Boko Haram, Ten Years On: How hundreds of girls bear brunt of insurgency

Yakura and Hadiza at the detention camp in Maiduguri
Yakura and Hadiza at the detention camp in Maiduguri

The wind blew in all directions, hurling the cinnamon-hued dust northern Nigeria is known for on Hadiza and Yakura’s hijab. The girls sat idly under a neem tree, peering into the sky through its leaves shielding them from the blazing sun. It has become part of their daily routine to lounge around this detention camp, where girls like them are kept, for some fresh air and conversation with their soul.

What are the odds that the paths of these two would cross, again? Both were married off to fighters of Boko Haram as teenagers. They each lived with their husbands in Sambisa forest, and as fate would have it, they escaped with an undetonated improvised explosive device strapped around their waist. But instead of blowing themselves up, killing thousands of civilians as instructed, they surrendered to the Nigerian military.

Yakura

She had a blue hijab wrapped around her head and draped over her shoulders. Her face was barely exposed but her fears hugged the deep contours of her eyes. She looked pale and forlorn as she fidgeted with her fingers as though praying to the gods to change the day her life changed forever; to bring back the norm of her not too far away childhood that was defined by little but love, still, with her siblings.

Yakura lived with her family in a village called Banki. It is a neighbourhood of mud huts and thatched roofs with men clutching their transistor radio to their ears with one hand, while the other does whatever else is needed. Women and girls walked in groups and children played in the sand, sometimes even chewing it without immediate consequences.

The once-bustling trading hub known for the finest sundried tomatoes, bell pepper, meat and other livestock attracted traders from far and near, including neighbouring countries like Chad and Niger. All of that was wiped out shortly after Boko Haram launched armed attacks in 2009.

Yakura, her mum, and siblings ran for safety as gunshots tore through the skies, the deafening sound disrupting decades of quietness. Boko Haram rounded the men found in each household. On their knees, they were asked to raise their hands in total surrender to the guns pointed at them. The fighters sought allegiance to the group’s cause which has since included creating a Caliphate and toppling the Nigerian government. Men who refused to give in were summarily executed in what has become Boko Haram’s signature style.

“My father was one of the men killed on the day Boko Haram attacked our village,” Yakura said, her eyes fastened on the mat she sat on, tracing the edges back and forth in a stare.

It was time to run; and women, fresh into widowhood, fled on foot. Some as far as their eyes could see. Others bleeding their way through it. Boko Haram never used to do much with the women and girls except to delight in their misery. But as the number of widowed women and fatherless children grew in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram found a new purpose for the lot–abducting them for sex slavery and suicide bombing.

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Yakura’s mother had heard of how girls disappear after Boko Haram attacks and to protect her teenage daughter, she decided to send her off to a safer place. “My mother sent me to Kusiri, a nearby village in neighbouring Cameroon to live with my relatives because of the fear of abduction,” she said. Her maternal instinct inspired a brave decision but patriarchy requires her to do otherwise–retire her good sense of judgement and wait till the next available man in the family makes a move. In Yakura’s case, her fate was rewritten by a man who should have protected her.

Yakura’s uncle was not a relative she knew so well, neither did her mum. His claims to legitimate family ties were the deceased and patriarchy demands that he take over administration of everything that belongs to the dead. And now, duty calls.

So when Yakura’s phone rang a day after she arrived in Kusiri, she did not quite believe her ears. She had been ordered to return to a village she fled by this man.

“One of my uncles who was uncomfortable with my mother’s decision phoned and ordered that I should be returned to Banki, warning that he would deal with anybody who opposed his decision. Someone was later sent to bring me back home,” she said.

Patriarchy is typical of the culture in northern Nigeria and there are grave consequences for women who defy it. When a man dies, his widow is passed onto the next man in line to her late husband. Her opinion on choice is not sought either. In a culture where men hold the keys to society, Yakura’s mother’s unilateral decision to protect her children is seen as non-conforming. And so she surrendered logic and instinct to the rules of the society in exchange for the burden of losing her beloved teenage daughter.

A Strange Village

Everything looks different now in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, with military barricades positioned at nearly every kilometre from the airport to the city centre. Uniformed men in camouflaged security vehicles patrol every square metre, guns dangling in all directions. Apart from the people’s indifference, this place looks like a war zone, a stark contradiction to the signpost that welcomes first-timers; Borno home of peace, Islam is for peace. Shariah is Islam.

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Maiduguri was once a regional capital recognised for welcoming people of all religions and ethnicities, a college town long known for its party scenes and a vibrant city with a bold, often broad-minded youth culture that almost a decade of war cannot seem to extinguish.

