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VOA EXCLUSIVE: Boko Haram's Terror Targets Many, Spares Few

  • Ibrahim Ahmed
  • Mike Eckel

During its five-year insurgency, the Islamist group Boko Haram has driven thousands of people from their homes, including these women and children at a refugee camp in northeastern Nigeria

During its five-year insurgency, the Islamist group Boko Haram has driven thousands of people from their homes, including these women and children at a refugee camp in northeastern Nigeria

Ijabula Seltimari can’t figure out how he managed to survive being shot by Boko Haram militants.

Twice. In the head. At point blank range.

His body, he said, bounced as the bullets hit.

"I tried getting up, but I fell. I tried again, but I fell again. So I lay on the ground and that was when people from the neighborhood arrived," Seltimari told VOA in an interview. "I am lucky that I am still alive."

Seltimari, a 29-year-old married father of three who makes a living loading and unloading cargo from delivery trucks, doesn’t know why he was targeted.

Regardless, though, his survival in the attack in February was unusual for those who have suffered at the hands of Boko Haram.

During a five-year insurgency, thousands of people have been killed by the extremist Islamist group battling what it says are pernicious Western influences in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria.

Tactics escalate

Over the past year, as the group’s tactics have escalated from localized violence to widespread mayhem that threatens stability across West Africa, an estimated 250,000 Nigerians have been driven from their homes in three northeastern states.

This year, Boko Haram’s campaign has turned decidedly more deadly, with more than 2,000 killed so far.

In April, the group grabbed the world’s attention when it abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from a northeastern Nigerian village.

The kidnapping not only highlighted the confused, sometimes incoherent response of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government in confronting the problem, but it also focused attention on the growing problem of terror groups in West Africa—many espousing Islamist ideals or anti-governments goals, some having ties to al-Qaida.

"Boko Haram can still punch above its weight in Nigeria with attacks that have far-reaching ripple effects on political stability," analyst Jacob Zenn wrote in an article published last month by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy.

With the United States and other countries offering military assistance and other help to find the schoolgirls, concern is mounting both in Nigeria and around the world about whether Jonathan’s government is up to the challenge.

Last week, gunmen believed to be Boko Haram attacked four villages in the Gwoza area of Borno state, killing hundreds.

Witnesses told VOA that the militants, who came dressed as soldiers, opened fire on residents and burned down homes and businesses during the raids.

Mike Omeri, director general of Nigeria’s National Orientation Agency, defended the overall government response, which included declaring a state of emergency in Borno last year.

"[The] government has risen to the challenge of the moment by deploying and seeking help," Omeri said. "If government was not doing anything at all, it wouldn’t have sought for help internationally, it wouldn’t have mobilized its own international assets towards providing security and rescuing the girls."

Villages terrorized

Villages and towns around Borno state -- which shares borders with Cameroon, Niger and Chad -- have been terrorized by the attacks.

That includes Seltimari’s village, Izghe, a mixed ethnic and religious town located south of the state capital Maiduguri, where most residents eke out a meager living by farming and trading goods.

On the night of Feb. 14, Seltimari was sleeping in a room with his wife and three children in a compound that he shares with various brothers, sisters and other relatives.

At around 9 p.m., four men entered the compound and banged on his door. He lay quietly until one of the attackers called out, "Today is your last day. If you don’t open the door, we are going to use a gun to open it."

The men, Seltimari said, carried "sophisticated" weapons, apparently Kalashnikov rifles, and wore camouflage army uniforms, but had no beards or head coverings. They asked him first for the registration documents to his car.

After replying that he didn’t have the papers, they demanded the keys to his motorcycle, then went outside and set fire to his car.

Demands increase

Then they demanded he gather his belongings and extra clothing.

When Seltimari said he didn’t have any, one of the men hit him with the butt of the gun, and again told him they planned to kill him, ordering him outside into the compound’s courtyard, along with his wife and children.

By this time, he realized that the gunmen had killed other relatives: his half-brother, his half-brother’s wife and his half-brother’s mother. He never learned why.

After a short disagreement about whether to let Seltimari go, the attackers ordered him to strip naked and lay down on the dirt ground on his back and beg them not to shoot him.

Then, he said, "I was ordered not to look up, I should have my face looking on the ground. So I put my head on the ground, and that was when they shot me twice."

He lost consciousness.

The men left soon after, taking Seltimari’s motorcycle. His relatives rushed him to a local hospital. He was transferred to the state capital, where he underwent emergency surgery.

In all, four people were killed in the attack, including another neighbor.

Seltimari, who earns a living collecting fares for goods and loading them onto cargo and delivery trucks, said he had no idea why he was targeted; he is Christian and the neighbor who was killed is Muslim.

Seltimari now lives in a refugee camp in Bole, a village in neighboring Adamawa state.

About 120 other people—mainly women and children—also live in the camp, a makeshift operation that gets some funding from the state emergency management agency.

"The right side of my body is paralyzed, I can’t feel it. I thank God. We don’t have anything, but we can find something to eat. What we need right now is medicine, so that we can feel better," he said.

VOA's Mike Eckel reported from Washington and Ibrahim Ahemd from Nigeria. Reporter Peter Clottey contributed material from Abuja, Nigeria.

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