|Abubakar was abducted by Boko Haram and forced to participate in the violent terrorist group's campaign in northeast Nigeria. He managed to escape a year later|
In a forest of thorn trees somewhere far outside this city, the Boko Haram insurgency ran a boot camp for about 100 boys. Children as young as 5 years old learned to handle assault rifles and march through the woods in flip-flops. Their teacher was only 15. “I was terrified if I didn’t do it, they would kill me,” said Idriss, the teenage instructor, in an interview. He said he was kidnapped by the militants in 2014 but has since escaped.
While the world focused on Boko Haram’s mass kidnappings of women and girls, the Islamist group was stealing an even greater number of boys. Over the past three years, Boko Haram has kidnapped more than 10,000 boys and trained them in boot camps in abandoned villages and forest hide-outs, according to government officials in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon, and to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
Child soldiering was a big problem in various collapsing states in the 1990s, including some in Africa. What is happening here in northeastern Nigeria is part of a disturbing rise in child jihadism. Young boys and at times girls are being indoctrinated into violent fundamentalism and used as fighters, suicide bombers and spies.
Something similar is happening in other countries battling Islamist insurrections. Commanders of al Qaeda’s branches in Yemen, Somalia and Mali have deployed youngsters. Islamic State has used children in combat, suicide bombings and in execution videos in Iraq and Syria.
Interviews with 16 young Nigerians who escaped from Boko Haram captivity and with other witnesses, soldiers, researchers, officials and diplomats in Nigeria and Cameroon provide a picture of the harrowing life endured by the children who wage jihad. The Wall Street Journal isn’t publishing their surnames.
Witnesses said the boys were trained and sent into battle, at times unarmed and often numbed with opiates. Many of the boys were beaten and some died of starvation or thirst, these people said. Their individual accounts couldn’t be independently verified but are consistent with information gathered by researchers and military officials, both in terms of timing and specific details.
“They told us, ‘It’s all right for you to kill and slaughter even your parents,’ ” recalled Samiyu, a former captive who said he witnessed a beheading on the first day of his 11 months with Boko Haram. He said other boys helped hold down the victim. “They said, ‘This is what you have to do to get to heaven.’ ”
Witnesses recounted Boko Haram using fleets of passenger vans to move child fighters through the forests of northeastern Nigeria. Some have described camps of more than 1,000 boys and adolescents training to fight, with very few adults present.
“If you go there, you can see 12-year-olds talking about burning down a village,” said Fatima, a 20-year-old former hostage. “They have converted.”
As more such boys escape from the group and others are captured by government forces, West African officials are debating whether the boys can be returned to their families—and how.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Nigerian peacekeepers helped end the civil war in Liberia, and thousands of young boys were disarmed and returned to society. Some of those peacekeepers are now ranking officers. They must confront a new generation of child combatants raised on an ideology more apocalyptic than anything offered by the warlords of 1990s Liberia.
Boko Haram recruited children from the earliest days of its insurgency. First it tapped them as spies and couriers before shifting toward front-line mobilization, according to Nigeria’s military and Human Rights Watch.
In 2013, Abba was a 12-year-old beggar in a Quranic school. Boko Haram gave him a cellphone and asked him to call whenever he saw soldiers pass. “That was the only work I did for them,” he recalled.
He was arrested by the army several months later and appeared at a press conference with 34 other children, age 9 to 15. Several said they had been given $30 and a keg of gasoline to set fire to their schools.
The next year, Boko Haram began to take big towns, and with them, lots more boys.
The group’s mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April 2014 grabbed global attention. The next month, it seized six villages in the nearby mountains and rounded up children in each location, with only scant coverage outside the Nigerian press.
A few months later, the group captured the town of Damasak, and with it, more than 300 students, most of them boys, age 7 to 17. The militants imprisoned them in a school, witnesses said. Their parents were held in separate rooms. For months, the children learned the Quran, according to witnesses, Human Rights Watch and Nigerian media accounts.
Eventually, Boko Haram left the parents behind and drove away with the children. There is no public record of any of them being rescued.
By 2014, Boko Haram was running boot camps across its rapidly expanding territory and training thousands of kidnapped children, according to the escaped children, military officials and researchers.
Rachel, a 13-year-old captive who spent about a year in a separate camp, recalled that during her first day in Boko Haram custody there was a beheading. She watched as several dozen boys from her village tied up a kidnapped man so he wouldn’t resist. “They told them they shouldn’t have feelings about it,” said the girl, who is pregnant by rape and living in a camp for rescued girls.