This seamless interlocking of art, culture, faith and religion lies at the heart of the ideological battle at play in this city and flung far to the rest of Nigeria’s northern states. Advocates of religion want faith detangled from the mixture and extolled for what it is – sacred. In 2009, those who consider themselves the custodians of the Islamic faith demanded that the government establish Borno State as an Islamic caliphate, eroding its past while securing its religious future. Boko Haram was born out of the need to sanitise the city of presumed religious grim. In this instance, of art, culture, history and sometimes people. Taking to violence and bloodshed, villages were razed and its people displaced. An estimated 35,000 lives have since been lost while more than two million people remain internally displaced.

We drove through Dalori, Kasagula, Konduga, Kabuiri, all the way down to Bama, where Boko Haram’s reign of terror lasted for 15 months during which men were butchered in dozens in the presence of their families. What’s left of the ruins are neem trees and other shrubs at their greenest. The wind brushed past my ears impatiently as I wound down the car windows to see clearly the place where thousands of people who are now either dead or displaced once called home. The vast expanse of nothingness demanded from our imagination what life must have been for them when Boko Haram invaded.

Yakura said it felt strange travelling back home to Banki at her uncle’s request and seeing all the destruction on her way there. Fear rattled her teenage heart as she struggled to keep calm. But before she could muster the courage to take what could have been a fate changing decision in retrospect, a call came in from her uncle demanding that Yakura be kept in a strange village. “First I thought we stopped on transit, but little did I know that my uncle was a Boko Haram terrorist.”

Boko Haram Uncle

There are many Boko Haram sympathisers in Northern Nigeria–where more than 70 per cent of the population survive on less than a dollar a day. The terror group started off as a religious institution critical of government corruption and offering “a purer version of Islam.” When it proclaimed itself a terror organisation in 2009 by declaring war on the Nigerian government, the terror group was immediately supported by former members of the religious group. Then came the next tranche of membership through religious teachings that promised a guaranteed entrance to Jannah–Muslim faithful’s ultimate life after death– with virgins waiting to receive men who would commit to Jihad.

These kinds of religious teachings seemed farfetched until I got a rare opportunity to interview a former Boko Haram fighter who is now in military custody. Mustafa Bello belonged to what is now known as the Albarnawi section of the terror group. His personal account cleared my doubts:

“The reason I joined Boko Haram is that they preached to us that if we follow their path we will be rewarded with Paradise. We followed them, they brainwashed us with their teachings and taught us how to use guns during battles on the field. We used to raid villages and towns, kill innocent people and seize their properties by force.”

But theirs was the last group of people who joined for economic reasons. According to a UN report, Boko Haram is able to pay its fighters from funds it receives from international and local donors sympathetic to its cause. The report identified extortion, charity, smuggling, remittances and kidnapping as parts of ways the group is funded. A woman whose husband is still an active fighter told me her husband joined because he could not find a job or support his family of nine children.

It is hard to fact-find how much a Boko Haram fighter earns but similar terror group like ISIS paid fighters between $400- $1,300 a month. They are also given a house, a car, a wife and fuel, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Yakura’s uncle was a paid Boko Haram member who also believes in the group’s cause, offering his niece as a treat. “He held me hostage in his home for almost one year and married me off to a Boko Haram fighter who impregnated me in Sambisa forest.”

I Tried to Escape Many Times

Sambisa forest was once a beautiful game reserve. In the 1970s, about a decade after Nigeria’s independence from Britain, the reserve was used for safaris. It had a large population of leopards, lions, elephants, hyenas. It attracted tourists, some reportedly from neighbouring African countries and a few remaining colonial officials, could observe from cabins or safari lodges. The name of the forest comes from the village of Sambisa which is on the border with Gwoza in the east. The Gwoza hills have peaks of 1,300 metres above sea level and form part of the Mandara Mountains range along the Cameroon-Nigeria border.

We travelled as far as Gwosa on a UNICEF helicopter because the security brief shows we risk running into landmines if we drive from Maiduguri. The undulating mountains with a hue of serene greenery scattered along its rigid edges would have made Gwosa and Sambisa forest Nigeria’s foremost safari destination, now, raking in millions in dollars. But for its new occupants.

In 1991, the government of Borno State incorporated this reserve into the national park of the Chad Basin. But it soon abandoned the project, following the Sambisa takeover by Boko Haram insurgents in February 2013. The animals gradually disappeared, lodges were destroyed and the vegetation were eroded. Finally, Yedseram and the Ngadda Rivers which flows through the forest dried up.

