THE BOMBS’ SIL­HOU­ETTES The ev­ery­day life Boko Haram has been try­ing to de­stroy, in photos.

Pho­to­jour­nal­ist Ash­ley Gilbertson vis­ited the sites of Boko Haram at­tacks in Nige­ria to cap­ture what the group had tried to de­stroy

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Ash­ley Gilbertson is a pho­tog­ra­pher and writer and the au­thor of two books, most re­cently “Bed­rooms of the Fallen.” Twit­ter: @AshGil­bert­son

On a re­cent morn­ing in Maiduguri, in Nige­ria’s Borno state, a se­ries of sui­cide bombs ripped through a gas sta­tion. A few hun­dred yards from the scene, lo­cals paused for a minute, chat­ting as a plume of black smoke rose into the dawn sky be­fore con­tin­u­ing with their daily rou­tines. Bomb­ings are reg­u­lar enough that Nige­ri­ans are largely un­per­turbed by them now. When fight­ers from the Is­lamic mil­i­tant group Boko Haram ride through towns on mo­tor­bikes, mount­ing hit-and-run at­tacks on pass­ing mil­i­tary con­voys, vil­lagers don’t pay much at­ten­tion.

What does un­set­tle lo­cals, though, is the pres­ence in this vi­o­lent cam­paign of chil­dren, who are be­ing used as sui­cide bombers with in­creas­ing fre­quency.

After eight years of vi­cious fight­ing be­tween Boko Haram and the Nige­rian mil­i­tary, lo­cal news­pa­pers carry reg­u­lar news of at­tacks: vil­lages razed and civil­ians mas­sa­cred at the hands of both sides; girls kid­napped and raped, and some­times killed, by Boko Haram in­sur­gents; boys forced to fight for the group; weekly bomb­ings in towns and cities; and camps that host al­most 2 mil­lion peo­ple dis­placed by fight­ing.

Some­times, the con­flict makes in­ter­na­tional head­lines. On the night of April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kid­napped 276 girls from a school in Chi­bok; soon after, a hash­tag cam­paign, #Bring­Back­Our­Girls, be­came pop­u­lar on so­cial media. But Boko Haram com­man­ders paid ac­tivists’ key­strokes no heed, and three years later, only about 80 of the girls have been res­cued or found.

The Nige­rian mil­i­tary is push­ing deeper into the coun­try­side, un­seat­ing Boko Haram fight­ers from their strongholds, and in cities, vig­i­lantes at check­points vig­or­ously in­spect men and women for sui­cide vests. So the in­sur­gent group has turned to chil­dren. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port from UNICEF, there were 27 sui­cide at­tacks by chil­dren in the first quar­ter of 2017, up from nine in the same pe­riod last year. (In March, UNICEF sent me to Maiduguri to pho­to­graph is­sues that peo­ple in the re­gion face.)

When I go to places that have been bombed, they look noth­ing like the ghastly images we see all too fre­quently: There are no de­stroyed build­ings; no sev­ered limbs dan­gling from tree branches; no clouds of smoke or odor of charred flesh. In­stead, I see chil­dren run­ning and play­ing on the streets; the scent of spiced sweet tea lingers in the air; women are deep-fry­ing crushed beans to sell to shop­pers for break­fast; men gather at mosques, chat­ting in the dawn light be­fore fac­ing Mecca to pray. The war can feel dis­tant at times like that, but it can also feel never-end­ing.


A boy walks past the Gindin Kurna Mosque in Maiduguri, where a 7-year-old sui­cide bomber det­o­nated a de­vice dur­ing morn­ing prayers in Jan­uary, killing a pro­fes­sor, wound­ing seven others and leav­ing blood­stains on the walls.

On a Sunday morn­ing in De­cem­ber, two 7-year-old girls det­o­nated them­selves out­side th­ese mar­ket stalls in Maiduguri. One other per­son was killed and many wounded. Chil­dren are in­creas­ingly used as sui­cide bombers in Nige­ria.

Charred ve­hi­cles sit on a road­side in Maiduguri, Nige­ria, in March, sev­eral days after a sui­cide bomb­ing hit the con­voy. The ex­plo­sion was the start of an at­tack in­volv­ing nine sui­cide bombers and Boko Haram gun­men.

In this spot out­side the lo­cal ruler’s palace and mosque in Maiduguri, a 15-year-old girl blew her­self up in 2012, in an at­tempt to as­sas­si­nate two of­fi­cials. The of­fi­cials sur­vived, but five other peo­ple were killed.

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