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 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, 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.