Fatima Babagana hoped to become a top broadcaster in Nigeria. The 19-year-old had started a political science degree after a diploma in mass communications. She told everyone she was passionate about becoming a journalist.
Her dreams came to an abrupt end on Sunday night in Nigeria’s insurgency-hit Borno State.
The University of Maiduguri student was one of at least 30 people killed when militants set fire on stranded travelers caught in a roadblock in the remote village of Auno village.
Most of them were asleep in their vehicles at the checkpoint when the attackers ambushed them, according to Babagana’s uncle.
Babagana had hitched a ride from Maiduguri with her uncle and his friend on Sunday. Her uncle told CNN that he was going to drop her off at Potiskum during his journey to another state, where she was planning to visit a relative.
CNN is not reporting the uncle’s name because of his fear of retribution from Boko Haram and the military.
But soldiers at a roadblock in Benisheikh town – around 45 miles west of Borno State capital Maiduguri – ordered them to go back for their safety.
The officers warned they could be ambushed by Boko Haram, said Babagana’s uncle, who drove the car.
Campaign of terror
Boko Haram militants held towns and villages in Borno State during a particularly brutal wave of terror in 2014.
The Nigerian army recovered those territories only after it launched several military operations in the state that included troops from other countries in the region and mercenaries , the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) said in a 2018 report..
Babagana’s uncle – who has witnessed many of Boko Haram’s attacks in Maiduguri, an area where he has lived most of his life – said they heeded the military’s advice and quickly turned back.
But a more perilous journey lay ahead.
They traveled for another hour before encountering another military blockade in Auno village, one of the gateways into Maiduguri, he said.
This time, the soldiers told them they had missed the 4 p.m. curfew to enter the village, and they would not be allowed to continue their journey.
Babagana’s uncle said they decided to stay the night in their car by the checkpoint and continue the trip the following day. A handful of soldiers patrolled the area, and dozens of motorists and passengers were stranded at the checkpoint, he said.
But late into the night, dozens of heavily armed men descended on the roadblock, shooting everyone in sight.
“Fatima was sitting in the backseat and typing on her phone. They saw the light from the phone because it was very dark. Next thing I knew, they had shot her in the head,” her uncle said.
The attackers kept shooting at people fleeing into the bushes, he told CNN.
Babagana’s uncle said he was able to escape with his friend. They later saw flames and smoke billowing from where they had fled. The attack lasted more than four hours.
“I wept all night. I kept thinking about what these terrorists would have done to her and others that were there,” he told CNN.
Nothing could have prepared him for the carnage he saw when he returned to the village early Monday.
“All the cars were still burning. People were stuck in cars, dead. We tried to put out the fire, but we were helpless. It was just too hot,” he said.
The attackers burned 18 vehicles, including those carrying food and other goods to be taken to a market the next day, Borno State governor media aide Isa Gusau told CNN.
Images from the scene also showed charred remains of victims.
A resident, Shehu Tanko, told CNN they pulled the bodies of a pregnant woman and a baby by her side from one of the vehicles.
Most of the victims were burnt beyond recognition, but state emergency officials are trying to assist families of those involved in the attack, Gusau said.
“They had traveled from different towns, villages, and states before they got stranded there that night. It’s so sad,” he added.
Babagana’s remains, which were recovered from the burnt car, have been buried, her uncle said.
Sunday’s attack has sparked anger in Nigeria, where some alleged the blockade had made travelers vulnerable to the attacks
CNN has not been able to determine who ordered the blockade at this location to be established, and the Nigerian Army has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
Borno State Gov. Babagana Zulum complained that soldiers deployed to the checkpoint often abandon their posts at curfew when he visited the scene of the militant’s attack on Monday, according to a local media report.
“They (soldiers) are here, but as soon as it is 5 p.m., they close the gate and lock the people, and go back to Maiduguri. This is not right,” Zulum said, according to the report.
CNN has reached out to the Nigerian army spokesman for comment and has yet to receive a response.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has blamed Boko Haram for the attack, according to a statement by his media aide Garba Shehu on Monday.
