Stories Emerge Of Nigerian Massacre That Killed Hundreds

Evidence is emerging from Nigeria of a brutal massacre of at least 200 civilians earlier this month. The massacre was in an area where Nigeria's military has been battling the insurgent Islamist group Boko Haram. Melissa Block talks to Eric Guttschuss of Human Rights Watch about the situation.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Nigeria, evidence is emerging of a brutal massacre of at least 200 civilians. The massacre, two weeks ago, was in an area where Nigeria's military has been battling the insurgent Islamist group Boko Haram. Survivors say Nigerian soldiers went from house to house, setting them on fire and shooting residents who tried to flee.

Eric Guttschuss of Human Rights Watch has been trying to figure out what happened in the village of Baga. The violence appears to have begun on the night of April 16th, when Boko Haram killed a Nigerian soldier, setting off a fierce response from the military. Survivors have told Eric Guttschuss by phone what happened next.

ERIC GUTTSCHUSS: One woman that we spoke with who was there on the night of the attack said she and stayed in the house as she heard gunfire and then explosions in the community, saw soldiers in uniform come into her neighborhood in military vehicles, go house to house looking for men. They pulled a man out of a neighboring house, started to beat him and then shot him when he tried to ride. She also saw them beating other men within the community. She fled with her two children, and along the way, saw other bodies in the streets and near houses.

Those who could escape ran into the bush in the surrounding areas. And some spent several nights outside, afraid to go back. Many of them who have gone back have found that their homes were burned and have been destroyed, and now have had to try to find their way to neighboring communities.

BLOCK: And your estimate of how many homes were burned in all?

GUTTSCHUSS: The community leaders who were there at the time say that some 2,000 houses were burned during this attack. The military has responded and said this is false and only 30 thatched houses were burned in the incident.

We have reviewed satellite images of the town, both before and after the attack, and they seem to support the description by the residents who have survived the attack that at least 2,000 buildings have been destroyed within this community.

BLOCK: And just to be clear, the people who were killed were not just men, as I understand it, suspected of being part of Boko Haram, the Islamist group. This was indiscriminate killing in this village.

GUTTSCHUSS: Well, it's still unclear in terms of how many men, how many women, children were killed. Some residents described soldiers going house to house looking for men. Other survivors have described seeing bodies of women and children in the community.

BLOCK: Well, this massacre did come up at a State Department briefing a week ago. And a spokesman said the U.S. wants Nigerian authorities to respond and bring the perpetrators of violent acts to justice. Do you have any confidence that the Nigerian government would actually investigate its own military?

GUTTSCHUSS: It hasn't happened to date. The military headquarters in Abuja sent a delegation to the Baga last week. They return to Abuja. I spoke with one of the military generals who participated in that fact-finding mission just yesterday. And he, again, said that the death tolls and the number of houses burned was grossly exaggerated. So our concern is that they're continuing to simply try to cover up what has happened.

The situation in Nigeria also goes beyond simply domestic issues of accountability. The International Criminal Court has opened up a preliminary examination and they have found that crimes against humanity have likely been carried out by Boko Haram, as well as serious human rights violations by the government security services.

We will urge the International Criminal Court to add this incident to their preliminary examination, to see if possibly crimes against humanity have been committed in the town of Baga.

BLOCK: Eric Guttschuss is Nigeria researcher with Human Rights Watch. Thanks for coming in.

GUTTSCHUSS: Thanks for having me.

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