The reported number of people who died in Baga, Borno State, Nigeria, caught everyone’s attention, in a way that the regular weekend bomb attacks of churches by Boko Haram, do not.
As West Africa correspondent for Al Jazeera, based in Nigeria, I had reported nearly every attack by the group since they started fighting in 2009, starting with the killing of the group’s leader Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri where I was present.
But the scale of last month’s attack caught my attention in a way that previous attacks had not.
I was concerned about the figure of 200 killed that was being reported. Simply because I had reported so many Boko Haram attacks but nothing on this scale.
And it had been reported that the military had said only 37 had been killed, 30 of them Boko Haram fighters, one soldier and six civilians.
It was important for me to get to Baga to see for myself, first hand, what had really happened and try to figure out how many people might have been killed.
We were escorted to Baga by the Joint Taskforce (JTF), a force consisting of the Nigerian military, State Security Service, police and other agencies, that have been fighting Boko Haram.
The JTF had explained that the journey to Baga was extremely dangerous. They explained that Boko Haram fighters might be lying in wait along the road and could attack at any moment. And that was why it was necessary for our team to be escorted by the JTF into Baga and out.
We were escorted around Baga by the JTF and allowed to talk to villagers we encountered freely, and film the damage caused by the fighting, mainly burnt out homes and businesses.
But what I really wanted was to get to the bottom of reports of a “mass grave” in Baga where the 200 civilians who had been reportedly killed had been buried.
I asked the JTF to show me the mass grave. They denied such a grave existed. They explained there was only one gravesite where around 20 Boko Haram fighters had been buried. And the JTF took my crew and I to the gravesite to film. You can see this in our report.
I was a little skeptical about the information being given to me by the JTF about the mass grave.
The Nigerian army has been accused by organisations such as Human Rights Watch of killing civilians in their pursuit of Boko Haram fighters. And of pursuing retaliatory attacks on villages where Boko Haram members have been found.
So I decided to ask three or four villagers close to where we were filming as to whether they knew anything about a mass grave in Baga. One of them was Fatima Ahmadu who is in our report.
Throughout rest of my time in Baga, I did not see any mass grave. Neither were we prevented by the JTF from moving freely around Baga.
The JTF, however, only seemed not to understand just how much time we needed in Baga to gather more information. It would have been helpful to meet more residents than those we encountered. And we were given just an hour to gather elements for our report.
After filming the many burnt out homes and businesses, and the grave site, we moved to the market. To my surprise there was a semblance of normality returning.
Baga seemed to be bustling with people, buying and selling household goods and foods. Petrol stations, mosques, churches, schools, seemed to be functioning.
And every now and then a taxi load of people seemed to be arriving back into the town. We filmed all of this. And then hit the road back to the state capital, Maiduguri.