It was a few minutes after midday, and the sun was already blazing at the Dalori-1 camp for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.
At this time of the day, usually, only the trees can provide the much-needed cool to wade off dehydration.
The displaced children had to shift their play from the burning grounds to the cool shades of the cascading Neem trees. So was the case for the elderly inmates who had to also move out of their tarpaulin shelters.
Young men were spotted in various locations chatting away; some had already dozed off, apparently helped by the coolness of the trees.
Some women, mostly mothers, were seen from time to time bending out of their make shift homes to check on the foodstuff they had spread to dry in the perfect sun.
Most of the young girls, especially those in their teens and early 20s, also had their different spots under the foliage or at the common hall built by officials of the camp. The girls, usually, at this time of the day, would be busy chatting away their boring time.
Some of them with knack for making money, legitimately, were seen busy knitting designs on native caps, which they would sell off to merchants.
Very naturally, the atmosphere around the girls’ spot was more exciting and attractive. The young females could be heard interjecting their gossips and chitchats with occasional laughter, and teases.
But Fati Salilhu, one of the young women in the camp, was not a party to the hilarity of the girls’ company.
PREMIUM TIMES reporter sighted her sitting in a withdrawn mode under a Neem tree outside the camp tent she shares with other females. Her mind seemed to have travelled far away from the noisy happenings around her.
She was not looking shabby, despite being an IDP. Her slightly made up face had really done a great job at beaming up her natural beauty. But it had not hidden the telltale of a young woman who had passed through difficult times.
She was 22 years old and mother of a deceased child.
Fati was one of the females rescued from the captivity of Boko Haram insurgents by soldiers of the Nigerian army about two years ago. Though she speaks flawless Hausa, a major language in northern Nigeria, Fati said she is not a Nigerian.
“I am from Cameroon”, she told PREMIUM TIMES.
She was brought to the IDP camp about a year ago, after she was rescued from the captivity of Boko Haram insurgents who had snatched her and many other women from Kolofata in the Republic of Cameroon.
“I am from Mozogore village in Cameroon. I am the last child of the 9 kids from my mother”, she told PREMIUM TIME in Hausa, a major Nigerian language also spoken in northern part of Cameroon near the Nigerian border.
While the deputy minister’s wife (now freed) was taken from her home, Fati said she was flocked away, alongside other women, into the jungle from a hospital in Kolofata where she was watching over her sick aged mother.
It was the last time she knew freedom.
“I was abducted when I took my sick mother to the hospital in Kolofata”, she said with sobered voice.
“Boko Haram fighters came in and abducted some other women and me”.
Coming out of a forced marriage, after she was forced to abandon her secondary school education midway because her parents could not afford her fees, Fati became a wife at the age of 19.
The road to captivity
Like many others, Fati said the road to Boko Haram’s captivity was harrowing.
“After they had forced us to follow them at gun point, we were taken for a long walk through the jungles of Buni Yadi (in Yobe State) where we were camped”, she recalled.
“After some days, soldiers came and we had to flee to another location, which name I could not recall. From there, we were taken to a place called Tumbuktu, where we spent about five weeks. The soldiers came again, and they had to move us to a place called Kafela and we were kept there for about 7 months.
Painful loss of child
When Boko Haram captured her, the Cameroonian girl was nursing a baby – the product of her failed marriage. It was with that baby girl strapped to her back that she was made to traverse the jungles, mostly on foot.
Fati said she lost the baby while they were being forced by the Boko Haram members to flee during an attack on their location by soldiers.
“I lost my baby when we had to run towards Izza village”, she said.
“The attack on our location was massive, and as we were running with the Boko Haram people, we all feared for our lives; so we ran through the thick bushes. My little daughter, who was strapped to my back, fell off and was badly injured. She eventually died. Some men amongst our abductors collected the child and buried her somewhere in a shallow grave; I was not given a chance to mourn her, we had to move on.
After about a year under the captivity of Boko Haram, a miraculous rescue came to them when the Nigerian soldiers eventually raided Izza, one of the largest camps of the Boko Haram, located somewhere between Gwoza and Bama local government areas of Borno state.
“We did not stay long in Izza, when the soldiers arrived attacking from the sky and on ground”, she said.
“We kept on running towards Izza amidst bombardment from air force jets. Many of us, including some Boko Haram members were killed. We made it to Izza, a big village where many abducted girls were kept but we did not stay there for long before the soldiers raided the place and rescued some of us.
