and fishermen fighting to stave off hunger — to go home.

But the soldiers were guiding the throngs of people into a future that was no more certain, and potentially just as dangerous, as the past they had fled.

President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly declared the war with Boko Haram over. The military has chased the insurgents from hiding places in the forest. But the radical terrorist group is still waging deadly attacks across the countryside. And in some camps for displaced people, new arrivals fleeing the militants are moving in even as others are moving back home.

Caught in the middle are people like Idi Hassan and his wife, who were in the convoy with six of their young children in his truck bed. The Hassans had been living for two years in the squalid camp in Maiduguri, relying on food handouts and eager to get back to their farm north of here, where they hoped to make a living.

“The area has been liberated, and we’re going home,” Mr. Hassan said.

Yet insurgents still roam the northeast and frequently crisscross roads like the one that was taking Mr. Hassan and his family home. Just weeks ago, Boko Haram ambushed soldiers along this very highway, killing seven of them.

The narrow road is also the same one that Boko Haram used in January to ferry nine suicide bombers who set upon the same camp in Maiduguri that the Hassan family was leaving. Besides the bombers, two other people were killed in the attack, described by the authorities as the most coordinated of recent bombings.

Much of the world associates the militants with the kidnapping in April 2014 of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok, a small village in northeastern Nigeria. Many of them are still missing.

“Most people simplify this crisis into one hashtag: Bring Back Our Girls,” said Sean Hoy, Ireland’s ambassador to Nigeria, who was in Maiduguri recently with other diplomats to assess the humanitarian crisis. But the aftermath of the ravaging by Boko Haram is far more complicated.

Since the violence started here in 2009, nearly two million people in northeastern Nigeria have fled their homes in fear of Boko Haram, which has carried out a murderous spree against civilians and members of the military.

Many people fled rural areas to Maiduguri, which has doubled in size as displaced Nigerians have crowded into relatives’ homes or settled into crumbling buildings, bus stations, schoolyards and the thousands of ramshackle thatched huts that dot the edges of the city.

The Borno State government announced plans to close the camps in Maiduguri by the end of May, but said it would keep evaluating the situation. Now, one million uprooted people are making their way back home, according to the United Nations.

Outside the city, military commanders say, all but small pockets of the countryside are now safe.

“Ferocious attacks are a thing of the past,” said Maj. Gen. Leo Irabor, the Nigerian Army commander leading the operation against the militants. “We are only picking up the pieces.”

In late December, the military began reopening main highways that had been closed for years because of security worries. The state government has started rebuilding burned villages.

The military push has allowed aid workers to fan out into new parts of the countryside to help people ravaged by famine or famine like conditions. The United Nations has increased its efforts as well, working alongside the military and asking for $1 billion to help those affected by Boko Haram.

Yet the security situation is far from stable. Maiduguri, where soldiers chased out the militants years ago, has been a frequent suicide-bombing target, set upon even by girl bombers, one as young as 7. One bomber in a recent attack had a baby strapped to her back.

With the military on their trail, many Boko Haram fighters appear to have scattered throughout Borno State and its beige landscape dotted by tiny farming communities. The Nigerian Army orders residents to clear out as it hunts the militants, and unarmed civilians are sometimes killed in the battles.

In another area deemed safe by the military, insurgents gunned down 16 people gathering wood not far from their homes. When aid groups make some supply runs in helicopters across the safe areas, the pilots fly high enough to be out of missile range.

The New York Times