Sambisa forest is now Boko Haram’s stronghold, the Nigerian military’s new frontier of the war on terror and Yakura’s home for four years. Her duty as the second wife was to clean and care for her husband, offering her burgeoning body for sex as many times as required of her. She pondered and planned her escape many times but the vastness of the forest blurred her waning imagination. “I tried everything possible to escape back to my mother, but there was no way to run,” she said. But as fate would have it, Yakura’s husband was killed in a military raid, leaving her with more room to plan her escape. When she finally came up with a plan, it was one that could literally take her breath away.

Boko Haram and the use of female suicide bombers

It turned out Yakura was not the only girl quietly planning to flee Sambisa. Hadiza Yinusa, a girl who married her Boko Haram fighter husband at the age of 14 and followed him to Sambisa, only to lose him to a younger lover, was scheming her way out too. The vastness of the forest gives little room for a sloppy prison break, needless to say if they are caught, they will both be butchered and fed to the vultures. But death, they concluded, was a worthy risk.

The group once spared women and girls, leaving them widowed and fatherless after slaughtering the men right in front of their families for refusing to become members of the group like they did in Bama. Reports of girls randomly missing began making the rounds across villages. Though hardly anyone paid attention until over 200 hundred girls were kidnapped on the night of April 14, a feat that brought the terror group international infamy. There have been several other abductions since then, locals tell me.

Between April 15, 2014, and December 31, 2015, Boko Haram began deploying women and children as suicide bombers, leading to an increase in civilian targeting and resulting in its most lethal and injurious period. The women and girls deployed as suicide bombers often wore hijab to hide explosive devices from victims and the military. These female suicide bombers were able to blend and detonate before anyone could suspect their intent.

It is widely thought that the girls who went missing from the villages are hostages in Sambisa forest and those same girls are now deployed as suicide bombers. Research by Combating Terrorism reveals that from April 11, 2011, to June 30, 2017, Boko Haram deployed 434 bombers to 247 different targets during 238 suicide-bombing attacks. At least 56 per cent of these bombers were women, and at least 81 bombers were specifically identified as children or teenagers.

Hadiza and Yakura watched as girls are strapped with suicide vests by their “husbands,” and after a brief ceremonial talk about meeting again in paradise, leave the camp. Like remotely controlled robots, they walk into the wind, leaving behind memories of their brief existence, each one gone, forever.

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Hadiza is like many teenage girls in northern Nigeria, uneducated and from a poor family. Her parents married her off in exchange for financial security. 43 per cent of girls in Nigeria are married before their 18th birthday. And 17 per cent of underage girls become brides before their 15th, many of them to men the age of their fathers. The practice is prevalent in the North West and East with a combined figure of more than 80 per cent of (out of the 43 per cent) teenage girls becoming child brides.

Child marriage is an open gig in Northern Nigeria, though the constitution opposes it. But the society doesn’t seem to frown at the sight of a girl just reaching puberty going to bed with an adult in his final phase of life under the guise of holy matrimony. The rich and the poor practice it, the former armed with money, the latter with an abridged and delusional version of love. Mothers who raise these girls also subconsciously prepare them for the only life they themselves had come to know. Dressing them up as adults, rubbing lipsticks on their tin lips and kajal on their eyebrows, as early as the age of 5.

Perhaps what’s also aiding this cultural nuisance is the unrestricted birthing spree many northern traditional families are known for. Polygamous by nature, poor or rich, they make babies more than they can keep track of. For the poor, especially the majority of northern Nigeria, sending girls to school is a waste of limited family resources. In Bama village, I met a man who had four wives and 30 children. He’s a farmer who is comfortable enough to feed his family but has fewer resources to give them quality education. This is the substrate that feeds the Boko Haram insurgency–a massively illiterate population of restless young people swayed by extreme religious values. Nigeria currently has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world.

Hadiza is now 21-years old, with two children from her estranged Boko Haram fighter husband. Reflecting on the last seven years of her life, she concludes everything had been a mistake.

“I don’t love him (her husband) anymore and I never want to meet with him again,” she said. After a brief silence, she concluded “what the Boko Haram insurgents are conducting is unethical and immoral, it is not the teaching of Islam. Killing innocent people is not good, they always claim they will go to Paradise but they will not.”

Hadiza and Yakura’s friendship developed over several evenings of concocting detailed escape plans. It was a long shot but a shot still. Even if it means dying with a body shattered by an improvised explosive device, the hours leading to death away from their abductors is all they are counting on. That someone will smell their fear and imagine the weight they are carrying under the colourful hijab which often leaves nothing to see.

