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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Kidnapped, beaten, raped and held for five years: Girls reveal the brutalities of Boko Haram

Boko Haram's repeated attacks have ­paralysed Borno in north-eastern Nigeria for eight years. ­Our reporter spoke to women ­abducted and raped by the vicious insurgents who want to create an Islamic state

Tragedy: Maimuna, with her son Ibrahim (4). Her newborn son, Nuru, died during her escape from Boko Haram. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Tragedy: Maimuna, with her son Ibrahim (4). Her newborn son, Nuru, died during her escape from Boko Haram. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Call for help: Nana (17), pictured with her son, has been rejected by her family since her escape from insurgents. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Cathal McMahon

Cathal McMahon

Maimuna had just turned 17 when Boko Haram came for her.

Heavily armed and travelling in jeeps, the terrorists zoned in on the schoolgirl as she walked home from her part-time job at the university near her home in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

She was earning extra cash each afternoon washing dishes and clothes to help support her 10 siblings before returning for Islamic school in the evening.

Maimuna was relatively old when she was captured - Boko Haram have snatched girls as young as eight from their families.

Call for help: Nana (17), pictured with her son, has been rejected by her family since her escape from insurgents. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Call for help: Nana (17), pictured with her son, has been rejected by her family since her escape from insurgents. Photo: Steve Humphreys

When we meet her more than five years later, Maimuna speaks in almost a whisper. It is difficult to hear her amidst the hustle and bustle of her urban community of Kaleri.

She rubs her wrists where permanent marks have been left by the binds that were used to tie her down while a man, who called himself her husband, raped her.

Boko Haram - loosely translated - means 'Western Education is forbidden' and during an eight-year campaign of terror they have bombed schools, murdered teachers and rampaged through communities.

Aligned originally with al-Qaeda but now linked to Islamic State, the group believe they are on a jihad and have declared a caliphate in areas under their control.

Young unmarried girls have been abducted from their families and given to the fighters. This is in line with an ancient Islamic belief that women captured in conflict are considered "war bounty".

The Chibok mass kidnap

Maimuna was kidnapped in 2012. The world had not fully woken up to the phenomenon of Boko Haram at that stage, so only her family noticed her absence. The global media would finally pay attention two years later when the same group broke into a boarding school in the nearby town of Chibok and kidnapped 276 schoolgirls.

Some escaped over the last three years and others were freed in October. Last month, a further 82 were released as part of a prisoner swap for five Boko Haram fighters.

The Chibok incident is one of dozens of similar outrages committed by Boko Haram. It is not known how many Nigerian women are still being held hostage by the group.

Those who are returned or escape are often treated with suspicion by a government and military who fear they may be acting as spies for the terrorists. Meanwhile, some families want nothing to do with a daughter or sister who has been raped and given birth to the offspring of a fighter.

"After they slapped me, they forcefully took me away," recalls Maimuna. "They took me to a town or village… There were so many girls, there were very young girls also there.

"All of us were packed into one room. They would come and be teaching us prayers every day."

She estimates that around four weeks after her kidnap, she was told she was to marry one of the fighters. "I told them, 'I do not want to be his husband'. I told them: 'Even if I get married, I have to go back to my parents.'

"So they beat me up and tied me. All these scars you see on my hands are where I got injured.

"They tied me up and slept with me, they had relations with me. That was how I became pregnant and now had the baby with them.

"I had no choice but to continue to stay with them."

A plan to escape

Maimuna was treated like a slave.

"Life there, we were not doing anything. We would just sit down and in the morning, these fighters would bring grain for us to cook for them. We would measure water to drink. Sometimes they would bring flour for us to make porridge.

"There was no activity there. We were just sitting down, depending on them for sustenance."

Regular beatings and repeated rapes were also part of the daily routine.

Her first "husband" died after a couple of years and she was then given to another man and she became pregnant again before he too died. Her third husband was also killed but not before she was left with a third child.

By this stage she had already hatched her escape plan and had even found a willing accomplice. In the latter part of 2016, and just two weeks after giving birth to her third child, Maimuna seized her chance.

"There was a day that a fight arose among Boko Haram. They fought among themselves. They now took all of us to another bush and kept us there. All of them went out and that was how I escaped with my three children and the other woman."

For five days they walked through the stifling heat of bush and desert with nothing to eat and stopping only for water when they could find it.

Her newborn baby boy, Nuru, died on the journey.

Maimuna chose to keep going: "When he died I just wrapped him up and laid him under a tree. I couldn't dig a grave to bury him as I already had two children. I decided to leave the child there and continue the journey.

"I felt bad but I was eager to escape because if they found me, they were going to kill me, they were going to kill all of us."

And then, incredibly, they came across a pair of hunters stopped near a riverbank. "We said 'we have escaped from Boko Haram camp and we want to find our way back home'."

