Tuesday 24 October 2017

Special dispatch: 'I didn’t want to remarry but my children needed to eat' - Young mums forced to flee Boko Haram struggle after husbands murdered

Fatima Muhamed (25), a young woman in Bulunkutu, a district in Maiduguri in Nigeria who has been internally displaced because of Boko Haram.
Pic Steve Humphreys
Fatima Muhamed (25), a young woman in Bulunkutu, a district in Maiduguri in Nigeria who has been internally displaced because of Boko Haram. Pic Steve Humphreys
Zainab Yakubu (40), a woman in Bulunkutu Village, a district in Maiduguri in Nigeria who has been internally displaced because of Boko Haram. Pic Steve Humphreys

Cathal McMahon in Maiduguri, Nigeria

Fatima Mohamed and her family were sleeping when Boko Haram attacked their village in North East Nigeria.

The 25-year-old and her husband heard the blood curdling screams as the insurgents rampaged through the village of Domboa, and they knew they had to get their family to safety.

“I put my youngest child on my back and ran with my other children into the bush.

“I didn’t know where my husband ran, he went in a different direction. We were all very scared and when I stopped running, I threw up I was so scared.”

Fatima walked for two days with her four children, stopping only for a short time to rest from the sun.

She recalled: “We didn’t even know if we were walking in the right direction, I just knew we had to keep going to safety."

Eventually she arrived in her parents' house in the the community of Bulunkutu in the city of Maiduguri. The impoverished city is where Boko Haram began in 2002 and has been a flashpoint for attacks since the insurgency kicked off in 2009.

However locals have fought back and today it plays host to approximately one million people like Fatima who have been internally displaced by the fighting.

The young mother explained that she was eventually joined here by her husband. And although her parents could barely afford to have her stay with them in their small home, they agreed because Fatima’s husband was earning some money so could contribute to the household.

But disaster struck shortly after they arrived to safety - Fatima’s husband was a victim of a Boko Haram bomb attack in Maiduguri. The Islamists have used young children to carry out suicide bombs in crowded areas.

“My husband went to fetch us some food in the local market when Boko Haram attacked the village. There was a bomb explosion and my husband was helping those who were injured. They attacked the village for a second time shortly after and my husband was killed.”

The death of her husband meant that Fatima and her children were now a problem for her parents. They told her she was no longer welcome in their home as she could not provide for her children.

“They told me I had to remarry. I didn’t want to but my children needed to eat so I got married a second time.”

However Fatima’s second husband would not accept her children from her previous marriage, and after just 18 months he divorced her, while she was six months pregnant.

“Now I live alone with my children. I make hats to sell so I can pay my rent but I cannot afford to send my children to school. I do not know how I will feed my other child when I give birth. I am grateful I am still alive, and my children are still alive but I miss my husband. My younger children do not know their father. He should not have died.”

In the same urban community Zainab Yakubu (40) is also struggling to survive as a widow in the male dominated society.

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Zainab Yakubu (40), a woman in Bulunkutu Village, a district in Maiduguri in Nigeria who has been internally displaced because of Boko Haram. Pic Steve Humphreys

She was travelling home with her husband Idirisa Shehu to the village of Kiranawa after a day selling fish when they saw Boko Haram arrived on motorcycles. They hid for several hours but were eventually caught by the insurgents.

Boko Haram, which loosely translated means 'Western Education is forbidden', were founded in 2002 and have staged a series of attacks in North Eastern Nigeria and around the Lake Chad region since 2009.

In 2014 they were catapulted to global infamy when they kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a boarding school in the Borno state town of Chibok. However countless other women have also been kidnapped, forced to marry Boko Haram fighters and kept as slaves by the group.

Because Zainab was already married and had borne nine children she was not considered "useful" by Boko Haram.

“They made us lie down, there were three women including me, among them. They left the women go. They said they wanted us to bring the message back to the village.

“But all the men, they asked them to lie down. They shot them, including my husband, dead. I did not see this but we we were told this afterwards”

Fearing for her own safety Zainab left Kiranawa with her nine children – aged from three to 18 - and joined the hundreds of thousands flooding into Maiduguri.

She is living in Bulunkutu where she plans to stay, despite having a home and land in Kiranawa.

“I need education of my children. All of my children are in school with the exception of two.”

Zainab has not remarried. She admits she is still traumatised by the death of her husband.

“Up to now I am still disturbed, I am not settled. Also I have children to take care of so I am not thinking of marrying again.”

Paul O'Brien, CEO of Plan International Ireland, said communities like Bulunkutu have opened their doors and homes to many internally displaced people but this is putting huge pressure on basic services like water and electricity.

He explained that through cash transfers, livelihoods and child safe space projects the Non Government Organisation (NGO) is helping women like Fatima and Zainab survive in the difficult environment.

Plan International Ireland is an independent development and humanitarian organisation that advances children's rights and equality for girls. If you would like to find out more or support Plan International see plan.ie.

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