Sunday 20 August 2017

Nigerian town still reeling from botched bombing

Nigerian town still reeling from botched bombing
(AFP 08/09/17)

He fled to Rann to escape Boko Haram, but Babagana Jugudum lost everything on January 17 when the Nigerian military accidentally killed more than 100 people in a botched air strike on the town. His wife and two children were among the dead.

Only now can his story be told after AFP became one of the first global media organisations allowed access to the area.

On that fateful Tuesday at around 12:30 pm, witnesses say a Nigerian fighter jet flew over the northeastern town of more than 40,000 people and dropped a bomb. Minutes later, it circled back to drop another.

"When it happened I heard some rumbling," Jugudum told AFP, mimicking the sounds of the explosion that knocked him unconscious.

"As I woke I called for my wife, but she was not around -- my children were gone," said the despondent 38-year-old, wearing a faded shirt and flip-flops.

"There was just shouting and shouting," he said of the aftermath of the air strike which a local official claimed at the time had killed as many as 236 people.

Jugudum and his family had fled to Rann from their village along with 500 others from the surrounding area when they came under attack from Boko Haram.

Jugudum has been forced to use crutches after his leg was injured in the attack for which he says he has received no compensation from the Nigerian government.

"They only apologised, they never gave us money -- not even one naira," said Jugudum, referring to the Nigerian currency.

AFP was recently granted rare access to the town and observed the aftermath of the bombing as well as the dire humanitarian situation in the area.

Aid organisations have struggled to reach the remote region during the country's rainy season, further complicating the task of delivering food aid and healthcare.

Life in Rann appeared calm: women washed clothes while men sat in the shade of trees and chatted. Others waited in line for food parcels.

Girls wearing neon-coloured hijabs walked through the wreckage of the bomb site, while boys played with improvised toy cars made of rusted sardine cans and bottle caps for tires.

- 'Fog of war' -

And despite Jugudum's anger, soldiers on the ground claim that relations with the local population are generally good.

"They (the people) understand very well it was a mistake," said one soldier in Rann.

"We've been having a very good, cordial relationship with them."

But the Rann air strike nevertheless stands as a grim reminder of the massive civilian toll inflicted by the bloody eight-year Boko Haram insurgency and the ferocious government effort to stamp it out.

At first the Nigerian military blamed the bombing on the "fog of war".

But six months after the incident, it accused aid organisations operating in Rann of having failed to disclose their locations, leading the army to believe that Boko Haram fighters were massing in the town.

Bruno Jochum, director general of Doctors Without Borders (MSF), a medical charity working in Rann, rejected the army's claim, calling it "shocking".

"All the activities being carried out had been organised in full transparency with the Nigerian army," Jochum said.

"(The bombing) raises fundamental questions, such as how can this be decided? Why such a disproportionate use of force?" he asked.

The Rann incident is just one scandal plaguing the Nigerian military, which has been criticised by human rights organisations for the torture and extrajudicial killings of those suspected of being Boko Haram operatives.

It has also been accused of the sexual abuse of women living in camps for internally displaced people.

"It's a ruthless war, with tremendous levels of violence exerted from both sides on the population," Jochum said.

- 'Spiral out of control' -

Over 20,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the Boko Haram conflict that has devastated northeast Nigeria and become one of the world's largest humanitarian crises.

After being elected to power in 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made tackling the insurgency a priority, winning back significant swathes of territory from the jihadists and declaring that Boko Haram is "technically defeated".

But a recent upsurge in attacks, including an audacious assault on an oil exploration team that killed over 60 people in July, is raising fears that Boko Haram is regaining strength.

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project, 5,177 people were killed by Boko Haram in just the past two years.

Nigeria's acting president Yemi Osinbajo has ordered the country's Abuja-based military chiefs to relocate to Maiduguri, the capital of northeast Borno state and birthplace of Boko Haram, to get a grip on the situation.

"It is a worrying indication of where the conflict is headed and whether the gains the Nigerian government made against Boko Haram could be reversed," said security analyst Ryan Cummings.

"This could potentially get to a point where it could spiral out of control again."

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