The insurgents dressed as Nigerian soldiers as they stormed through at least three villages in the Gwoza district. A community leader who fled one of the raids said local residents heard rumors about upcoming Boko Haram attacks earlier in the week. The villagers reportedly asked the Nigerian military to send soldiers to the area for protection, as reported by The Washington Post.
“We all thought they were the soldiers that we earlier reported to that the insurgents might attack us,” the community leader said after fleeing to the city of Maiduguri.
Others fled to nearby Cameroon, said Peter Biye, a lawmaker from the district, according to CNN.
“We are still trying to compile a toll of the dead as people on the ground are still counting the number of casualties,” Biye said.
Gwoza is a district within the Nigerian state of Borno. The insurgents reportedly entered the Gwoza villages driving motorcycles and pickup trucks similar to those used by the military. They gathered the villagers into a large group and told them that they were there to offer protection, according to Sky News.
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The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Boko Haram forces have in large part been ousted from major Nigerian cities in the northeast part of the country. But they have recently started taking over smaller villages.
More than 2,000 Nigerian citizens have been killed by the group this year, with about 750,000 civilians displaced, according to the AP.
The AP also reported that the Nigerian military is trying to minimize casualties by steering clear of villages in which Boko Haram flies its black flag with white Arabic lettering.
Some vigilante groups have cropped up to take matters into their own hands. Muhammed Gavva, a member of such a group, told the AP that large sections of roadway near Boko Haram strongholds are inaccessible to civilians and soldiers.
“We have long informed the military officials about this. They are aware, but we don’t know what they are doing about that,” Gavva said.
Gavva said Boko Haram insurgents impose themselves as the governing officials of villages that they claim as their own. He said young men in the region are prevented from leaving their homes under threat of violence.
“They are in charge there. You cannot do anything on your own without their permission,” he said. “Even if the villagers want to go and till their farmlands, they had to first contact [Boko Haram] for permission.”
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Boko Haram militants kidnapped more than 300 girls from a school on April 15 in the Borno town of Chibok. Community leader Pogu Bitrus told the AP that 57 girls had escaped on their own. An estimated 272 are still captives.
The group released a video showing at least 136 of the girls in May. Three girls spoke in the video, according to the BBC. Two said they were Christian and had converted to Islam since their capture. A third identified herself as Muslim.
“These girls you occupy yourselves with … we have indeed liberated them. These girls have become Muslims,” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in the video.
Shekau said the girls would remain prisoners until all imprisoned Boko Haram militants were freed by the Nigerian government.
Nigerian military officials said in May that they know where the girls are being kept. Air Marshal Alex Badeh said this was “good news for the parents” but said that the military would not risk “going there with force,” according to the BBC.
The Gwoza region’s emir, or traditional religious ruler, was killed in a Boko Haram attack last week. Emirs have been targeted for speaking out against Boko Haram.
Borno Gov. Kashim Shettima traveled to the Gwoza district on Saturday to pay homage to the region’s emir. He said his commute brought him close to Boko Haram territory.
“If I say I was not petrified traveling through that … road to Gwoza, I would be lying, because that road had been designated a no-go area for about two months,” he said, according to Nigerian news site Information Nigeria.
Shettima was accompanied by 150 soldiers. Journalists in his entourage reported that they passed at least 16 towns on the stretch of road to Gwoza that were “completely deserted.”
“The sight of those deserted villages was very pathetic; it was devastating,” Shettima said. “My consolation lies in the fact that we have over 1,000 years of recorded history. We strongly believe that from the ashes of this destruction, Borno shall rise again.”
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Boko Haram is an Islamic extremist group that condemns political and social activity associated with Western society, according to the BBC.
The group was reportedly founded in 2002 to oppose Western teachings. “Boko Haram” translates to “Western education is forbidden” or “Western education is a sin” in the African language of Hausa, according to CNN.
The group has since shifted focus to imposing Sharia, or Islamic law, throughout Nigeria. Boko Haram made national headlines in 2009 when 700 people were killed in clashes between the group and the Nigerian military.
Boko Haram was also responsible for one of the deadliest attacks in United Nations history in 2011, when a suicide bomber drove a jeep into the U.N. headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria. The attack killed 24, 12 of whom were U.N. staffers, according to CNN.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in May 2013 in the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa, three areas with the highest incidences of Boko Haram attacks, according to the BBC.
The U.S. State Department designated Boko Haram a “terrorist organization” in November 2013, according to CNN.
First lady Michelle Obama spoke out against Boko Haram during President Barack Obama’s weekly address on May 10. Regarding the kidnapped Nigerian girls, the first lady said she can “only imagine the anguish” of the girls’ families as they await some form of resolution.
“This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education – grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls,” she said, according to the New York Daily News. “Let us hold their families in our hearts during this very difficult time, and let us show just a fraction of their courage in fighting to give every girl on this planet the education that is her birthright.”