ARUKAINO UMUKORO recently met women who were abducted by Boko Haram insurgents and forced into marriage
Twenty-year-old Jumai Haruna spent the last two years in Sambisa forest, the stronghold of the extremist Islamic sect, Boko Haram. Four months ago, she was rescued from the clutches of the extremists by the security forces. She left the forest with a large scar from a bullet wound on her arm. But as she spoke to our correspondent, last week, at the Internally Displaced Persons’ camp in Yola, Adamawa State, it was obvious that Haruna’s emotional scars were bigger than the physical ones.
The story that Haruna shared was a tale of rape, abuse, forced labour, torture and her forced marriage to one of the terrorists.
“I would never have married such a man but we were all forced to marry them or be killed,” she said with growing bitterness. “I lost a pregnancy for my original husband because of the condition of the place.” Haruna’s ‘original husband’ was the man she married shortly before she was captured by Boko Haram.
Two years in captivity with the insurgents have obviously taken its toll on Haruna. Frail, gaunt and listless, she looked at least 10 years older. She insisted that it was the pain inside of her that hurt the most.
“It is like cutting a baby with a knife, you can imagine the pain she would feel. We endured many difficult days. They fed us with raw maize, and at some point, we spent three days without food or water,” she told SUNDAY PUNCH.
‘Boko Haram baby’
Haruna’s tragic journey into captivity began in 2014 when she and other women were captured by Boko Haram fighters who attacked their village in Gwoza Local Government Area, in Borno State, North-East Nigeria. As she shared the details of that journey, she kept looking down at the child she bore for Hamidu, her Boko Haram captor. The three weeks old baby slept peacefully in her arms, as she spoke to our correspondent under a tree, away from the scorching northern sun.
When asked to speak about the abuses she suffered in Sambisa, Haruna said she did not want to talk about it. Her memories of her cohabitation with Hamidu are full of pain.
“As for this baby I carry now, it is destiny, but I don’t want to remember the past. I appreciate him because it is God that gave me the child. I love this child; I cannot do anything to change my destiny. So, I will take care of my boy child as my own,” she said.
A recent report by Global Terrorism Index stated that Boko Haram, which started its terror campaign in 2009, was responsible for 6,664 deaths in 2014, compared to the 6,073 deaths linked to the dreaded Islamic State in the same year. The index stated that Nigeria witnessed “the largest increase in terror-related deaths ever recorded by any country,” increasing by over 300 per cent from 2013.
Haruna is determined to bring up her son with much love and also ensure that he does not follow in the footsteps of his father. She vowed never to let her son know who his real father was.
She said, “No, I cannot tell him that his real father is a member of Boko Haram. No, he would be disappointed and it would be a big blow to him. I will not allow that. I will prevent him from knowing. But I will love him.”
Interestingly, her original husband, who is based outside Borno, came visiting her at the Internally Displaced Persons’ camp in Yola, a week before SUNDAY PUNCH was there. An official at the IDP camp told our correspondent they allowed Haruna’s husband to stay with her for a week.
She stated, “Yes, he came and spent a week with me. He said he is still in love with me, despite all that I went through and the forced marriage. He said he was still interested in me and would wait for me. He is a good man. He said that, like every good Muslim, he believed this was his destiny, and he had to accept it, whether it was good or bad. He said the fault was not the baby’s and he promised to take care of him as his own biological child.”
But there is a twist in her love story. Her husband’s younger brother is a Boko Haram member and was in Sambisa when she was captured. “My real husband’s younger brother is part of Boko Haram,” she said, and mentioned the names of some other Boko Haram members she came to know. “I have given their names to the security agencies. He even told me that if he ever saw my husband, he would kill him.”
She said she felt no sympathy for Hamidu despite having had his child. “Even those from the same village with me, if I know they are with Boko Haram, I would report them to the military; just like I would report him if I see him now. I want them (military) to kill him,” she added.
Like Haruna, 18-year-old Asta Abdullahi, also from Gwoza, was abducted and forcefully wedded to a Boko Haram member by the sect.
She said she and some of her friends were working in the farm when the terrorists swooped on their village, a few months after the kidnap of the 276 Chibok girls, 218 of whom remain missing.
“When they came into our village, they started shooting at everybody and everything. We ran, but they finally caught us inside the bush. We were about 18 in number, eight of us young girls, and 10 married women. They pushed us inside a big truck and took us to Sambisa,” she said.
Abdullahi said they were not the only girls or women there. “We saw many women there, more than 200. Later, they threatened us that if we didn’t marry them we would all be killed. We had no choice; we did not want to die. Some girls managed to escape before me,” she said.
She said she later managed to trick her Boko Haram husband into following her to a nearby village.
Abdullahi said, “After some time, they allowed us to go to nearby places only with our ‘husbands,’ since they had already forced us to marry them. So, on that day, I lied and said I wanted to go visit my uncle in a nearby village. He accompanied me. On the way, I pleaded with him to allow me escape. He agreed but said he would go with me. He came with me to the IDP camp in Borno, from where we were taken to the transit camp in Mubi. That was where we were when the military brought us to Yola three months ago.”
She said she did not report her Boko Haram ‘husband’ to the authorities when they got to the camp because she was scared for her life.
“In Sambisa, they had threatened to kill anyone that reported their husbands to the security agents. He later escaped. Maybe he knew his real identity would later be discovered. He has not tried to contact me since then,” she said.
Abdullahi and Haruna are just two out of the 7,000 women and girls the United Nations said had been abducted and turned into sex slaves by the insurgents in the North-East since 2009.
Insurgents in their hundreds would often attack villages and markets in remote areas of Borno, making away with cattle and foodstuffs, leaving a trail of death in their wake.
