MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Four hundred nights. Fatima counted each one as she lay on the ground with her toddler, crammed between strangers, swatting away mosquitoes in a room that stank of feces. She remembers thinking: Why did I escape the terrorists for this?
Fatima, now 18, is among thousands of children detained in recent years by Nigerian armed forces — including many who had fled extremist captors — amid a decade-long conflict that often turns victims into suspects.
Defense officials deny claims of abusive confinement and say they must vet everyone who emerges from the restive countryside: Boko Haram and other Islamist groups in Nigeria’s northeast are known for sending children to carry out attacks. But human rights advocates say conditions in the holding centers are so appalling they thwart the military’s goal of protecting — and deradicalizing — young people by breeding resentment of the government.
In interviews with The Washington Post, seven children who spent time in the Giwa barracks near the city of Maiduguri, as well as other military facilities, said they were allowed no outside contact. None of the seven, now ages 10 to 18, met with lawyers. The Washington Post is using only their nicknames because they fear reprisals.
One young man said soldiers beat him. One girl said a guard tried to rape her. All described an environment where they slept beside strangers on mats, were separated from family members by gender and saw people die of illness.
A new report from Human Rights Watch corroborates their accounts. Researchers said they met in June with 32 children and young adults who reported being packed into hot rooms without bedding or mosquito nets in a region where malaria is a top cause of death. They described an overwhelming stench coming from an open toilet, the authors wrote, and sometimes fainted in the heat.
The military called the report false.
“Apprehended children are kept in secured places, where they are adequately fed, profiled and de-radicalized before their release,” Col. Onyema Nwachukwu, acting director of defense information, said in a public statement. “The children are provided with regular feeding, clothing, requisite medical attention, in-house spiritual and educational tutoring and other welfare needs.”
Nigerian forces have released at least 2,200 children — nearly all without charges — since 2013 and treated them “as victims of war and not as suspects,” Nwachukwu said in his statement. He did not respond to The Post’s request for an interview.
The United Nations says more than 3,600 children have been held in military facilities during that period.
Over the past 10 years, Boko Haram, one of several extremist groups seeking to build an Islamist state in West Africa, has killed approximately 27,000 people.
The Nigerian military and international partners have shrunk the terrorists’ footprint in recent years, but the group continues to launch devastating attacks from its remote outposts in the northeastern state of Borno. The terrorists often strap children with explosives and force them into crowds. Eight suicide bombers have struck Maiduguri, the state capital, since January.
Some in Nigeria fear the military’s vetting strategy could keep those who have run from violence in hiding. The conflict has displaced more than 2 million people, and at least 22,000 remain missing, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. About half were younger than 18 when they disappeared.
Ahmed Abdullahi, 64, said his two teenage sons dashed into the forest when Boko Haram ambushed their village in 2014.
“They won’t be willing to come out,” Abdullahi said. “They could be targeted by Boko Haram or by the military.”
The allegations about the Giwa barracks come as the United States grapples with its own child-detention controversy — the Trump administration unveiled a regulation last month that would allow federal agents to indefinitely hold minors who try to cross the border. Reports have surfaced in Texas of children being forced to sleep on concrete floors with aluminum blankets, among other complaints.
Fatima said she spent 15 months in military custody before being released to a camp in Maiduguri for displaced people last summer.
She remembers walking to her older sister’s village in 2014 when men with machine guns blocked the dirt path. They beat her, burned her face with the barrels of their AK-47s and later forced her to marry a fighter. She gave birth to a baby boy.
Fatima was 16 when she finally escaped the Boko Haram camp, running barefoot with her son wrapped in cloth on her back. Adrenaline and chance carried her to a group of Nigerian soldiers.
“Then I was in another kind of prison,” she said. “Every day I prayed to leave.”
Goggo, 14, said her ordeal began about four years ago when Boko Haram militants attacked her village. Soldiers found her hiding in the bush with her family. They accused her father and brother of being Boko Haram members and beat them, she said.
That was the last time she saw them.
Goggo said she spent two years in the women’s side of Giwa. Two hundred people were kept in one big room, she said. The smell made her feel sick. She had trouble eating.
“I could see maggots crawling in my soup,” she said.
One day, she said, a guard pulled her into another room and told her he wanted to make love to her. She screamed. Other soldiers ran in and stopped him.
Gmarley, 15, lost touch with his family after gunmen stormed his village five years ago. They ran one way. He bolted another.
Boko Haram fighters caught the 10-year-old and gave him a choice: Join us or die.
He spent three months with the terrorists, learning how to make bombs. Then the military charged the camp. Gmarley escaped in the chaos.
He walked all night back to his home village, where soldiers apprehended him.
“They pointed their guns at me,” he said. “They kept saying, ‘Your parents are Boko Haram.’”
Mallam, 18, wanted to be a fisherman. He left his village at age 12 with some friends to catch tilapia in a nearby river.
That is when insurgents sprang out and surrounded them. “All those with able bodies,” he recalls them saying, “must join us or be killed.”
The Boko Haram fighters walked the boys deep into the forest. For months, they tried to brainwash them: Everything Western is evil. Destroying the enemy is God’s work.
Then they led them to a Boko Haram camp and armed them with AK-47s.
Mallam said he was forced to attack military outposts. He said he closed his eyes and fired at random.
If he shot at the ground, he said, he would look suspicious. If he returned with a bullet left in the chamber, they would kill him.
This pattern continued for five years before he plotted with a friend to escape. They waited for the guards to fall asleep and slipped away in the darkness, running to the first military bunker they could find.
The soldiers, he said, beat them with their guns and tied them up. They were ordered to kneel for two days.
He is not sure how long the military kept him.
“I had already made up my mind for the worst,” he said. “If they should free me, fine. If they should kill me, fine.”
Ismail Alfa contributed to this report.