Her dreams came to an abrupt end on Sunday night in Nigeria’s insurgency-hit Borno State.
Most of them were asleep in their vehicles at the checkpoint when the attackers ambushed them, according to Babagana’s uncle.
Babagana had hitched a ride from Maiduguri with her uncle and his friend on Sunday. Her uncle told CNN that he was going to drop her off at Potiskum during his journey to another state, where she was planning to visit a relative.
CNN is not reporting the uncle’s name because of his fear of retribution from Boko Haram and the military.
But soldiers at a roadblock in Benisheikh town — around 45 miles west of Borno State capital Maiduguri — ordered them to go back for their safety.
The officers warned they could be ambushed by Boko Haram, said Babagana’s uncle, who drove the car.
Campaign of terror
Babagana’s uncle — who has witnessed many of Boko Haram’s attacks in Maiduguri, an area where he has lived most of his life — said they heeded the military’s advice and quickly turned back.
But a more perilous journey lay ahead.
They traveled for another hour before encountering another military blockade in Auno village, one of the gateways into Maiduguri, he said.
This time, the soldiers told them they had missed the 4 p.m. curfew to enter the village, and they would not be allowed to continue their journey.
Babagana’s uncle said they decided to stay the night in their car by the checkpoint and continue the trip the following day. A handful of soldiers patrolled the area, and dozens of motorists and passengers were stranded at the checkpoint, he said.
But late into the night, dozens of heavily armed men descended on the roadblock, shooting everyone in sight.
“Fatima was sitting in the backseat and typing on her phone. They saw the light from the phone because it was very dark. Next thing I knew, they had shot her in the head,” her uncle said.
The attackers kept shooting at people fleeing into the bushes, he told CNN.
Babagana’s uncle said he was able to escape with his friend. They later saw flames and smoke billowing from where they had fled. The attack lasted more than four hours.
“I wept all night. I kept thinking about what these terrorists would have done to her and others that were there,” he told CNN.
Nothing could have prepared him for the carnage he saw when he returned to the village early Monday.
“All the cars were still burning. People were stuck in cars, dead. We tried to put out the fire, but we were helpless. It was just too hot,” he said.
Images from the scene also showed charred remains of victims.
Most of the victims were burnt beyond recognition, but state emergency officials are trying to assist families of those involved in the attack, Gusau said.
“They had traveled from different towns, villages, and states before they got stranded there that night. It’s so sad,” he added.
Babagana’s remains, which were recovered from the burnt car, have been buried, her uncle said.
CNN has not been able to determine who ordered the blockade at this location to be established, and the Nigerian Army has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
“They (soldiers) are here, but as soon as it is 5 p.m., they close the gate and lock the people, and go back to Maiduguri. This is not right,” Zulum said, according to the report.
CNN has reached out to the Nigerian army spokesman for comment and has yet to receive a response.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has blamed Boko Haram for the attack, according to a statement by his media aide Garba Shehu on Monday.
The government of Nigeria declared Boko Haram a terrorist organization in 2013, and several months later, the US State Department followed suit.
For Babagana’s mother, Hafsat, these statistics have just become very real.
Hafsat said she spoke to her daughter Sunday afternoon before she embarked on the journey with her uncle. She had just sent Fatima her weekly allowance, and she called to check if she got the money. She never imagined it would be their last conversation.
“Nothing is going to bring Fatima back. This is horrible and so painful,” she told CNN.
Many Nigerians expressed their anger about the fresh onslaught of attacks by the terror group, which the government has repeatedly claimed has been defeated.
Buhari came directly from Addis Ababa, where he had been attending an African Union Summit for heads of state. He met with rulers and security agencies in the state asking for their support in the fight against the militants, according to a statement from his media aide.
Buhari said Boko Haram was “clearly on a back foot” and his government would not allow the group to hold Nigeria ransom in a statement on Monday in response to the attacks.
In another statement by Buhari’s spokesman, the president said the country’s military had gathered enough intelligence to crush the militants.
“As our armed forces continue to receive more hardware and intelligence to counter our current security challenges, the remnants of Boko Haram will ultimately be crushed. The peculiar challenges of asymmetric warfare notwithstanding, our armed forces are ever determined to defeat these enemies of humanity,” President Buhari said in a statement by his media aide.
Villages burned, residents displaced
Amnesty said soldiers have burned villages in operations to flush out Boko Haram members.
“The Nigerian government must not brush these violations under the carpet. They must be investigated, and alleged perpetrators must be prosecuted. Necessary steps must also be taken to ensure that military operations do not further forcibly displace civilian populations,” said Amnesty Nigeria Director Osai Ojigho in a statement.
Nigeria’s defence ministry has denied Amnesty’s allegations and accused the rights group of distorting facts about its counter-terrorism efforts in the country’s northeast.
It said the human rights organization had twisted the narrative by blaming its soldiers for the havoc wreaked by Boko Haram, whose fighters have been known to burn villages and destroy homes during attacks.
“AI must understand the fact that Nigeria is at war against terrorism in the NE and that the troops have a constitutional mandate to protect lives and property, even if it means conducting an evacuation to save and secure lives of civilians in the conflict.”
“Protecting civilians by evacuating them from the line of fire during combat is not a violation of the international law of conflict or a war crime,” the defence ministry said on its official Twitter handle.
Buhari, a former military leader, was elected president in 2015 on the promise that he would end the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria’s northeast, a pledge his critics say he has not fulfilled.
But the president says his administration has recorded successes against Boko Haram.
“We will do our best and I hope history will be kind to us; to recall what was on the ground when we came and what will be on the ground when we leave,” Buhari said in a statement.