Boko Haram insurgents routinely rape and abuse girls and women they abduct from Borno and Yobe States, forcefully marrying some and sending others to the frontlines to fight Nigeria’s security forces, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
The report, released Monday, said at least 500 women and girls have been seized by the group since 2009 when the insurgency began.
Human Rights Watch said 30 women and girls who were once prisoners of Boko Haram, told its researchers how they were subjected to a variety of abuses, sometimes for refusing to convert to Islam.
The organization interviewed some of the Chibok schoolgirls abducted by the group April 14, but who later fled or were released.
The students said that nearly all of those abducted from their school, located in a predominantly Christian area of Borno State, were Christian.
More broadly, the majority of the abductions documented by Human Rights Watch took place in the predominantly Christian area of southern Borno State.
Of the 30 victims of abduction interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 29 were Christian; most appeared to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation. Many were threatened with death if they refused to convert to Islam, the report adds.
The women suffered forced labour, including forced participation in military operations; forced marriage to their captors; and sexual abuse including rape.
According to Human Rights Watch, 14 women and girls who had either escaped or were released from Boko Haram camps in the Sambisa forest and Gwoza hills, as well as other witnesses, described how they and others at the camp were routinely forced to cook, clean, and perform household chores while in Boko Haram custody in the camps.
In 2010, a woman who had been abducted and held for three days by Boko Haram in 2009 was quoted as speaking about how she had been forced to wash the bloodied clothes of insurgents killed in the July 2009 violence.
Other abducted women and girls were forced to participate in military operations to support the group.
A 19-year-old who was held in several camps in the Gwoza hills for three months in 2013 was forced to participate in attacks and to carry ammunition for her captors.
The girl said her job in the camp was to cook for the 14-man group until a month later when she was taken along for an operation.
“I was told to hold the bullets and lie in the grass while they fought. They came to me for extra bullets as the fight continued during the day,” she was quoted as saying.
“When security forces arrived at the scene and began to shoot at us, I fell down in fright. The insurgents dragged me along on the ground as they fled back to camp.”
During another operation, she narrated being asked to approach a group of five men in a nearby village and lure them to where the insurgents were hiding.
The woman said she feigned to be afraid and asked the young men, mostly teenage members of the Civilian JTF, for help.
“When they followed me for a short distance, the insurgents swooped on them. Once we got back to the camp, they tied the legs and hands of the captives and slit the throats of four of them as they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Then I was handed a knife to kill the last man. I was shaking with horror and couldn’t do it. The camp leader’s wife took the knife and killed him,” she said.
Another victim told Human Rights Watch that although she was spared work because she had a three-month-old baby when she was abducted in April 2014, she saw others forced to work.
She described seeing some of the Chibok schoolgirls forced to cook and clean for other women and girls whom the insurgents had chosen for “special treatment because of their beauty”.
Human Rights Watch said it spoke with six victims and witnesses who had been forced to marry or had witnessed women and girls forced to marry Boko Haram combatants.
Four Christian women and girls told Human Rights Watch how they had been forced into marriage after their abduction in late 2013 in Gwoza.
One girl held by insurgents for one month told Human Rights Watch, “When I insisted that I could not marry at 15, the leader, though already married, declared he would marry me himself. He made us recite some words in Arabic after him, handed us new veils, and declared we were now married.”
A 19-year-old girl who was held in a Boko Haram camp in Gwoza told Human Rights Watch that she was offered thousands of naira as dowry to marry one of the insurgents:
When she refused, asking the money be sent to her father, an insurgent who knows her family accepted the money on her behalf.
She eventually escaped, and in anger insurgents burned down their family house.
Rape and Sexual Violence
Five victims, ranging in age from 15 to 22 years old, described their ordeal, while the three other assaults were described by witnesses, according to the report.
Insurgents took advantage of the absence of a commander and sexually abused abductees who had yet to be “married.”
A woman, who was raped in 2013 in a Boko Haram camp near Gwoza, described how a commander’s wife appeared to encourage the crime:
“I was lying down in the cave pretending to be ill because I did not want the marriage the commander planned to conduct for me with another insurgent on his return from the Sambisa camp. When the insurgent who had paid my dowry came in to force himself on me, the commander’s wife blocked the cave entrance and watched as the man raped me,” she said.
A 15-year-old who was abducted in 2013 and spent four weeks with Boko Haram was quoted as saying she refused having sex with one of the fighters despite being forced to “marry” him.
“After we were declared married I was ordered to live in his cave but I always managed to avoid him. He soon began to threaten me with a knife to have sex with him, and when I still refused he brought out his gun, warning that he would kill me if I shouted. Then he began to rape me every night. He was a huge man in his mid-30s and I had never had sex before.
It was very painful and I cried bitterly because I was bleeding afterwards.”
A 19-year-old woman, who was married and had children, described how she and one other woman were raped after having been abducted with four other women in April 2014:
“When we arrived at the camp they left us under a tree. I managed to sleep; I was exhausted and afraid. Late in the night, two insurgents shook me and another woman awake, saying their leader wanted to see us.
We had no choice but to follow them, but as soon as we moved deep into the woods, one of them dragged me away, while his partner took the other woman in another direction.
I guessed what they had in mind and began to cry. I begged him, telling him I was a married woman. He ignored my pleas, flung me on the ground, and raped me. I could not tell anyone what happened, not even my husband. I still feel so ashamed and cheated.
The other woman told me she was also raped, but vowed never to speak of it again as she was single and believes that news of her rape would foreclose her chances of marriage.
A 20-year-old woman, abducted in September 2013, told Human Rights Watch that the insurgent she was “married” to wore a mask all the time, even when he raped her.
Even though she had since escaped, she said, “I am still afraid to go anywhere because he could be any one of the people around me. Every time I see a huge dark man, I jump in fright that it might be him coming to get me back. I stay awake some nights because I dream of those terrible weeks I spent in their camp.”
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