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LEFT TO SUFFER (II): From Boko Haram’s Bedroom Plaything To IDP Camps’ Forgotten Citizens

In the second part of this series, IBRAHIM ADEYEMI tells the story of women who regained their freedom from Boko Haram after years of repeated rape in forced ‘marriages’, only to end up hungry, malnourished and abandoned at Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Borno State.

Food — only food — is all Halimah Yaqubu, 42, needs to survive. Any other thing is just a supplement. Seated inside an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Delwa, Borno State, one Tuesday in February, Halimah winks miserably in an eye combat with her shivering son. She dawdles laboriously as she ventures out of her hut to tend to the journalist.

Many women in Borno are being wrecked by hunger after surviving the sexual slavery of the Boko Haram terrorists

For Halimah and her children, food is the greatest need. Her husband, Alhaji Aliyu, is now too old to cater to the family. And her son, Shamsu, who used to be the breadwinner of the family, was hacked down by Boko Haram terrorists in 2014 at his residence in the Konduga area of the state. Shamsu’s gruesome murder happened at a time he was preparing to get married and start a new life.

Four out of Halimah’s eight children are with her in the camp. The other four have all been consumed by the insurgency. The quintet now lives from hand to mouth, solely depending on whatever Halimah gets from daily begging and scavenging.

Poor Halimah Yakubu

“If not for this interview, I’ll have gone out to beg,” she says at the start of the conversation. “My kids are hungry, and they’ve had nothing to eat today. Give me food and I’ll be fine.”

CALLOUS MONSTERS

Many women in Borno are being wrecked by hunger after surviving the sexual slavery of the Boko Haram terrorists. Boko Haram’s intentions are known to all: kill for fun, maim for pleasure, kidnap for sexual slavery and ransom. In northeastern Nigeria, the Islamist group has established a savage campaign of rape and sexual slavery that has ruined lives and damaged homes. Thousands of girls and women have been captured and forced into marriages and cruelly indoctrinated, with those to have rebelled among them killed in cold blood.

An aeriel view of Delwa IDP camp, Borno

Now in its eleventh year, the conflict continues to distort the lives of tens of thousands of children, women and men. As of 2019, 1.8 million Nigerians — majority of them from Borno State — had fled their homes and had become internally displaced. Eighty percent of internally displaced people are women and children, and one in four are under the age of five, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, women and girls who refuse to convert to Islam are subjected to physical and psychological abuse, forced labour, forced marriage to their captors, sexual abuse, rape and forced participation in military operations, including carrying ammunition or luring men into ambush. In addition, they are made to cook, clean, and perform other household chores.

But the torture does not end with the captors. Women and girls who spend time in captivity are nailed and tamed; they’re called different names such as “Boko Haram wives,” “Sambisa women,” and “Boko Haram blood”.

This animated stigmatism reveals fears that the victims’ exposure to the terrorist group could spread to others. People still strongly hold the belief that these girls and women were brainwashed and radicalised while in captivity, and that they might recruit others if allowed to reintegrate into their communities.

Now, many of the women have narrowly escaped slavery; some of them were rescued in a series of Nigerian military operations that dislodged the insurgents from some of the territories in their control. However, there have only been few joyous family reunions for the victims.

‘I’M PAINED THAT THEY KILLED MY FAMILY BUT DIDN’T KILL ME’

Even when she giggles, tears stroll down Aisha Ali’s face. It is evening on a Tuesday at the Bakassi IDP camp. Pariah children play noisily round the camp while Aisha gently sits inside her shattered shelter. She wears a blank look and speaks in a full monotonous voice.

Boko Haram Insurgency
30-year-old Aisha Ali at the Bakassi camp

The 30-year-old is bereft of the joys of womanhood but she believes it is pointless to sob every day, thus her occasional smiles.

The Boko Haram crisis has taken everything from her, including her father, mother and other siblings.

“What pains me the most is how they killed everybody but refused to kill me,” she laments. “They’ve destroyed everything and everyone I have. They burnt our people and bombed our homes.”

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Aisha was told to choose between marrying a terrorist and enslavement that comes with torture. She was caught between a rock and a hard place.

A village in Gwoza

“When Boko Haram captured Gwoza, we spent eight months with them. When they heard that the Nigerian soldiers were coming, they took us all into the bush,” she recalls.

Aisha’s moments of torment came five months after she was abducted by the terrorists. She was battered for refusing to marry a terrorist.

“They asked why we didn’t want to marry them and we insisted we were not ready to marry. Then they said we were refusing to marry them because we had the plan to escape. We told them we had no such plans. They tried to persuade us into marriage but we insisted we wouldn’t, so they made us their slaves. We worked for their wives, we swept and washed their clothes and utensils.”