No one has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack. However, Boko Haram and its splinter group, the ISIS-aligned Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), have caused violence and destruction in Nigeria’s northeast and the surrounding Sahel region over the last decade.
The government of Nigeria declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013, and several months later, the US State Department followed suit.
A CFR security tracker estimates that more than 37,000 people have been killed, and millions have been displaced in the conflict in Nigeria between 2011 and 2018.
For Babagana’s mother, Hafsat, these statistics have just become very real.
Hafsat said she spoke to her daughter Sunday afternoon before she embarked on the journey with her uncle. She had just sent Fatima her weekly allowance, and she called to check if she got the money. She never imagined it would be their last conversation.
“Nothing is going to bring Fatima back. This is horrible and so painful,” she told CNN.
Many Nigerians expressed their anger about the fresh onslaught of attacks by the terror group, which the government has repeatedly claimed has been defeated.
President Muhammadu Buhari was reportedly booed by a crowd of people in Maiduguri when he paid a condolence visit to the Borno State on Wednesday.
Buhari came directly from Addis Ababa, where he had been attending an African Union Summit for heads of state. He met with rulers and security agencies in the state asking for their support in the fight against the militants, according to a statement from his media aide.
“I assure all Nigerians that we are taking steps to ensure improvement in security, nationwide. In Borno the military will work harder to deal with the insurgents. I am also appealing to community leaders and the populace to give our troops the intelligence and cooperation needed,” Buhari said in a tweet.
Buhari said Boko Haram was “clearly on a back foot” and his government would not allow the group to hold Nigeria ransom in a statement on Monday in response to the attacks.
In another statement by Buhari’s spokesman, the president said the country’s military had gathered enough intelligence to crush the militants.
“As our armed forces continue to receive more hardware and intelligence to counter our current security challenges, the remnants of Boko Haram will ultimately be crushed. The peculiar challenges of asymmetric warfare notwithstanding, our armed forces are ever determined to defeat these enemies of humanity,” President Buhari said in a statement by his media aide.
In a move locals have interpreted as a possible act of defiance, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked another village in Borno, just a few hours after Buhari’s visit, according to local media reports.
Villages burned, residents displaced
On Friday, Amnesty International Nigeria said militant attacks have spiked in the country’s northeast since December. Nigerian military troops in the region have responded with “unlawful tactics that have had a devastating effect on civilians and may amount to war crimes,”the rights group said.
Amnesty said soldiers have burned villages in operations to flush out Boko Haram members.
“The Nigerian government must not brush these violations under the carpet. They must be investigated, and alleged perpetrators must be prosecuted. Necessary steps must also be taken to ensure that military operations do not further forcibly displace civilian populations,” said Amnesty Nigeria Director Osai Ojigho in a statement.
Nigeria’s defence ministry has denied Amnesty’s allegations and accused the rights group of distorting facts about its counter-terrorism efforts in the country’s northeast.
The ministry in a series of tweets said Amnesty’s account of abuse allegedly committed by its troops who are “legitimately defending the country” against terrorists is proof that the rights group lacked “in-depth knowledge” about the military operations.
It said the human rights organization had twisted the narrative by blaming its soldiers for the havoc wreaked by Boko Haram, whose fighters have been known to burn villages and destroy homes during attacks.
“AI must understand the fact that Nigeria is at war against terrorism in the NE and that the troops have a constitutional mandate to protect lives and property, even if it means conducting an evacuation to save and secure lives of civilians in the conflict.”
“Protecting civilians by evacuating them from the line of fire during combat is not a violation of the international law of conflict or a war crime,” the defence ministry said on its official Twitter handle.
Buhari, a former military leader, was elected president in 2015 on the promise that he would end the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast, a pledge his critics say he has not fulfilled.
But the president says his administration has recorded successes against Boko Haram.
“We will do our best and I hope history will be kind to us; to recall what was on the ground when we came and what will be on the ground when we leave,” Buhari said in a statement.