Satellite images reveal immense Boko Haram attack

People in Gambaru, Nigeria, stand outside burnt houses following an attack by Boko Haram in May 2014. (AP Photo/Jossy Ola, File)

New evidence shows the scale of a recent attack by a Nigerian Islamist group. Boko Haram, known internationally for kidnapping more than 200 girls in April, carried out a campaign in the town of Baga and nearby villages that killed as many as 2,000 people. The group left the villages destroyed in their wake, show new satellite images released by human rights group Amnesty International.

Amnesty is using the images as evidence that the Nigerian government estimate of 150 deaths caused by the attacks is wildly off the mark. More than 3,700 structures were damaged in the northern Nigerian towns of Baga and Doron Baga based on satellite images taken on Jan. 2 and Jan. 7.

“These detailed images show devastation of catastrophic proportions in two towns, one of which was almost wiped off the map in the space of four days,” said Daniel Eyre, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty International, in the report. “Of all Boko Haram assaults analyzed by Amnesty International, this is the largest and most destructive yet. It represents a deliberate attack on civilians whose homes, clinics and schools are now burnt out ruins.”

Fellow rights group Human Rights Watch also released satellite images of the villages. It estimates that 11 percent of Baga and 57 percent of Doron Baga were destroyed by the raids. The most significant damage came to Doro Gowon, home of the Multinational Joint Task Force base – home to the counter-terrorism operation against Boko Haram.

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Amnesty says the images are in line with the testimonies that its staff collected from eyewitnesses to the attacks. One man in his 50s said he saw “maybe around 100 killed at that time in Baga.” He ran to and hid in the bush. Boko Haram fighters eventually found him and detained him for four days. Other witnesses described indiscriminate killings, and the capture of as many as 300 women. Those who escaped say that young girls are still held by the group. One of the more harrowing testimonies came regarding the murder of a women who was in labor.

“[H]alf of the baby boy is out and she died like this,” said the witness to Amnesty.

The attacks led an estimated 13,000 people to flee and seek refuge in neighboring Chad, said the U.N. Refugee Agency. Mamadou Dian Balde, the agency’s deputy representative in Chad, told the Voice of America that the total number of refugees could reach 20,000. That is a staggering number when compared against the fact that only 500 Nigerian refugees entered Chad in 2013.

Satellite image of the village of Doro Baga (aka Doro Gowon) in north-eastern Nigeria taken on 2 Jan 2015. Image shows an example of the densely packed structures and tree cover. (Credit: Amnesty International)

Satellite image of the village of Doro Baga (aka Doro Gowon) in north-eastern Nigeria taken on 2 Jan 2015. Image shows an example of the densely packed structures and tree cover. (Credit: Amnesty International)

“If you hear testimonies from refugees, you understand that they left fear. Some of them had their parents and family members killed, so they had to flee these very painful conditions and these very difficult conditions,” said Balde to Voice of America.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan visited Maiduguri the capital of Borno State, where Baga and Doron Baga are located, on Thursday. There, he met with survivors of the attacks, reported AFP. Jonathan, who is also in the midst of a campaign for re-election, made assurances that “all the areas under the control of Boko Haram will soon be recaptured.” Next month’s election is scheduled to proceed, but the areas of the country presently controlled by Boko Haram are likely to be excluded.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.