Nigeria’s Battles With Boko Haram Scar the Land and Its People


A burned Nigerian village seen from a United Nations helicopter flying between Maiduguri and Monguno. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

While working on an article on civilian massacres by the Nigerian military, the photographer Ashley Gilbertson and I heard reports that soldiers were burning villages. The militant group Boko Haram, too, has been accused of setting fire to homes, but residents told us the military had now adopted the tactic as a way to clear the countryside so it could freely carry out operations against the insurgents. We saw the charred remains of villages when we flew over the area, but it was unclear who was responsible.

In some places like this one, patches of farmland were burned. The military not long ago opened several main highways from Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, leading to the rest of northeastern Nigeria, saying the area was now cleared of insurgents. Farmers who are living in squalid camps for displaced people in Maiduguri are anxious about the state of their fields. Because they have not been allowed back for years, they have no idea what awaits them on their farms.


Charred farmland and savanna not far from Lake Chad. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

From the sky, Borno State, the region where Boko Haram is most active, is a patchwork of fallow farmland, swaths of desert and a few swampy areas. Famine-like conditions are raging in the area, a region with a rich history of agriculture. Boko Haram has chased off all the farmers, and the militants themselves have fallen victim to food shortages. We spotted only a handful of vehicles on the roads as we passed overhead. The area is mostly a ghost town.


Farmland and savanna in the Lake Chad area. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Every shade of beige is visible in this part of Nigeria. We think these are animal tracks, probably from cattle. Boko Haram is notorious for stealing cows to feed their group and to trade as a means of financial support. Most farmers who have livestock have cleared out, but nomadic herders pass through this part of Nigeria. Maybe the tracks are from motorbikes, which officials in Maiduguri banned after insurgents used them to begin attacks and carry out suicide bombings. Now, anyone spotted riding a motorbike is presumed to be a member of Boko Haram.


Trails seen between Maiduguri and Monguno. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

This is part of a camp for displaced people in a community called Monguno. The town itself was once destroyed by Boko Haram, but military advances helped clear out insurgents, and now tens of thousands of people have poured in, looking for a safe place to wait out the yearslong insurgency. They live in ragged huts in a camp that is low on food supplies. More people arrive daily — 350 villagers came the day before we visited. Several recent arrivals told us the military had ordered them to leave their homes. One woman sent an envoy back to check on her house and received word that it had been burned to the ground.


A camp for displaced people in Monguno. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Lake Chad is not far from this area of Nigeria, and swamps emerge in a few spots, right next to farms. Besides farmers, fishermen have also fallen on hard times during the crisis. The military has largely banned the fish trade, fearing Boko Haram was profiting from it. We met one fisherman in the Monguno camp who had been sneaking back to a small lake to fish, then stuffing his catch in his pants in hopes of passing undetected on his way home.


Swampland and savanna in the Lake Chad area. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

The military has a big garrison in Monguno, and soldiers keep watch in their vehicles on the outskirts of town. A berm has been constructed around the edges of the camp, which houses about 26,000 displaced people. Mobile phone networks in Monguno have been cut and fuel stations are closed.


A tank seen while flying above Monguno. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

Most farms are inoperable around here. Famine was declared in pockets of Borno State last year. Many communities are sealed off from safety as insurgents scatter from hide-outs in the forest, pushed out by recent military operations. Humanitarian groups face huge logistical challenges getting food and other supplies to people in need. Even roads the military says are safe now have been attacked by insurgents.


Farmland and savanna between Maiduguri and Monguno. Credit Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times

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