On the day they were to be dispatched, the usual “we’ll meet again in Paradise” talks took place but Hadiza and Yakura soon realised they had separate missions when both got loaded on separate vans by their abductors. Their escape plans have gone to ruins now, including whatever months of courage they had both mustered through their friendship. Without a chance to say goodbye, they were driven away in opposite directions.

Hadiza’s abductors took her on a two-hour 36 minutes’ drive all the while strapped with an explosive vest. They drove from Sambisa through Masba, Kama, Konduga, Bama, and Dipchari villages to reach Banki, her mission’s destination. This is not how she imagined her escape would turn out, she tells me. But there are fewer options and previous attempts that did not involve committing suicide had failed.

“We (Yakura and Hadiza) had attempted to escape on severally occasion, but our husbands will always threaten us that if we escape, the soldiers will catch us and kill us. They said the soldiers will slaughter us and eat us,” she said.

When they reached Banki, Hadiza was carefully offloaded from the van. The skies were grey now and the shadow of her abductors hard to trace. Her entire body let out periodic spasms causing her to shiver and almost betraying her commitment to the mission-Jihad. With a little courage left, she listened attentively to the last set of instructions. She would walk into a mosque in Banki town, during prayer time, and detonate her explosives. The flattened button next to an assortment of wires clinging to her chest is all she needs to press, as soon as she reaches her target. She nodded to acknowledge she understands every detail. Her abductors drove off leaving her to carry out her assignment. She walked into the dimly lit street metres away from the destination mosque as the Imam bellowed on the megaphone, his congregation responding in unison “Allahu Akbar.”

It’s Hadiza’s cue. And now she’s in Paradise.

Paradise

Panic. Chaos. Men running in opposite directions. Women cursing and praying under the same breath. The crowd is getting bigger. The praying has stopped. The prayer stopped? Not even in hell. Then, this isn’t Paradise. Not quite. Then who are these people? Hadiza’s thoughts rage as they fade.

The street had been cordoned off now. Military officers bent over her, loosening one button at a time, careful not to detonate the explosives. Half alive, Hadiza was hurled into a van, detached from her IED explosives in a bucket to be studied by the military.

Hadiza regained consciousness in a military hospital where officers doted on her till she fully recovered. After her story checked out, she was moved to a military detention camp where thousands of women and children rescued from the terror group are kept. The location is kept secret for security reasons. In the camp, there are motherless children, some still in need of breastfeeding. There are mothers whose children have gone missing and there are girls like Hadiza, considered minors and without a home to return to. They are fed and clothed here, but their future or the chance to have a dream is not guaranteed. Still, it is a far cry from their hostage situation in Sambisa forest. According to the Nigerian military, up to 30,000 women and children have been freed from Boko Haram since 2016.

It has been four months since Hadiza was transferred to the detention camp. She feels freedom on most days since she can say her prayers aloud and curse the day she took her vows–to be with a husband that derailed her destiny. Except for days like this, idleness and the restlessness of adolescence kicks in. Casting her mind back to the days of captivity and to what the faces of her two boys look like now. Should she run into them someday, she will never know she gave them life.

On a Friday afternoon after prayers, Hadiza saw a rounded figure walk past her room, heading towards the kitchen area for lunch. The image reminded her of Yakura, or was she losing her head now? Perhaps, Allah answered their prayers after all and kept them alive. Or could this finally be Paradise? Because the odds of both girls surviving their mission is not so high. The image made a U-turn as if she forgot something and wanted to hurriedly go get it. Her shoulders squared, revealing a little bulge around her waist. Uhn? Yakura! Hadiza shouted as she made her way to the veranda, both facing each other, for the first time since they were dispatched as suicide bombers.

They hugged and praised Allah. They cried and cursed the men that changed the course of their lives forever. Their reunion was a spectacle to behold as the detention camp stood still for a moment to thank God for their rare luck.

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Yakura was taken to Maiduguri for her own assignment. Her target destination was a market. But since the city is more heavily patrolled by the military than the inner villages, it was easy to hand herself over to the officers. An experience less dramatic than Yakura’s. She received routine medical check-up at the military hospital where she found out about her three months old pregnancy. Yakura had to be detained in a separate military facility, to allow for a full recovery, before transferring her to the same detention camp as Hadiza.

Now under the neem tree together, Yakura’s body curled sideways on a mat and the baby in her growing tummy, six months old now, lay clipped to her lower body. Hadiza sits right next to her, chipping off skin from her fingers. Both looked young and lost but grateful to be alive. When I asked what was next for them, Hadiza said she wished to prove Boko Haram wrong by getting the western education they so vehemently oppose. “I want both Islamic and western education. My husband was able to brainwash me because I had no knowledge then. But now he cannot,” she said.

