Female suicide squads leave trail of carnage
Boko Haram drugging young African women and girls before sending them out to kill civilians, writes Aislinn Laing
Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30
When Halime was a little girl, she used to accompany her father when he went fishing on Lake Chad. After hours spent plying its narrow, reed-fringed channels, they would gather enough fish to sell at the lakeside market in the nearby town of Bol.
At Christmas last year, Halime, now 19, returned by canoe to the same market. Only this time, she had a bomb strapped around her waist.
Civil defence volunteers spotted her and seven other girls as they approached, prompting two to detonate their suicide belts. Halime had no time to trigger hers: the blasts ignited by her neighbours blew off her legs.
The girls were among an army of suicide bombers -possibly in the hundreds -mobilised by Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist group, to inflict bloodshed throughout the region.
Having lost its grip on swathes of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram has switched tactics to focus on suicide attacks often conducted by women or children as young as seven. Their bombs are hidden underclothing or disguised as babies on their backs.
Lying on a filthy mattress in a hospital room in Bol, Halime was emaciated and her skin pockmarked with sores and scars. "Are you police?" she asked.
"I'm hungry. I need soap to wash."
Speaking in a high-pitched whisper, she told of growing up in a Chadian village on the edge of the lake where Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon meet.
"My father was a fisherman," said Halime. "I used to go on the boat with him to market."
When asked how she lost her legs and what she understood about Boko Haram, Halime turned her face away.
"She is talking now, it's a big improvement," said Joel Konayel Belem, who works for a Chadian government organisation trying to reunite families who were scattered throughout the region while trying to escape Boko Haram.
"When she first arrived she would smear herself with faeces so no one would come near her."
Mr Belem said that Halime probably left her village of her own accord before joining Boko Haram, but was drugged to carry out her suicide mission. "We are trying to get her father to take her home but at first he rejected her," he said. "Everyone is frightened of being associated with those people."
In 2014, Boko Haram was ranked as the deadliest terrorist group in the world, killing over 6,600 people, compared with the 6,100 who died at the hands of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), according to the Global Terrorism Database.
As many as 2.5 million people have fled the ravages of Boko Haram for displacement camps in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. At least 4,500 people fled across Lake Chad to the town of Baga Sola where today they live in a tented camp.
Even here, they are not entirely safe. Last October, 52 people were killed when two women and a child attacked Baga Sola's market.
Inside the market, Ndgara Salta Bintu, an 11-year-old girl, was a few feet away from one of the bombers and remembers seeing her body rise in the air with the blast.
"When I woke up there were people lying around me and running away. I was scared and tried to get up to run too but I couldn't," she said. Ndgara's right arm had to be amputated and her left arm suffered extensive nerve damage.
Dr Jean Luboya, the regional chief of Unicef, said the drugged and bewildered child bombers, like Halime, were as much victims as those they maimed.
"Many are unaware of what will happen, and even those children who knowingly set off explosives attached to their bodies are too young to be able to make rational decisions about such actions - especially after a process of indoctrination," he said.