In many camps, boys hardly old enough to hold guns were taught how to shoot. Thirteen-year-old Modu said that in his former camp, they practiced firing at planks of wood. Elsewhere, boys shot cows or goats. In Rachel’s camp, older militants took young boys on trips into the countryside to rob herdsmen of their cattle. For even minor infractions, militants beat boys nearly unconscious, or denied them food and sleep for days, former captives say.
Girls were kept in a separate area and raped. Many of their rapists were young boys, according to rape victims and the counselors who treat them.
One 13-year-old girl said she was raped by a boy around her own age. He left her pregnant, she said. “We want the government to kill them all, including the children, so we don’t have a resurgence of this,” she said, referring to the Boko Haram fighters.
Ten-year-old Abubakar said he was a sitter in an abandoned village for infants and toddlers kidnapped or conceived through the rape of female captives. The children, none older than 4, watched jihadist propaganda videos and rehearsed a game called “suicide bomber” where they ripped open sacks of sand strapped to their torsos.
“When they play that game, they’re smiling, having a good time. They’re laughing,” said Abubakar, who picked at his toes and wore a belt emblazoned with the image of Bob Marley. “They’re preparing for war.”
Older children described camps packed with gadgetry stolen from military bases and ransacked government buildings. Boys kidnapped from mud-brick homes came to live amid satellite internet terminals, flat-screen TVs, walkie-talkies, refrigerators and kitchens run by diesel generators.
“They have so many laptops of exactly that type,” said Assabe, a 15-year-old-girl who escaped captivity, pointing to a reporter’s MacBook Air.
At night, in the camp where an adolescent named Mohammad lived, militants encouraged the boys to watch American war movies: “They cheer for the U.S. soldiers, actually,” he said. “They say these are the kinds of things they want to replicate.”
Military officers said many of the children are fearless on the battlefield.
In Cameroon, a local commando unit dispatched helicopters and artillery against waves of children who appeared to be drugged, some armed with no more than machetes, said Col. Didier Badjeck, the army spokesman.
“It’s better to kill a boy than have 1,000 victims,” he said. “It’s causing us problems with international organizations, but they’re not on the front lines. We are.”
During a recent battle in the north of Cameroon, more than 100 screaming boys ran toward a fortified position, many of them barefoot and unarmed, and most were swiftly gunned down, Mr. Badjeck said. Soldiers found in many of their pockets packaging from the opiate tramadol, he said.
Most internationally agreed upon laws of war don’t forbid firing at child soldiers during battle.
Felicité Tchibindat, who runs the Unicef operation in Cameroon, said children as young as 6 have been trained to carry bombs into markets and mosques. As more youngsters were co-opted as killers, she said, they have became double victims: kidnapped but unable to go home.
“Children are now become something to fear for these communities,” she said.
Over the past year, the tide of the Boko Haram conflict has turned. Soldiers from Chad advanced on Boko Haram positions in Nigeria, forcing the group to pull back from its settlements.
That has helped some children escape. Abubakar, the 10-year-old baby-sitter, ran down a forest trail early one morning. With him was a cousin his age who also had been kidnapped. “We just decided on our own,” Abubakar said. “If the army came by, they would easily kill us.”
They walked for two days until an old man guided them to safety. He now lives in the home of a local man who is secretly caring for several escaped boys.
“When I first got here I missed the children,” Abubakar said. “But now it’s been a while and I’m forgetting about them.”
Idriss, the teenager who trained children to fight, made his own getaway in the middle of last year. He said he persuaded a militant to let him take a motor scooter to fetch water from a distant well. Halfway there, he ditched the scooter on the road and ran down a forest trail to the nearest village.
Now, he also lives in the local man’s home, fearful of being found by the military, Boko Haram or his neighbors. He said he hasn’t found the courage to tell even his parents where he has been and where he is staying now. “I don’t like to think about my time with Boko Haram,” he said.
Speaking softly, he showed no emotion when he described his former life in the camp. “They say they will all die soon,“ he said of Boko Haram’s militants. ”We were bringing up the children who will keep it going.”
The Nigerian authorities are now beginning the mammoth task of reintegrating Boko Haram’s children. Recently, they began offering amnesty, shelter and care for Boko Haram defectors, particularly those kidnapped into the group.
Very few boys are coming forward.
“There’s almost an entire generation of boys missing,” said Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “My guess is that a large majority of them will die in the conflict.”