LAGOS (AFP) – The population in the Nigeria town of Baga, site of the deadliest-ever episode in an Islamist insurgency, is in “terrible shock,” with a woefully inadequate rescue mission unable to care for the thousands of victims, the area senator told AFP Saturday after visiting the town.
“I have driven all over that place and the devastation is enormous,” said Senator Maina Lawan of the Borno North constituency in northeast Nigeria.
“The population are in terrible shock. You only need to see them and talk to them… No matter how strong-hearted you are, you will break down,” the senator added.
The Boko Haram insurgency is estimated to have cost more than 3,000 lives since 2009, including deaths caused by the security forces, but the killings in Baga were unprecedented.
Maina provided a death toll of 228, while the Red Cross has said that 187 were killed.
“That is what I observed after visiting the town and seeing the graves,” he said after providing the figure.
The April 19 bloodbath in the remote fishing town near Lake Chad began with fierce gun battles between soldiers and Boko Haram Islamists.
Massive fires broke out, leaving nearly half of Baga destroyed and sending much of the population fleeing into the bush hoping to escape the carnage.
The military has been accused of firing on civilians and setting the blazes that ripped through the town, but the defence ministry has denied that account, saying that only 37 people were killed.
Lawan said that while the details of the fighting needed to be probed, the urgent need is to care for the survivors.
“The destruction, the havoc, whether it was caused by Boko Haram or the military… The truth will ultimately come out. What we need now is to give succour to the living,” he told AFP.
Lawan, a native of Baga who visited this week, said about 4,000 homes were destroyed.
“The aid agencies on the ground were grossly understaffed and all of them complained that they lacked essential materials,” he further said, specifically noting a lack of adequate shelter.
He supported reports of rescue officials that much of the town’s population remains in hiding.
“Some people have not returned to their homes because they are fearing the possibility of a backlash,” the senator said.
Before the fighting in Baga, the deadliest day in the Boko Haram conflict was January 20 of last year, when about 185 people were killed in coordinated gun and bomb attacks by Boko Haram.
Borno state is the home base of the insurgent group that has said its deadly spate of attacks is aimed at creating an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, which is predominately Muslim.
The southern half of the country, Africa’s most populous and top oil producer, is mostly Christian.