AN UNWANTED PREGNANCY AND ITS UNFORTUNATE LOSS

Swallowing the rulings of the terrorists became impossible, says Aisha. There was too much of torture, force and hardship.

One drizzling evening, Aisha and other women were almost falling asleep when some gunmen invaded their jagged hut. It was time for them to get married, whether they liked it or not.

“They brought some men and asked us to pick our husbands amongst them. They said if we didn’t marry them, we would escape. We told them we weren’t going to escape, that we had nowhere to go. But they wouldn’t listen.”

But then, one year into the forced marriage, their husbands went to war and most of them never made it back. Aisha’s husband fell into the unlucky category. Sometime later, the women were brought another set of men to marry. They did.

“I was forced to marry a second man named Abdullahi. I was with him for five years and he got me pregnant. But I lost the pregnancy as a result of running helter-skelter from one bush to the other as the soldiers kept attacking. There were times I hardly drank water; that was how I lost the pregnancy.”

FROM SAMBISA TO DRINKING SANDY GARRI

At times, they give us sandy garri without water

Another turbulent day in Sambisa Forest, the sky was cloudy and there was a violent wind. There were air strikes too. Nigerian soldiers had invaded the bush to fight the terrorists. Everybody was on the run.

Aisha and other women in the bush ran for their dear lives until they found a village that was familiar to one of them.

“We kept running until we found ourselves in Gwoza. We were there with the soldiers for one week. Then we were taken to Giwa Barrack; we spent two years and three months in the barrack before we were brought to this IDP camp,” she says. “Now, we are here doing nothing. I have a card for food but the food is not sufficient at all. At times, they give us sandy garri without water.”

SALAMATU, THE 16-YEAR-OLD ‘WIFE’ OF THREE BOKO HARAM FIGHTERS

One day,” she recalls “they came and said they were going to marry me out. I told them I was too small for marriage but they forcefully did it. They took me to Sambisa, where I was married to three different Boko Haram members.”

Salamatu Musa is not alone at the Bakassi IDP Camp yet she feels so lonely. The 16-year-old girl loves to work and walk in isolation, every time and doesn’t like to talk to anyone, not even her neighbours.

Salaamtu Musa, 16-year-old who married three Boko Haram terrorists

Some three months ago when she arrived at the camp, other internally displaced persons like her had thought she was deaf and dumb.

“I really don’t like to talk to people; I’m always scared, especially when I see men around,” she says, somewhat shyly.

Her anti-social behaviour is a reflection of her terrifying encounters with the insurgents who enslaved her for five years.

“It haunts me; it’s really hard to forget!” she sobs.

SEPARATED FROM PARENTS AT 11, REPEATEDLY RAPED BY 13

Although Salamatu is now free from captivity, the young girl believes she is not free. “I don’t feel free at all. I don’t know anyone here. I don’t know where my people are — whether they’re dead or alive. I don’t know.”

Salamatu Musa

Her plight isn’t slight in any way. As young as she is, Salamatu’s sexual world has been cruelly invaded. She was only 11 when terrorists raided their village in Gwoza and pillaged it, capturing them in their hundreds.

At the age of 12, while with the terrorists, her virginity was taken from her in a gang rape masterminded by four insurgents. By 13, she was already accustomed to repeated sexual assault, most times at gunpoint. But the terrorists weren’t just content with raping her; they would soon force her to marry them.

AN ARROW OF SORROW

Salamatu’s teenage years did not spare her the arrow of sorrow shut by the brutal Boko Haram fighters.

“One day,” she recalls “they came and said they were going to marry me out. I told them I was too small for marriage but they forcefully did it. They took me to Sambisa, where I was married to three different Boko Haram members.”

At Sambisa Forest, she was forced to do almost everything, including getting married to Usman, a Boko Haram fighter. Three months later, Usman, like many before him who had forced themselves on innocent abductees, went on a suicidal mission and never returned. Thereafter, Abu Lukman, another insurgent who would die gruesomely in battle with Nigerian soldiers one year later, forced himself on her. Her third Boko Haram forced husband, she says, was Hannan.

“I was forced into sexual intercourse with the three husbands,” she recounts. “But I never got pregnant. One day, I escaped while they went for evening prayers; we kept trekking until we were lucky to meet soldiers took us to Polka. My brother came to fetch us from there to Maiduguri.”

‘HELP, THIS HOUSE IS FALLING!’

