Nigerians' fear of northern atrocities

Bombed out church in Kaduna, October 2012

Days after the latest suicide bomb attack in northern Nigeria, people at St Rita's church in Kaduna city are still shocked at what happened.

The site is attracting members of the congregation who want to revisit the scene after lucky escapes as well as curious people from surrounding neighbourhoods who come armed with mobile phone cameras.

The authorities suspect the militant Islamist sect, Boko Haram, was behind Sunday's attack.

But the bombs are not the only cause of fear in northern Nigeria. In some towns and cities the military response is also causing people to suffer.

"After Boko Haram attacked a mobile military patrol, soldiers came to the place and started firing on people, innocent people," a trader who recently fled the town of Potiskum told the BBC.

"When I went to the hospital the next morning I saw 30 bodies. I saw them with my naked eyes. I counted them."

Residents of towns in north-east Nigeria say that civilians are most at risk when soldiers are killed by suspected Boko Haram militants.

There were reports last month that a tipper truck had dumped dozens of bodies at the hospital in Maiduguri - a stronghold of Boko Haram - after a military crackdown in the city. The army denied the allegations.

In recent weeks people have been fleeing the worst affected areas - some temporarily - and they bring with them accounts of atrocities.

'Manipulating minds'

"There is a place called Guantanamo in Damaturu [city] where the military keep people to punish them," says a student who fled to Kano from Damaturu last month after seeing young men rounded up by the army.

"Even if you are not Boko Haram you are punished so harshly that you call yourself Boko Haram. Then the army will kill you."

I spoke to several people from Damaturu who referred to the name "Guantanamo" as a detention facility.

The army denies any wrongdoing.

"There is no Nigerian soldier that goes out on the streets to just kill innocent Nigerians," Col Sani Kukasheka Usman told the BBC at the First Division headquarters in Kaduna.

"They are properly trained. They are professional. So, whatever we do we always make sure it is done within the ambit of the law."

Col Usman suggested the claims of army abuse were propaganda by Boko Haram.

"They are not only concerned about physical violence. They also manipulate the minds of people through propaganda and they have a lot of sympathisers - misguided people I might say," he said.

"So our job is to ensure that there is peace and security in this society and in so doing we also require the cooperation and understanding of the Nigerian society because the military is for them."

Without the support of the population in northern Nigeria tackling the insecurity looks like an impossible job for the army. It is only going to get harder, according to human rights groups.

"The response we are seeing from the security forces is actually making the situation worse," Amnesty International's Lucy Freeman told the BBC in Kaduna.

"Instead of protection and instead of preventing these attacks by Boko Haram by working with the communities you are alienating these communities and they are subject to human rights violations at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect them."

"You also risk recruiting for the group that you are trying to fight. When a child sees their parent killed by the security forces or they have their house burnt down the effect of that is going to be to strengthen support for the group rather than to hinder it."

Image caption Ahmad Yunusa's relatives say he was shot after a Boko Haram attack

Residents of Damaturu, Potiskum and Maiduguri complain that they are caught in the middle of the conflict.

"Both Boko Haram and the army force are killing people. Neither of them is doing the people any good," said a former resident of Damaturu.

"Boko Haram plants suicide bombs at the mosque and the army is not helping the civilian population. That's why I don't support either of them."

'Fleeing with wheelbarrows'

In Kano, the main city in northern Nigeria, I met a family which is still grieving the death of a son.

According to Ahmad Yunusa's relatives, he was working at a fuel station close to a police station that was attacked by Boko Haram gunmen in March. The soldiers then stormed the area.

"When the soldiers came 45 minutes later they just opened fire. They asked no questions. They shot him in the leg. He was rushed to hospital. My son died," said Yunusa Shaaibu, adding that three people were killed in the attack.

"It's my son who was supporting me. He would buy food for my wife and my children. They killed him now," the father said as he held photos of his 18 year-old son, Ahmad.

Mr Shaaibu said he had once been soldier in the Nigerian army.

"I served the nation. I went to Lebanon as a peacekeeper in the 1970s. I have had no apology from the army at all [for his son's death]. Nothing at all up until now."

Next to St Rita's church in Kaduna people pushed wheelbarrows full of their possessions along the road after being forced to evacuate homes damaged by the blast.

"I am with my wife and three children. We don't have a place to live. We will have to squat somewhere. I will beg someone to let us stay," said Godwin Jacob as he packed up the kitchen utensils, a fan, a mattress and a TV.

They are the latest people to have their lives turned upside down by the cycle of violence in northern Nigeria.

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