Musa, a 17-year-old living in northeastern Nigeria, has a grim story. He said when he was eight years old, members of the armed Islamic group Boko Haram attacked and burned down his village. Musa’s family relocated, but two years later Boko Haram struck again. This time, the insurgents went off with Musa’s family’s livestock. To help the family, Musa began selling yams, but when he was 13 years old, Nigerian authorities arrested him and accused him of selling yams to Boko Haram.
Musa said, “you can’t tell who is Boko Haram and who isn’t,” so had no way of knowing to whom he was selling yams. He was held in prison for about a year.
Musa told his story to Human Rights Watch when representatives of the organization recently came to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in the country’s northeastern region; the city where Boko Haram got started in 2001.
Musa is still bitter about what happened to him.
“I’m very angry with the government because I didn’t do anything wrong,” Musa told HRW. “The government should dig deeply and investigate before detaining someone.”
Stories like Musa’s were captured in a report released this week by HRW, called “‘They Didn’t Know if I Was Alive or Dead’: Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria.”
It documents how Nigerian authorities are detaining children, usually with little or no evidence of links to Boko Haram terrorists.
Children as young as five years old were held without charge for months or years in degrading conditions inside overcrowded military detention facilities.
HRW did not have direct access to the detention facilities in Nigeria, so this past June the group interviewed 32 formerly-detained children and youths between the ages of 10 and 21 in Maiduguri.
The U.N. reported that Nigerian armed forces detained more than 3,600 children for suspected involvement with non-state armed groups between January 2013 and March 2019.
And Human Rights Watch says the arrests are often arbitrary.
The children who spoke to HRW said they were picked up by authorities and detained in the state’s main military detention center, the infamous Giwa Barracks.
A 2016 Amnesty International report described Giwa Barracks as a place of death.
Amnesty said scores of detainees have died there, many seemingly from disease, hunger, dehydration and gunshot wounds.
Seventeen-year-old Abdul described the room where he was kept.
“The room smelled awful,” he said. “When we first arrived, there was no toilet in the room. We had to defecate in a bucket, in front of everyone, as well as urinate standing in the same room we slept in.”
Khadija, a soft-spoken and petite 14-year old, was also detained.
“We really suffered [in prison],” she said. “It’s a deep kind of suffering. They [the army] didn’t take care of us, and they kept beating me. Lice in our hair, lice on our body.”
Children say they also saw male soldiers making sexual advances to some of the female detainees, even removing them from the cell for long periods of time. One girl told HRW that girls in her cell became pregnant while they were imprisoned.
In response to HRW’s findings, a Nigerian military spokesman said the report is poorly researched and false.
Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu said the Armed Forces of Nigeria do arrest children who are coerced into helping Boko Haram, either by setting off explosives or spying for the terrorist group.
But, he said, the armed forces treat the children “as victims of war and not as suspects.” He said that “apprehended children are kept in secured places, where they are adequately fed, profiled and de-radicalized before their release.”
He added that children are not subject to arbitrary arrests nor are they tortured in any facility.
Jo Becker, the director of children’s rights advocacy at Human Rights Watch, said Nigerian authorities are breaching international standards. Becker said none of the children have appeared in court. She added that they were not told of any charges against them.
“International standards are clear that when children are involved in armed conflict, they are entitled to rehabilitation, reintegration and help getting back into their community and into civilian life,” Becker said. “They don’t belong in military detention. Nigeria has programs that are ready to deal with these children.”
Becker told newsmen that she visited a transit center in Maiduguri that is equipped with social workers to do educational training and has a capacity to receive hundreds of children. But at the time of her visit in June, the center was completely empty.
The U.N. estimates that Boko Haram has recruited at least 8,000 children into its ranks, often through abduction. Children are coerced to carry out attacks, cook, relay messages and act as lookouts.
Most of the children featured in the report denied any involvement with the terrorist group. But some did say they were abducted or forced to marry an insurgent.
More than 37,000 people have been killed in the ongoing insurgency, including at least 15,000 civilians. The sect claims it is seeking to establish an Islamic State.