PEOPLE in the remote town of Rann in Borno State are once again burying scores of residents, following another deadly attack by Boko Haram a day after the troops of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and the Nigerian Army withdrew from the town on 27 January.
With no military around to protect the civilians, Boko Haram freely moved into the town, killed at least 60 people and injured tens of others. Witnesses said that they further destroyed the clinic and burned thousands of settlements.
Amnesty International calls for urgent action
In a statement on Friday, Amnesty International condemned the attack, which it described as the “deadliest yet by Boko Haram”, and lambasted the Nigerian Army for withdrawing troops from the community.
“We have now confirmed that this week’s attack on Rann was the deadliest yet by Boko Haram, killing at least 60 people. Using satellite imagery we have also been able to confirm the mass burning of structures as Boko Haram unleashed a massive assault on Rann, most of which is now destroyed,” said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria.
“This attack on civilians who have already been displaced by the bloody conflict may amount to possible war crime, and those responsible must be brought to justice. Disturbingly, witnesses told us that Nigerian soldiers abandoned their posts the day before the attack, demonstrating the authorities’ utter failure to protect civilians.
“Amnesty International is calling on Nigerian authorities to investigate the alleged withdrawal of security forces of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) from Rann, which may have left tens of thousands of civilians exposed to this latest deadly attack.
“Boko Haram has consistently and deliberately targeted civilians in Rann, which makes the Nigerian authorities’ failure to protect people all the more unacceptable.
“The authorities on both sides of the border must provide the supplies and safety that these people require. The Cameroonian authorities must also desist from forcing people to return until conditions are safe and they choose to do so voluntarily.”
According to satellite images analysed by Copernicus, since September 2018 at least 3,300 houses, tents and shelters, making up a third of the town, have been destroyed or damaged in four attacks by the armed group Boko Haram.
Satellite images obtained by Amnesty International appear to show most of the damage was done in the last attack on 28 January 2019.
Witnesses told The ICIR that on 27 January, the MNJTF troops who had come to secure Rann residents in the aftermath of the Boko Haram attack on January 14 left the town. The MNJTF reinforcement withdrew when they felt the situation had stabilised, it was learnt.
Witnesses confirmed that the soldiers used a commercial truck to pack their belongings and moved Gamboru. A few soldiers who remained in Rann later travelled via Cameroon to Gamboru.
A Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) member who left on Sunday with the military said: “The soldiers told us that they are not equipped to protect Rann, with only their guns and one armoured tank. After the MNJTF left, the military said ‘we can’t stay’. Boko Haram had already taken the rest of the equipment of the military in the January 14 attack.”
Their departure was followed by a mass exodus by the IDPs who had come to Rann to the security promised by the Nigerian army.
On 28 January, Boko Haram attacked the town, burning, looting and slaughtering people. At least 11 were killed inside the town while approximately 50 people were killed as they attempted to escape.
One witness who escaped on Monday to Cameroon said: “After the military left, people became very scared, everybody thought ‘there is no security with us’. Some people started packing and left to Cameroon. In the morning on Monday, Boko Haram came. They started firing, killing people, so everyone was running. They put fire in houses. Up to now, we haven’t been back.”
Other witnesses confirmed to The ICIR that Rann is currently deserted.
Another witness of the attack who escaped to Cameroon said: “First Boko Haram went to the military barracks. They saw it was empty and then they came to the town. It was around 8 am, they started firing, killing people, slaughtering people. More people ran away to Cameroon. Boko Haram followed them on their motorcycles and killed people on the road, even on the road to Cameroon there were corpses. I couldn’t count the people who died, but it is definitely more than 40.”
According to another CJTF member, the military is currently encouraging people to return. But many questions agitate the minds of development workers in the region as well as residents. Should residents come back, is the military going to protect them? What guarantees can the government give that they will fulfil their obligation to protect civilians from attacks by armed groups like Boko Haram?
Under international humanitarian law, civilians are a protected group; Boko Haram’s targeted attacks on civilians are war crimes. But the government under humanitarian law is also obliged to protect civilians, and in particular, those that they have agreed to host in IDP camps.
Numerous IDPs have said that in hard to reach areas in northeast Nigeria, the military compelled them to leave their homes and move to camps for displaced persons, such as the camp in Rann. Upon arrival in these camps, most civilians were screened and many men of fighting age detained.
The displaced persons were then held in camps with severe movement restrictions. IDPs have described numerous deaths due to starvation because they could not leave the camps to farm or search for food.
The military set up the displaced persons’ camp in Rann in April 2016, and all farmers living in surrounding villages were instructed to come to the camp for their own safety.
The stories IDPs from Rann described to The ICIR all paint a harrowing picture of the suffering, hunger and thirst in the months that there is no access for humanitarian organisations.
Since January 2017, when the Air Force bombed the camp which resulted in over 170 deaths, the displaced persons have experienced at least seven deadly Boko Haram attacks.
Early this year, Rann hosted some 75,000 displaced people, according to IOM. Thousands left following the deadly Boko Haram attack on 14 January, during which at least 14 civilians were killed.
Displaced people that spoke with The ICIR had little words to express their desperation and feeling of total neglect. One man who came to Maiduguri after the 14 January 2019 attack told The ICIR: “In Rann, there is nothing. In the past two years, we have been there. The air force dropped a bomb. Our children died, we became handicapped, our elderly died. We were attacked. All these things happened to us. Nobody spoke and said they are sorry. What do we do?”
He is now waiting to be reunited with his wife and children, who escaped Rann on 27 January and are currently in Cameroon.
Another man who also came to Maiduguri before the latest attack said: “There is nothing we can do about Boko Haram, but I am very surprised that a terrorist can come, enter the military barrack, take the property, enter our town, kill civilians, take our animals. Now is the time for election, but Boko Haram doesn’t want democracy. In my understanding, they don’t want people to vote.”
Days before the military withdrew from Rann, there was an election campaign event in the town. The residents said they were very pleased to see that they as well were visited by the candidates. A man said: “The authorities have told us that they would hold elections in Rann. Everyone who gets the chance to vote will vote to improve our situation.”
But after the latest attack, which made most displaced people refugees in Cameroon, and the mass destruction of the town, it is doubtful if the people from Rann will be able to vote.