Earlier this year, the Borno State government banned trading in four cattle markets in towns outside Maiduguri, the state capital, in what it said was aimed at stopping the sale of stolen cattle used to fund the insurgent group.
Abdullahi did not like talking about her Boko Haram ‘husband.’ She said she got pregnant for him but had a miscarriage.
“His name is Ahmadu, but I don’t know his surname. He is a young man who looked like he was still in his 20s. I never liked him, not even for one second, I was forced to marry him. I do not have any interest in him. I prefer him to be killed if he is caught,” she said.
She, however, does not know the whereabouts of her sister, who was also captured two years ago. “I don’t know if she is dead or alive,” she said.
As our correspondent spoke with Abdullahi, Aisha Mohammed, 27, heavily pregnant, sat in a corner. At first she was reluctant to talk or say who the father of her unborn child was, but after some persuasion, she gave a glimpse into her horrific past.
“I’m carrying the baby of my Boko Haram husband that I was forced to marry. My real husband was caught during the attack on our village and killed. I have two children, one died, while the other one is here with me,” she said.
She said she would like to go back to her hometown if the military assured them of adequate security, food and shelter.
“If I am lucky to name the baby, I would name him after my father. If the baby is a girl, I would name her after the wife of my father because of the love they showed me when I was a child,” she said.
Although Abdullahi said her husband was not as brutal as others in the camp, she said many women and girls experienced harrassing moments.
She said, “Whenever they captured people and brought them to Sambisa, they took them to a separate location away from our view and slaughtered them. They stopped killing people in front of us because the women were usually frightened and went crazy.”
Hadiza, one of the women rescued by the military from Sambisa, may have been one of such women whose mental state got affected by the horrors she witnessed. Our correspondent tried to talk to her but she didn’t respond. An official who did not want to be named told SUNDAY PUNCH that Hadiza usually preferred to stay alone, adding that she might be suffering from severe depression as a result of what she passed through in Sambisa. “She may have been raped several times, and seen many people killed,” the official said.
‘I saw Chibok girls’
Amnesty International says Boko Haram insurgents have abducted “at least 2,000 girls and women since the beginning of last year, turning them into cooks, sex slaves and fighters, and sometimes killing those who refused to comply.” The kidnap of Chibok girls in April, 2014 from their hostels in Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, is still considered the single biggest abduction.
Haruna said, “I saw some of the Chibok girls in Sambisa. They captured them before us. Some of them had already been impregnated. Some of them had given birth to children. The Boko Haram members kept them in a special place in Sambisa. Boko Haram members shared and sold the girls among themselves.”
When our correspondent asked how she knew they were the abducted girls from Chibok, Haruna said, “It was the girls that said so themselves whenever they sat down (with other kidnapped women) and discussed with some of us. They confirmed it to us. Boko Haram members called Chibok girls and other girls or women they captured ‘Ganima.’” According to one of the officials at the camp, Ganima, loosely translated from the local Hausa language spoken in the North-East, means “spoils of war.”
She also said that, because Sambisa was a vast area, the insurgents gave names to different locations around it. “They gave names to different places in Sambisa, names such as Gobara, Imsa, Sabluda, Jimia, and so on. The Chibok girls were scattered everywhere.”
In May, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai, said Sambisa forest was as big as Enugu State, in the South-East, with a population of over four million. He noted that the military thus needed more time and thorough planning to completely flush out the insurgents.
Haruna added, “They have their own medical team and makeshift clinic, a room, in Sambisa, where they get treated whenever they are injured from the battle with the army. The clinic was at Gobara. I have seen so many of the insurgents get injured. I saw more than 10 ‘doctors’ there. They mostly spoke Kanuri dialect.”
Hope still alive
For the many rescued girls and women in IDP camps scattered across the North-East, it is still a long road to recovery. At another IDP camp in Yola, an official told SUNDAY PUNCH there were a number of pregnant women at the camp who are reluctant to reveal the identities of the fathers of their unborn children, for fear of stigmatisation.
“The conditions of the camps are getting better, but the government needs to do more. Like that woman you spoke to, I think she would need better care outside this camp,” noted an emergency worker in the state.
Conflict and insecurity take their toll on women’s health in a number of ways, an Amnesty International report states.
The report says these include, “Physical wounds caused by war-related injuries; vulnerability to disease aggravated by fatigue, malnutrition and displacement; damage to the health care system; inaccessibility of health centres and hospitals due to insecurity; and widespread sexual violence and the attendant transmission of HIV and other diseases. Discrimination against women and cultural restrictions work against women receiving appropriate health care.”
In 2010, the then Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, was quoted as saying, “While bullets, bombs and blades make the headlines, women’s bodies remain invisible battlefields.”
Despite their rescue by the military, many of these young girls and women are still facing the battle of their lives.
For Abdullahi, after two years in Boko Haram captivity, the process of healing has started with a sweet reunion.
The next day, just before our correspondent left the IDP camp that sunny afternoon, Abdullahi’s parents showed up after several visits to different camps in search of their daughter.
Her mother, Azumi Alli, could not hide her emotions. “I am very happy that I have seen one of my lost daughters. Two of them were missing. Before now, I had given up, thinking that my daughters were dead. Boko Haram killed my two boys and kidnapped my daughters. I want to thank the army for rescuing my daughter alive,” she told SUNDAY PUNCH.
Abdullahi’s father, Yusuf Alli, who is a member of a vigilance group in Madagali Local Government Area in Adamawa State, said, “I am a hunter, and part of a vigilance group. I got information that my daughter was in this camp, so we came here. If I see the man who forced my daughter into marriage, I will kill him.”