“The soldiers took us to Bama, and from there we were taken to Giwa barracks. We spent about two months in Giwa barracks before they brought us here to stay in Dalori-1 IDP camp. Now I have spent about a year here in the camp.
Like most of the females taken into captivity, Fati had to become a wife to one of her abductors. A situation she had to accept, lest she suffered more torture or abuse by those who appropriated her liberty.
“I was forced to marry a Boko Haram member, named Abba Kaka. He said he was from Benishek town of Borno State. But the marriage lasted only two months because soldiers killed him.
“I was actually forced to marry him. In fact, the Boko Haram members threw me in jail for weeks when I refused to accept Abba Kaka’s hand in marriage”, she said.
Like many other girls, Fati said she was left with limited but cruel options. She just had to give in.
“We were made to undergo several punishments and torture when we were resisting to abide by their ways of doing things; they said we must accept their creed and belief that any other person that is not an adherent of Izalatul Ahlil sunna liddawati wal jihad (Boko Haram) is an infidel whose blood was legitimate to be shed.
“We were not hungry because there was food in abundance, but we had to live in a very difficult condition in which we sometimes found it difficult to change clothes or wash properly; some of us that menstruate would sometimes go without sanitary pads; we only used them if the Boko Haram fighters returned with loots and we were lucky to find such things like sanitary pads, and diapers for children.
“They kept telling us that they wanted to make us true Muslims, and there was no way they would allow us to see our infidel parents or relatives again.
“You know we were abducted at Kolofata, on the same night the wife of Cameroon minister, Ali Amodu, was kidnapped. And I could recall when the deputy minister’s wife, who was kept in different way from ours, was rescued after a shootout. They came to tell us that ‘your people in Cameroon are killing our members, so you too would not be freed; you would rather die in our custody’”.
“They said they would rather continue to move about in the bush with us, and that we too had to taste the bitterness of the pains they suffered each time their members were killed by soldiers in Nigeria and Cameroon. They kept threatening us daily; sometimes we cried and called for help; but they kept on telling us that crying was a waste of time. We went on like that for weeks and months until we became tired of crying. Yes, it was useless crying, so we decided to take our plight as our fate and began to live with it”.
Lonely and stranded in IDP camp
Unlike most of the rescued abductees who are Nigerians, Fati had not been able to link up with her family in Cameroon for over a year since her rescue.
“We were many that were abducted; but they split us up in the jungles and those of us that were brought to Dalori-1 IDP camp were four in number; they had all been joined with their families; it was only me that was left behind because I could not link up with my family in Cameroon”, she mourned.
“I have not heard from my parents, including my sick mother. I am not happy; each time I worried about leaving, I was told that it was not safe going to Cameroon”.
“Since my rescue and arrival to Maiduguri, I have been well taken care of by the Nigerian military and camp officials till date, we get enough medication, toiletries and apartment to lay our heads at night. But of late, things have begun to get difficult in terms of feeding. The foods are not enough; it hardly comes in square.”
Life after camp
For the first time during the interview, the Cameroonian girl’s eyes lit up when this reporter asked about her life before the abduction on July 28, 2014. She recalled her dream of being a working class lady. But she fears a future of stigma as a lady who had once been married to a “terrorist”.
“When I was a free girl back in our village in Cameroon, I used to sell soft drinks and cold water. I do not have much education; after my primary education, I enrolled into secondary school. But along the line, I had to drop out to get married on the orders of my parents who said they could no longer sustain my education.
“I wanted to be a government worker, just like some of my friends that were able to advance their studies and are now working as nurses; while some are currently employees of government. I wanted to be a nurse too.
“Even if I return home now, I have no concrete plans for the future, because I have no education to qualify me for employment. I have to embrace whatever God puts in my way. If another husband comes, I get married, that is if you don’t show my photograph as a woman who had once married a Boko Haram (smiles). If I have resources, I will continue with my petty trade.
Her ultimate desire
“All I want now is to be allowed to return home so that I can reunite with my family members. Most of my siblings are working; some are soldiers in the Cameroonian military; some are doing government work in Marwa, others are doing business there. But I have no relatives here on the side of Nigeria. I know my mother weeps every day for me. May be she may even be mourning, thinking I am no longer alive. I just need to go home.”