Boko Haram militants have seized control of as many as 12 of 27 districts in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state in the past year.
Since Boko Haram militants captured the town of Bama on September 1, thousands of people have fled the area. Cellphone connections have been cut off, leaving only intermittent news. But recent escapees said militants there are ruling with an "iron fist," killing and jailing opponents.
A VOA reporter in this state capital interviewed at least a dozen escaped residents in the past week. For their safety and that of their relatives still in Bama, VOA is not using their names.
These residents said they had to sneak out at night on foot because Boko Haram militants are killing people who try to escape. Some said they wandered in the bush for days before arriving in Maiduguri, about 70 kilometers or 43 miles northwest.
The residents said Boko Haram has taken over Bama's large houses and major administrative buildings, including a large prison where they have detained hundreds of locals.
One source said she and other women were held with little food or water, and the militants threatened to kill them if they did not support the group. She said the captives had asked for mercy, but the militants said even women’s blood could be shed.
Claims of a 'caliphate'
In the sect’s most recent video, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed the militants are applying sharia law in the "caliphate" they allegedly have established in northeast Nigeria. That video showed a man being stoned to death, a woman being lashed and another man’s hand being cut off, all for supposed crimes, including adultery.
People who escaped from Bama told VOA that militants have set up a sort of "tribunal" there, but those who fled did not indicate any organized enforcement of Islamic law. They said militants appear bent on taking women and intimidating everyone.
One man said Boko Haram members are arresting married women and younger girls – but not older women – and detaining them in big houses. He said the militants claim they want to teach women the holy Quran. He said men get locked up in the prison.
Some men reported paying ransoms to free their wives. One told VOA he had to pay about $150 to free his wife. She was released and brought to Maiduguri, but three of his children remain trapped in Bama.
Residents reported that men who resist the insurgents or refuse to join their ranks are shot or slaughtered.
They said militants have looted all the shops in Bama and taken away much of the food.
VOA’s Anne Look contributed to this report from Abuja. Abdulkareem Haruna reported from Maiduguri.