Together, their estimates added up to thousands of children killed.
An international news agency, Reuters, has accused the Nigerian Army of killing children in its war against Islamist insurgents in the country's Northeast.
The report based its findings on more than 40 soldiers and civilians who said they witnessed the military kill children or saw children's corpses after a military operation.
These sources included both parents and other civilian witnesses, as well as soldiers who said they participated in dozens of military operations in which children were slaughtered.
Together, their estimates added up to thousands of children killed.
Reuters said it investigated six specific incidents and found, based on eyewitness accounts, that a total of at least 60 children were killed in those episodes, the most recent in February 2021.
The newspaper also interviewed 15 security force members – soldiers, local militia members and armed guards – who said they took part in or observed targeted killings of children.
“Kaka crept behind an acacia tree and froze in terror. The teen was returning home after gathering firewood late one July afternoon in 2020. Peering ahead, he saw a group of men at a waterhole, most in Nigerian Army camouflage.
“They stood over a line of children face down in the dirt, wailing for their mothers, Kaka recalled. Nearby, several adults lay prone – including mothers with infants tied to their backs. He heard some voices cry out to God,” the report read.
“Two or three men already lay dead; the soldiers shot three more. They killed the women next, and then the children, cutting short their cries with a hail of bullets, Kaka said. The troops dragged the bodies into a pre-dug grave, shoveled sandy earth over them and drove off.”
Panic-stricken, Kaka tore off toward Kukawa, the nearby town in Nigeria’s northeast where he lived. The young man, now in his early 20s, was one of five people who recounted to Reuters details of the army-led roundup and mass shooting of at least 10 children and several adults at the waterhole that day.
The massacre, previously unreported, is just one instance in which the Nigerian Army and allied security forces have slaughtered children during their gruelling 13-year war against Islamist extremists in the country’s northeast, a Reuters investigation found. Soldiers and armed guards employed by the government told Reuters that army commanders repeatedly ordered them to “delete” children because the children were assumed to be collaborating with militants in Boko Haram or its Islamic State offshoot or to have inherited the tainted blood of insurgent fathers.
Intentional killings of children have occurred with a blurring frequency across the region during the war, according to witnesses interviewed by Reuters. More than 40 sources said they saw the Nigerian military target and kill children or saw the dead bodies of children after a military operation. These sources included both parents and other civilian witnesses, as well as soldiers who said they participated in dozens of military operations in which children were slaughtered.
However, the Nigerian military leaders said the army has never targeted children for killing. The report, they said, was part of a foreign effort to undermine the country's fight against the insurgents.
"It has never happened, it is not happening, it will not happen," said Major General Christopher Musa, who heads the counterinsurgency campaign in the northeast, of such killings. “It is not in our character. We are highly professional. We are human beings, and these are Nigerians that you have been talking about.”
The Nigerian military has been engaged in a war with Islamist militants in the northeast of the country for the past 13 years. At least 300,000 people have died in the conflict, some due to violence, many more from starvation and disease, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.
Soldiers often cited as a reason for killing children the belief that if their fathers were insurgents, then they would grow up to be the same. The killing was also a way for some officers to avenge heavy losses in fighting with Islamist insurgents, or for soldiers to vent their anger over the deaths of their comrades.
“I don’t see them as children, I see them as Boko Haram,” said one soldier, who told Reuters his best friend was shot dead by insurgents. The soldier said he had killed children himself. “If I get my hands on them, I won’t shoot them, I will slit their throat … I enjoy it.”
Other soldiers said they had adopted a kill-or-be-killed attitude toward children because insurgents used them as fighters, informants and suicide bombers. The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF has alleged that “non-state armed groups” in Nigeria have recruited thousands of children, some as “human bombs.”
It said Boko Haram had claimed responsibility for some of those attacks, in which children were made to carry explosives.
The targeted killings of children were often kept under the radar and covered up by the military, Reuters found. The killings frequently took place in and around small, remote villages, where there is little communication with other towns. Witnesses and relatives were scared into silence, and bodies were buried or burned, according to multiple sources, including soldiers and residents.
Many witnesses, traumatised and unused to Gregorian calendars, had difficulty pinpointing times and dates. In those cases, reporters used growing seasons or religious holidays as reference points. Unable to visit reported massacre sites, Reuters used satellite imagery, when available, to corroborate sources’ descriptions.
Intentionally killing civilians in an armed conflict is a war crime. If the killing is done in the context of widespread or systematic attacks on civilians, it is a crime against humanity, two international law experts told Reuters. Children do not have separate protections under the law, but their young age and vulnerability may be factored into sentencing, said Melanie O’Brien, an associate professor of international law at the University of Western Australia.
Nigeria, as a party to the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, falls within the jurisdiction of the ICC. The preference is for domestic courts to hold participants accountable under the law, but the ICC can also step in if a country is unwilling or unable to do so, said Kip Hale, a U.S. attorney specialising in international criminal justice.
The killing of noncombatant children may also violate the Nigerian military’s code of conduct.
The most recent version publicly available, issued in 1967, prohibits killing children and states they “must not be attacked unless they are engaged in open hostility against Federal Government Forces. They should be given all protection and care.”
Reuters reported on December 7 that the army also has run an abortion programme in the northeast that terminated the pregnancies of thousands of women and girls, many of whom had been captured and raped by insurgents.
Forced abortions, too, may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, said O’Brien, Hale and two other legal experts.
On December 9, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on Nigerian authorities to investigate the findings in the Reuters abortion report.
The Nigerian government and military authorities have however also denied this. “They made these allegations without a piece of singular evidence, citing only anonymous sources and a review of phantom documents.
“The writers deserve an award in fiction writing,” Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s information and culture minister said.