“The government has forgotten us here,” says Maryam

Back in Delwa camp, Maryam Bukhar dwells in a shattered shelter built with a tattered tent in what appears like a house standing on the rubbles of a war zone. Therein, a whole family — mother, father and four children: Hafsat 4, Hauwa 6, Ali 8 and Moudu 20 months — are crammed.

Maryam Bukhar’s falling house where the entire family dwell

“I’m always afraid that this house will fall one day. Whenever it drizzles, we’re always beaten by rain. And at night, we squat around with our neighbours.”

The single-room tarpaulin house, about six feet by 10 feet, is shabbily filled with domestic items — plates, buckets and flimsy mat and mattress — all scattered round the little space. The noisy voices of children can be heard through the walls separating her shack from her neighbour’s.

“Yesterday, I still repaired one of the deteriorating pillars of the house with a bamboo tree, but that’s not enough. I really need help. This house is falling,” she says.

A TALE OF HUNGER AND ANGER

Meanwhile, Ali Bukhar, the eldest child of the family, is furious. The previous day, he had trekked miles under the scorching sun of Borno to scavenge for what the family would feed on. Maryam, the mother, had run out of vigour — and patience. She begged her son to go begging for food.

Whenever Ali doesn’t, all of them will not have food on their table.

Maryam Bukhar

“The little he brought for us yesterday is what we all fed on today. Please. Please help me talk to him, Maryam cries out.

“No, I won’t go,” the son replies. “Yesterday, when I went to beg for food, I suffered too much. The flaming sun burned my leg. I don’t want to go today.”

For four days now, Usman Bukhar, father of the family, has not been seen. His wife says he went to fend for the family. But here, in their temporary home at Delwa, his wife and children are dying of hunger.

Six years ago, the Boko Haram fighters had pillaged their village at Kuwayangeya, a community several miles away from Maiduguri town.

Now, at the informal IDP camp at Delwa, the 30-year-old mother of four and her children are dying of thirst and malnutrition.

The camp itself smells of stench that suggests it is an abode of the forgotten citizens of the community. Really, inhabitants of the camp consider themselves to be of no importance in the scheme of things.

“The government has forgotten us here,” says Maryam.

True. Delwa is one of the informal IDP camps deserted by the government and even non-governmental organisations. Only 20% of these poor individuals are housed in and around Maiduguri. The others have melded into host communities where they live in uncompleted buildings or shacks set up in open fields, a report by GRANTA stated.

According to another report detailed by OCHA, insecurity due to the insurgency has led to waves of mass displacement and has continued to impact humanitarian operations. Vast swaths of Borno State are considered high or very high risk for international humanitarian actors, often constraining access to desperately vulnerable communities. An estimated 823,000 people remain inaccessible to humanitarian actors.

TOO MUCH FOR NGOs To HANDLE ALONE

But Umar Grema, a top official of Borno Women Development Initiative, a non-governmental organisation prioritising women and children in the state, says an advisory group comprising camp management, in-camp religious leaders and community leaders is doing its best to look after victims of insurgency, particularly vulnerable women and their kids.

“These IDPs are being divided into different zones, and each zone has its own leader whom we will refer to as Bulama. We bring them together with our religious leader as our advisory groups,” he says.

“The advisory groups can then come when an issue that cannot be addressed by our peer group arises. Issues like this are mostly religious inclined, some are culturally related. So we tried to bring them together for sensitisation and advice on how to solve the problem and survive in the camp, despite their plights.”

He concedes, though, that NGOs alone cannot solve the problems. Therefore, they collaborate with camp officials to achieve their goals.

He also says that the organisation is working with other Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to advocate for peaceful co-existence amongst the internally displaced people.

WE’RE ALL WITNESSES TO THEIR TEARS’

“The government in Borno state is not irresponsible,” says Taminu Tahir, Senior Special Assistant on Media to Governor of Borno State, Prof. Professor Babagana Umara Zulum, while discussing the government’s efforts plans for displaced persons.

Borno State Governor

“There is no one who will say the life in Sambisa Forest is better than being in a conventional peaceful society where the government is making them safe,” he says.

“We’re all witnesses to their tears. Professor Zulum is doing everything possible to reduce the hardship of Boko Haram insurgency victims. The government is making aggressive plans to restore social and economic activities in affected communities.”

It is the kind of confident talk that gives hope to violated women such as Halimah and Salamatu. “May that day come in my lifetime,” the latter says, with Aisha adding: “Let’s hope this isn’t cheap talk.”

Editor’s note: All photos are taken with the consent of all the subjects involved. 

In case  you missed the first part of this series, you can read at the link below: 

LEFT TO SUFFER (I): Boko Haram Rapists Impregnated Them. Now, They Love and Hate their Children at the Same Time

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