YOLA, Nigeria – First come the whispers, then accusations loud enough to raise alarms throughout Nigeria's northeastern villages ravaged by extremist violence. Next, people accused of being Boko Haram are rounded up, sometimes by the military, sometimes by a civilian self-defense force. Many are never seen again.
The murmurs exploded into a rare open-throated protest recently when a teacher and two middle-aged farmers were taken away in Duhu village. Women who knew the men insisted they did not belong to the Islamic extremist group, and marched to a nearby military base to demand their release. Instead, the men were shot to death and their bodies were dumped outside town.
Nigeria's military denied ever detaining elementary school teacher Habu Bello and farmers Idrisa Dele and Umaru Hammankadi last month. But several villagers told The Associated Press that they watched as the men were led away by uniformed soldiers who accused them of being Boko Haram fighters.
Threats to civilians come from all sides and extrajudicial killings have not abated despite the president's declaration of victory over Boko Haram. The insurgents have shown no mercy, but many people are equally afraid of the soldiers and the self-defense Vigilante Group of Nigeria.
Now, they are learning to fear their own neighbors as well.
As refugees return home and try to rebuild lives from nothing — houses have been razed, wells poisoned, crops and livestock looted — some are capitalizing on the fear and insecurity to settle old scores, erase debts, win land disputes or otherwise get rid of enemies, human rights lawyer Sunday Joshua Wugira explained.
"If you have a problem with someone, you can influence the military to pick them up and then you will never hear about them again," he told AP from his offices in the northeastern city of Yola, where police are investigating the January killings of three brothers from the Fulani tribe.
Police have detained members of the civilian self-defense group, who said they took the suspected insurgents to the military barracks for detention, but were turned away and then a separate group of soldiers seized and killed the brothers, Deputy Superintendent Othman Abubakar said.
Even unborn children are not free from allegations of terrorism. A teenager said she was captured last year by Boko Haram fighters who attacked her village and killed her father. Soldiers arrived to hunt down extremists, but interrogated her three brothers instead. Vigilantes then seized and killed them, she said.
Kidnapped by Boko Haram at 16 and raped in captivity, she was freed in November when soldiers attacked the extremist camp where she was being held. She tried to return to her home village, but had to flee again because vigilantes threatened to kill her unborn child, calling it a "terrorist baby," she said. The AP does not identify victims of sexual assault.
Duhu district leader Mustapha Sanusi said he has no official record of detainees being killed or disappeared, but has notified the military and legislators about complaints.
"I don't have any figures, but I can confirm to you that there have been a series of complaints about extrajudicial killings," he told the AP. He called for a federal investigation and said "the military should always operate within the confines of the law."
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari promised to end military abuses last year, pledging an investigation into Amnesty International's allegations that since 2011, the military has been responsible for the deaths of some 8,000 detainees who were shot, starved or tortured. That's more than a third of the estimated 20,000 people killed during the 6-year-old insurgency. Human rights groups also accuse the self-defense fighters of extrajudicial killings but no one has collated figures.
Buhari's spokesman, Garba Shehu, referred requests for comment for this AP report to the military, but army spokesman Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman did not respond. However, the army on Thursday announced the establishment of a special office to "investigate all cases of human rights complaints brought before it." And it said it has established a special court martial to try "all cases of indiscipline and related acts of misconduct, including human rights abuse."
Buhari told a delegation from the United States Institute of Peace this week that "mechanisms" have been put in place to ensure human rights are respected in the fight against terrorism. "We attach great importance to human rights," he said. "If there are breaches, they will be investigated and dealt with."
There's little evidence of this in the villages, and one of nine senior commanders that Amnesty International accused of possible war crimes — Maj. Gen. Ahmadu Mohammed — was reinstated last month without any investigation, ending an early retirement prompted by a mutiny among his men.
Boko Haram, meanwhile, is attacking softer targets in remote villages, city markets and refugee camps.
Poisoning the atmosphere in camps and villages, insurgents and suicide bombers have quietly joined the thousands of people freed by Nigerian troops. Soldiers have told AP that Boko Haram has infiltrated Nigeria's security forces as well, fighting with the army by day and against it by night.
Refugees panicked last month when they found the trussed-up body of a refugee with his head bashed in at the Shettima Ali Monguno Teachers Village camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri.
"We now fear more for our safety because we cannot tell who is good or bad among us," said one young refugee, insisting on anonymity for safety. "Our camp is well fenced and secured, yet one of us was murdered over the night."
Disappearances from villages also are increasing, bringing new waves of terror to people recently liberated from Boko Haram's "caliphate."
They include a woman and her five children who are being held for ransom by soldiers at a barracks in Yola, according to the woman's husband, a gardener in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial center, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears his family will never be freed. He said soldiers are demanding 25,000 naira ($125) for each family member, totaling about four months of his salary. He told AP he's sent 45,000 naira, but all are still held.
In an indication of how many people are wrongly accused, Nigeria's army last week freed 267 detainees including dozens of children, some preschoolers, saying investigators had determined they had no links to Boko Haram. Only eight suspects were handed over to police for further investigation.
Commanding officer Maj. Gen. Haruna Umaru said the releases should reassure Nigerians that "no individual will unjustly or unduly be incarcerated."
The many allegations of gross rights abuses have hampered the cooperation some allies including the United States can offer to Nigeria because of laws that prohibit arming and training troops that may be guilty of war crimes.
Wugira, the lawyer, said he and others continue to work to uphold people's rights. He said he got two young men released from illegal military detention in December, and freed a group of 10 wrongly accused young men in November, after a soldier testified that they had actually fought against Boko Haram.
But most disappearances go unchallenged, said Wugira, even though he offers his services for free.
"People will say, at the end of the day we will never get justice," he said. "People are living in fear."
Associated Press writer Ismail Alfa contributed to this report from Maiduguri, Nigeria.