It was midnight when Babagana crept out of the Boko Haram hideout that had been his home for three days. Once he made his escape, he walked through the forest for hours before he found help. Like the other boys conscripted by the militants, he had been told that he would be hunted down and killed if he deserted.
“I didn’t leave with anything,” Babagana told me. “When the chance came to escape, I only had my pants on. I ran almost naked.”
Babagana was just 16 when militants invaded his town in northeastern Nigeria last May, butchering his parents as he watched, burning down his home, and forcing him to become one of thousands of Boko Haram soldiers.
Babagana still vividly recalls his involuntary induction into a world of misery. Boko Haram militants invaded the rural town of Gamboru in Borno State, burnt down houses and demanded that the local children be handed over to them. Parents who objected were killed, and a couple of children were forcefully taken.
“They asked me about my parents,” Babagana said. "They then killed them in front of me.”
“That is how Boko Haram operates. They first take out your parents so you have no one else to fall back to.”
The six-year-old insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has produced a replay of the country’s civil war in the late 1960s. Thousands have died, and more than 1 million people have been displaced. Famine is threatening, and cholera has broken out in places. Sexual violence is on the rise. And attacks on soft civilian targets continue, carried out by child soldiers much younger than their victims.
For three days, Babagana traveled with Boko Haram through the dusty paths of Borno, not knowing what his fate would be as the militants duplicated the horrors they’d visited upon Gamboru. Babagana witnessed many of his fellow captives and people from other villages murdered by Boko Haram.
“They killed people for no reason,” Babagana said. “I just couldn’t stand the horror. It made me terribly scared.”
Although he was only with the militants for three days, Babagana witnessed acts so brutal that he decided to risk his life to escape.
“They killed anyone who didn’t heed to their instructions,” he told me. “Girls were often subjected to sexual abuse. Anyone who proved stubborn was shot dead.”
“I lost my mind with all that I saw,” he added. “I thought if I didn’t find a way of escaping, sooner rather than later, it would be my turn.”
Babagana tried to rally a handful of fellow captives to escape with him. He was unsuccessful, as they were too scared to make any move. “I tried to talk my colleagues into escaping. They wanted to, but were scared they could be caught and killed,” he recalled.
Around midnight on the following day, Babagana made his move, running into the bush as his captors shouted in alarm and began to fire at him. He managed to escape without a bullet wound. Alone in the wilderness, he continued to move, not knowing if he was being pursued.
“I was lucky to have escaped,” Babagana said. “There were so many voices and bullets coming after me,” he said.
Babagana eventually made it back to Gamboru, but found himself ostracized by his kinsmen, who no longer trusted him. Unable to depend on the community for protection, Babagana again went on the move, traveling to from one village to the other across northern Borno and many times narrowly avoiding recapture as militants kept invading new communities. He finally made it to a displacement camp in Maiduguri, a place he now calls home.
Hassan Mustapha, a child-protection specialist in Maiduguri, said children are often put to a “test of manhood” once there are conscripted.
“Once a child is conscripted by Boko Haram, he is first asked to kill his parents, which is a symbol of initiation into the sect,” Mustapha said. “They destroy everything of value to these children so they have no options.”
Many of the children captured by Boko Haram serve on the front lines, fighting for control of villages and looting the homes of the civilians. Others children serve as spies, scouts, porters, cooks, and bodyguards for officers. Girls are also kept as sex slaves.
Yusuf Mohammed, a Maiduguri resident who works with children affected by trauma, said children are often used as foot soldiers because they are too young to be afraid.
“Militants feel more comfortable working with children than with adults because they come cheap, are extremely loyal, and can be easily controlled,” he said.
“Unlike adults, it is easy to brainwash and intimidate them.”