As Boko Haram broadens its war, the group's massacres become a regional problem

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Marco Werman: Let me take you back a few weeks: there was the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the hostage dramas that followed, but while we were all focused on that, the militant group Boko Haram was busy terrorizing the town of Baga in northern Nigeria. The details have emerged slowly since then and we may never know the exact number of people killed by Boko Haram during the assault. But what we do know about what happened in Baga is frightening.


Thomas Fessy: You need to sort of picture the panic that ensued after the attack took place, and people just ran.


Werman: My BBC colleague Thomas Fessy relayed stories from survivors who fled the massacre by boat to neighboring Chad.


Fessy: So, we met them on the other side of Lake Chad, they came from the towns of Baga and Doron Baga, right on the other side of the border in Nigeria, and these towns are basically fishing towns sitting on the shores of Lake Chad, and so the lake was the sort of only exit for them and they crammed into canoes and crossed the lake into Chad. We met them on some of the lake highlands there where most of them are sort of now stranded and waiting.


Werman: It’s pretty frightening--if you look at the map of West Africa, that very northeast corner of Nigeria, all that’s there are the borders of Lake Chad and then the nation of Chad on the other side of the lake, so there’s pretty much nowhere else to go. So, you spoke with one woman who recounted a pretty harrowing story. Let’s hear what she said.


Woman: The soldiers threw away their weapons. Some even threw them into the water or on the ground. The vigilantes took the weapons and were firing back, but they found the situation overwhelming and also fled. It was impossible to count the number of dead bodies, there were so many--women, men, and children were all killed.


Werman: So, basically that woman was saying that as Boko Haram attacked the town of Baga, the Nigerian soldiers evaporated and then the only people who were fighting were various vigilantes?


Fessy: Yes, that’s basically the testimonies that we got, and what we’ve been able to piece together is in terms of sort of a timeline of what happened on the third of January is that, interestingly enough, there was a first raid just before dawn actually. The people had just gone to pray when Boko Haram stormed the town the first time. But Nigerian soldiers and these determined young men were able to push them back into the bush. But a couple of hours later, Boko Haram returned to Baga in much bigger numbers, and that’s when the vigilantes and soldiers got completely overwhelmed and were forced to flee as well. What’s extraordinary is that still some local young men were picking up weapons left here and there from the soldiers to try and fire back at Boko Haram, but obviously that wasn’t enough and Boko Haram was just using a much bigger force against these people and overran them.


Werman: As that woman suggested, the woman that you spoke to in Chad, the Nigerian soldiers just were not up to this fight. Did you see any cooperation between Nigerian and Chadian troops when you were meeting these people?


Fessy: We didn’t see any kind of cooperation; we were on the Chadian side of the border. We did see some military, because when we were there, that was when Chad was actually reinforcing its military deployment in the Lake Chad region with growing concerns that Boko Haram could actually carry out attacks in Chad’s territory. And now, it seems that the events in Baga, coupled with attacks being carried out in Cameroon and along the border, have triggered regional powers to sort of overcome that mistrust that exists in the region, and let’s see how that will play out, whether Chad, Cameroon, Niger on the north side will be able to cobble a force together as the African Union suggested to do and will be able to fight this insurgency.


Werman: Is that where this Boko Haram thing is headed? It’s a regional conflict at this point?


Fessy: I think that this is the picture that we are getting more and more. It could be that regional neighbors are so concerned about the growing threat that Boko Haram has become that they want to finish this off. I think it is very interesting to see that this insurgency is not a Nigerian problem anymore--it’s definitely become a regional one.


Werman: My BBC partner, Thomas Fessy, thanks very much.


Fessy: Thank you.