When jihadists rode into his town in western Niger, Nouhou Issoufou ran for the bush and desperately tried to stay still — even as he was riddled with bullets — until the attack was over.
“Look at my body — I took so many bullets that I’m not sure exactly how many,” he said, lifting his shirt to show his bandaged wounds. “People thought I was dead, I didn’t move.”
The Islamist raiders killed 105 civilians on January 2 in the villages of Tchouma Bangou and Zaroumadareye in western Niger, a region often prey to their attacks but rarely on such a devastating scale.
After one of the deadliest jihadist massacres in the Sahel’s history, two survivors now taking refuge in the town of Ouallam told AFP of their ordeal.
It was 9 am when Issoufou and other Zaroumadareye residents heard the rumble of approaching motorcycles.
“We went outside, we saw the bikes, there were a lot of them,” the young man said, lying on a mat in a hospital in Ouallam.
“As soon as they came in, they shot at us.”
The villagers ran for their lives, but many were hit, including Issoufou who took several bullets in his shoulder and arm.
The villages lie in the “three borders” zone — a vast rural territory between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — where the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is deeply embedded.
Farming communities straddle the borders, often in the complete absence of state authority.
– Ethnic division –
Most jihadist raids in the Sahel are lightning fast, such as regular assaults on military camps in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.
Usually two fighters ride a single motorcycle, allowing the jihadists to gather shortly before an attack and disperse just as quickly, scattering in different directions.
Riding bikes in this part of Niger has been officially banned for months in the hope of countering these tactics.
The Islamist militants killed 33 people during the attack on Zaroumadareye.
Issoufou said that number “included members of my family, many cousins”.
“The one who shot at me was a Fulani,” an ethnic group of semi-nomadic pastoralists, he said.
“Then he attacked my friend and slit his throat with a knife.”
Nine kilometres (six miles) away, jihadists also rode into the village of Tchouma Bangou, killing 72 people.
They came in large numbers and separated into two columns to wage the attacks, according to the major of Tondi district, Kiwindi Almou Hassane, who serves as the administrator for both villages.
The settlements are mainly inhabited by the Djerma ethnic group, also known as Zarma, a settled community of farmers.
Several Fulani nomads were killed in both the villages a few days before the raids, local sources said, in a region where ethnic communities often clash over land.
Abdelkarim Yaye, a Tchouma Bangou villager now taking refuge in Ouallam, told AFP that the attackers “were speaking the Fulani language”.
However several other sources, close to local authorities, said that the attackers were Djerma.
The authorities organised a forum with community, religious and political leaders from around the region in Ouallam on Saturday, in a bid to reaffirm the presence of the state and encourage social bonding.
One highly placed official at the meeting said the leader of the attacks was a local Islamic State chief, Hamidou Hama, a Djerma from Tingara.
— Trapped ‘like animals’ –
For survivor Yaye, the villagers are trapped “like animals” by the jihadist threat.
Armed groups in much of the Sahel exert so much pressure at the local level that few risk denouncing their presence.
Yaye said that “these are people who patrolled between villages” before the attacks to collect a “zakat”, an Islamic tax.
“They don’t hide when they’re in our villages,” he added. “They are not people who hide.”
“When they came, they didn’t ask for particular people, they simply opened fire. Whether it was children, women, men, they came to kill everyone.”
The millet granaries, where the village’s crops were stored ahead of the dry season, have been torched, Yaye said. Some villagers who tried to hide in the granaries were killed.
“They burned all the fields. They burned all the millet. They burned people,” Yaye said, adding that his older brother was among those killed in Tchouma Bangou.
Both Yaye and Issoufou are now in Ouallam, forced to join the three million people across the Sahel who have had to flee their homes because of the violence.
“We can’t stay in the village. There is nobody left.”