Four years ago, Yagana Bukar, a mother in her early twenties, was said to have been standing under a grove of eucalyptus trees, carrying her four-month-old twins with her. Along with seven other women and nine children, she had escaped the extremist rebels who had kidnapped her a year earlier. Near the trees they encountered a group of soldiers.
Shots rang out
For a moment they feared it was Boko Haram, the violent terrorist organization operating in northeastern Nigeria. They reassured the men they were from the Nigerian Army and would take the women back to their own families.
But after Bukar climbed into the military vehicle, soldiers took her babies, put a hand over the children’s mouths and noses and left them to suffocate. The other, older children were taken into the forest, where shots rang out. Bukar: “The soldiers said they killed our children because they were children of Boko Haram – not human beings.”
This is one of six stories Reuters investigated where children were killed by the Nigerian army after liberation. The journalists reconstructed the stories using the testimonies of 44 civilians and 15 soldiers. Some of these soldiers carried out the killings themselves.
The intentional killing of civilians in an armed conflict is a war crime under international law. These six situations – the most recent of which occurred in February 2021 – killed a total of at least sixty children. Reuters has not been able to verify the total number of children involved – outside of these six situations – but it is estimated that thousands of children were killed intentionally.
Soldiers told Reuters they killed the children because they believed they would become terrorists like their fathers. Other soldiers saw it as a choice between killing or being killed, as children are sometimes used by Boko Haram as soldiers or as suicide bombers.
For still other soldiers, it was a way of expressing their anger at the deaths Boko Haram has caused. One soldier said: “I don’t see them as children, but as Boko Haram. If I catch them, I don’t shoot them, I cut their throats.”
Sometimes commanders directly ordered the ‘removal’ of children. Some soldiers found it difficult, they told Reuters journalists. “I’ll never forget it,” one soldier said of the first time he was ordered to kill a child. He believed the child was innocent and not part of the rebel group, but the soldier could be arrested if he disobeyed the order. “I shot him in the head. And I cried all night long.”
Last week it emerged that the Nigerian army was not only killing children but also trying to prevent their birth. In another extensive investigation, Reuters reported that the Nigerian military set up a secret abortion program that has forced at least 10,000 women since 2013 to end their pregnancies — sometimes in unsafe ways. Many of them had been raped or kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters. Women who resisted were drugged, beaten or threatened by soldiers.
Nigerian army chiefs deny to Reuters that the army ever targeted the killing of children. According to them, this investigation is trying to undermine Nigeria’s fight against insurgency. Major General Christopher Musa told Reuters of both infanticide and forced abortions: “It’s never happened before, it’s not happening now and it never will.”
In 2013, Nigeria’s president made the military responsible for counter-terrorism after the jihadist organization Boko Haram made increasing profits. Boko Haram started an armed insurgency in northeastern Nigeria in 2009, killing tens of thousands people were kidnapped, raped and murdered. The group is known for kidnapping girls and boys from classrooms on a large scale.
According to the United Nations, at least 300,000 people have died since the start of this war in Nigeria, more often from hunger or disease than from violence. By 2016, many large villages were back in the hands of the Nigerian army, but fighting continues in the countryside.