Maiduguri, Nigeria — A fresh load of battered corpses arrived, 29 of them in a routine delivery by the Nigerian military to the hospital morgue here.
Unexpectedly, three bodies started moving.
“They were not properly shot,” recalled a security official here. “I had to call the JTF, and they gunned them down.”
It was a rare oversight. Large numbers of bodies, sometimes more than 60 in a day, are being brought by the Nigerian military to the state hospital, according to government, health and security officials, hospital workers and human rights groups — the product of the military’s brutal war against radical Islamists rooted in this northern city.
The corpses were those of young men arrested in neighborhood sweeps by the military and taken to a barracks nearby. Accused, often on flimsy or no evidence, of being members or supporters of Boko Haram, the detainees are beaten, starved, shot and even suffocated to death, say the officials, employees and witnesses.
Then, soldiers bring the bodies to the hospital and dump them at the morgue, officials and workers say. The flood is so consistent that the small morgue at the edge of the hospital grounds often has no room, with corpses flung by the military in the sand around it. Residents say they sometimes have to flee the neighborhood because of the fierce smell of rotting flesh.
From the outset of the battle between Boko Haram and the military, a dirty war on both sides that has cost nearly 4,000 lives since erupting in this city in 2009, security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings and broad, often indiscriminate roundups of suspects and sympathizers in residential areas.
The military’s harsh tactics, which it flatly denies, have reduced militant attacks in this insurgent stronghold, but at huge cost and with likely repercussions, officials and rights advocates contend.
No one doubts that Boko Haram, which has claimed responsibility for assassinations and bombings that have killed officials and civilians alike, is thoroughly enmeshed in the local populace, making the job of extricating the group extremely difficult. But as with other abuses, the bodies piling up at the morgue — where it is often impossible to distinguish combatants from the innocent — have turned many residents against the military, driving some toward the insurgency, officials say.
Even the state’s governor, who acknowledged that he must tread a careful line not to offend the Nigerian military, expressed disquiet at the tactics. “A lot of lives are lost on a daily basis due to the inhumane conditions” at the barracks, known as Giwa, said the governor, Kashim Shettima. “They do deposit bodies on a daily basis.”
Moreover, the bodies come in even when there have been no bombings, sectarian clashes or battles between the military and the insurgents, making it unlikely that the dead were killed in combat, terrorist attacks or similar circumstances.
“Mostly they bring the corpses from Giwa Barracks, the J.T.F.,” said one hospital worker. Most of the young men died “from beating, bullets, maltreatment,” he added. “You can hardly see a corpse here from sickness. Sometimes it is up to 120 corpses they bring.”
His colleague at the hospital, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said: “Every day. An average of 14 to 15 bodies a day. They accumulate. Some are swollen. Almost all are emaciated. Some they bring in with their handcuffs still on.”
On a recent blazingly hot Saturday, a convoy of two armored cars and an ambulance barreled into the sandy grounds of the sprawling state hospital, sirens wailing. Wary Nigerian Army machine gunners flanked the ambulance, and the attendants wore face masks against the odor in the 109-degree heat. It was not the only convoy that day, said rights advocates who observed the scene.
“The numbers can be outrageous; they bring them in an ambulance, two or three ambulances, loaded,” the security official said. “Most of them are tortured.”
Overwhelmed morgue attendants sometimes simply flee their post, the official said.
“They just throw the corpses on the ground,” said Dr. Mohammed Ghuluze, the hospital’s medical director. “Yesterday they came in and just threw five corpses on the ground.”
A top health official said, “Sometimes it’s 20, 30 a day.”
Sagir Musa, a spokesman for the military’s joint task force, acknowledged detentions at the barracks, saying that “many confirmed commanders of Boko Haram have been arrested, and many of their camps have been destroyed,” actions that he said aided the “restoration of law and order.”
But he rejected accusations of widespread killing or torture.
“One cannot rule out the possibility of one, two dying periodically in detention,” he said. But “to say five, no.”
Mr. Musa continued: “There cannot be multiple corpses. We don’t torture people. There is no way we can torture. We don’t even have the equipment to torture somebody in detention.”
One local official described a mass burial of 174 young men at the cemetery recently, with bodies dumped in hastily dug graves. He said the military would simply put “30-40 people inside an armored car. Then they lock the car. It’s suffocation. It’s not good, not good.”
At the back of the hospital, behind a high wall that separates the morgue from a narrow alley of shops, the smell of decomposing flesh was unmistakable. “It’s terrible, 100 percent terrible; the neighbors can’t stay,” said Alhaji Bashir, a satellite equipment vendor on the alley. “You can’t sit outside. In my shop, I bring perfume. Sometimes they bring 80 corpses a day from Giwa. They even throw the corpses under the trees.”
One retired civil servant said he had not seen his two sons, 36 and 34, since Dec. 11, when soldiers entered their house at 3 a.m. and arrested them. They were health care workers, he said, accused of treating wounded Boko Haram members.
Other detainees passed word to him that the younger son was already dead, he said. He hoped the older son was still alive, but, like most others, he had no access to the barracks, where hundreds are estimated to be detained at a time.
Suleman Mohammed, 28, a clothing seller, said he was rounded up in January with six others after a neighborhood school was set on fire by Boko Haram. He said he was taken to Giwa barracks.
“They hung me for two days,” Mr. Mohammed recounted, saying he was handcuffed to a pillar, beaten with a truncheon and given one cup of water a day. “They will insist you are a member of Boko Haram, nothing more and nothing less.”
He said he saw many people die at the barracks: “In Giwa, not less than 30 people die every day — starvation, heart attacks. At times, in a single room, 10 people died because of starvation.” He added: “Some go mad. They shout, ‘Water, water.’ ”
Boko Haram has shown few signs of giving up — militants suspected of belonging to the group attacked a northern town on Tuesday, killing scores, Reuters reported. The military has not shown signs of relenting either, officials said. There has been “a very high increase in the number of corpses,” said one of the state’s top health officials. “It was not this bad” several years ago, the official said. “In the last year, it has become so bad. It has escalated.”
Mr. Mohammed, the clothing seller, said, “I never thought I would see the outside world again.” But he was released, he said, when a neighborhood policeman intervened to say that he was not a Boko Haram member.
As for the military, “I don’t fear them as before,” he said. “I have undergone the pain.”