Would she change her mind for the sake of love and precious gifts? “I will never want to follow that ideology in future. Even if he buys an airplane for me I’ll never want him again.” Her response shut me up for the time being.

When Yakura finally summoned enough courage to respond to my question, she looked me in the eyes, hers pale and said: “my greatest hope is to be reunited with my mother.”

Homecoming

But there was no homecoming for anyone associated with Boko Haram, whether as a slave, wife, mother or surrendered fighter. The community sees them all as an enemy of society. With most communities still reeling from the mayhem unleashed by the terror group, there is a shared feeling of unforgiveness, protectionism and reprisal.

To let Yakura return home is to allow her passage into her own death along with her unborn child, says the military. This is a general situation assessment for thousands of girls still living in the detention camp. In villages nearby, residents are riding their communities of people with ties to Boko Haram. They are burned, lynched, or outrightly discriminated against, in cases where a woman has kids for a fighter. That is why it is not safe for Yakura to return home, the military tells me when I asked why efforts were not made to reunite her with her family.

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I visited a Boko Haram attack survivor and his family in downtown Maiduguri. I had made the trip to get a sense of the rift the war has left in communities. Abubakar Modusheriff is a man in his late 30s. He has a wife and two sons. Unlike most young northern men, he had a decent job as a trader. He sold bags of onions, harvested from farms in Banki and Bama. They are driven in trucks hundreds of miles down South where they are sold at a higher price.

“I had plenty of money to take care of myself and my family,” he said. “I travelled to places, going to market for my day-to-day activities by myself,” Sheriff tells me as he waved his cane ahead of each step to find his way.

But Mr Modusheriff lost all, including his eyesight three years ago when he was robbed by Boko Haram in Maiduguri. He was shot in the face while travelling with other traders to meet customers in a city nearby. Boko Haram ambushed his car, shot everyone, and made away with their money. Only Mr Modusheriff survived.

He spent all of his money on therapy and claimed he had no government support in paying hospital bills. His home now has no semblance of someone that once had enough. I sat quietly by a clay pot used as a water reservoir as I watched him manoeuvre his way around the one-room apartment he shares with his wife and two children. Mrs Modusheriff fed their two sons with a blank emotion that’s hard to read off her face. I asked how she was coping and she seemed to think Allah knows best. She gave birth to her second son after her husband lost his eyes. Her immediate worry was that Mr Modusheriff will never be able to see the boys grow.

She tends to have her worse days when staring at pictures of her husband taken before the attack. Her grief mounts whenever she has to explain to her boys why their father has no eyes, especially to the younger son who has never seen him use them. Mr Modusheriff refused to give in to self-pity. He takes part in a privately run empowerment programme where he’s taught how to make soap, shoes, and bags. This new skill, he says, will help him start a new business so he can support his family.

But he was furious to hear that the government and NGOs are supporting women and children linked to Boko Haram. Mr Modusheriff thinks the government’s priority should be people like him.

“And why is the government helping them? he asked, swiping off flies trying to peck the red membranes of his bare eye socket. “I’m the one who needs help but nobody is helping me. I’m trying to get my life together and feed my family. But if the government thinks this is the right thing to do, then I cannot do anything about it,” he said.

His sentiment is shared by many victims who now roam the streets begging alms, are widowed or homeless. They’ve joined a long list of destitute in a society that’s increasingly populated by them as a result of the insurgency.

Yakura and Hadiza know the society rarely sees them as victims of the war. They would love an opportunity to redefine their destinies but not, they admit, by undoing their experiences. Or in fact by denying them. They are women who lived with Boko Haram and had babies for them; who met their sexual needs when they return from battle; who fed terrorists and made them stronger to fight; none of which they did from the position of strength. “We are victims too,” they said. They both want to raise their children anonymously, hoping their true identity is never revealed. And if it does, that their children are not judged by a situation they could not control.

Now in its tenth year, the Boko Haram insurgency has driven a wedge between the people and their immediate communities, disrupting its cultural norms while quietly re-aligning the core of that society. Distrust, fear, and frustration permeate everyday life, sometimes forcing the average person to resign to self-pity. Still home to thousands, coping with the situation means suspecting every woman and girl, especially those wearing a hijab.

The author, Adesewa Josh, is an international journalist and the founder of Project Smile Africa. Her work spans nearly a decade on issues bordering on Africa’s growth and development, politics and diplomatic affairs, gender issues and refugee crisis.

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