Here, the fleeing women got their first taste of the suspicion that would dog them to this day. "The hunters said, 'if you are sincere and you are not suicide bombers,we will take you to soldier camp'. We were brought to the camp and the soldiers examined us to see if we have any explosive device."

Eventually the armed forces believed that they were genuine and the women were brought for medical tests. Sitting in a hospital bed, Maimuna was elated to be finally free. But there was one further cruel surprise. "When they told me I had contracted HIV I didn't know what it was. I thought my world was ending," she says, breaking into tears.

"I didn't know how I could live any more."

Officials asked for details of her family and they then travelled to the Kaleri district in the Mafa Local Government area of Maiduguri. Her father, as head of the family, had the final say on what would become of her. Maimuna's family did welcome her back into their home. She is lucky in many ways.

The 'Bride of Boko Haram'

Nana was abducted from the town of Gwoza at just 14. When she refused to marry a Boko Haram fighter, four men held her down while her new "husband" raped her.

Her first "husband" died in the fighting and Nana, who is now 17, was moved to the Sambisa Forest where she was given to another man.

"I didn't like this man they married me to so I tried to escape. I returned to my father in Gwoza but they caught me and told me they would murder my father.

"They took me back to the second man but I refused to sleep with him. Four of them held me down and he forced himself on me, he raped me."

She eventually broke free after three years in captivity but the then heavily pregnant teenager was met with a family who didn't want to know her.

"When I came to my elder sister she told me I was not welcome in her home because I was carrying Boko Haram's baby. They would call me a 'Bride of Boko Haram' and tell me I was not wanted there, I did not feel safe and I was too afraid to return to my village where my father lived because Boko Haram had told me they would kill him if I returned to his house."

Another sister in Maiduguri did allow her to stay and here she gave birth to a baby boy. However, her brother-in-law is not happy.

"He tells my sister that he doesn't want me in the house. He says he will divorce my sister if I do not leave the house."

"Their communities will reject them quite often and will reject their children," said Rachael Lumley, Education Support Officer with Plan International Ireland. "They will face lots of stigmatisation and discrimination. Added to that is the fact that, if they are school-going age, they struggle to get back into school because they have a child."

The NGO intervention

Maimuna and Nana are getting some support from NGOs like Plan.

"When I came back, I was always thinking about my life, sometimes I felt like dying," Maimuna says. "I did not feel like living. When this Plan project came, and when I started participating, I met people that have shared the experience, and I tend to forget some of these problems.

"Now I am living a normal life, especially with the volunteers in the community that have been assisting me. Sometimes they encourage me not to think so much, and with that my life is fine." Maimuna has already shown ability as an entrepreneur. She proudly talks about her plans to make a living for herself.

"I was one of those who benefited from the cash transfer. I got money and I bought chickens. When the birds grew, I sold them and with the money I bought more. I am learning sewing and part of the money I got from the cash transfer, I deposited for a sewing machine.

"As I am selling the birds, I am saving the money so that I can get the sewing machine. I am also sewing caps that I can sell."

Her daughter, Ramlah, has since died and she has been left with her last surviving child - a four-year-old boy. Ibrahim, who spent his first four years in the Boko Haram camp, was visibly withdrawn from the other children when Review visited. He clung to his mother throughout. Despite this, he has been enrolled in school and Maimuna is determined that he will get a proper chance at life.

"I can see the future, finally," she says.

Now with a two-month-old baby, Nana is faced with homelessness and has also turned to Plan for help. She has benefited from a cash transfer of N29,000 (€82) and is using the money to set up a business selling beans.

At the height of the fighting, all schools in the Borno region were shut. "The aim of the insurgents is that by destroying the education they are destroying all of the economic hope of the society," Borno's Commissioner for Education Musa Inuwa Kubo explains. "These are people that have lost hope in the society. They don't want to leave anyone to get any hope or fortune in life. That is the essence of the insurgency."

He said more than 500 teachers were murdered by the insurgents while countless others fled.

"We are particularly grateful for agencies coming from far away, particularly those of you from the Republic of Ireland, coming to assist us."

He issued a particular plea to Nigerian expats living in Ireland, and said he has an "expectation" that they will help in the rebuilding efforts.

Plan International Ireland is an independent development and humanitarian organisation that advances children's rights and equality for girls. Plan Ireland is responding to the crisis in Nigeria with child protection, livelihoods and education programmes. See Plan.ie

Boko Haram: A brief history

Who are they?

The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”.

Boko Haram was founded in Maiduguri (Borno’s capital) by Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf in 2002; its aim was to create an Islamic state under Sharia law.

When did the uprising start?

In 2009 Boko Haram carried out a spate of attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Maiduguri. The military hit back and hundreds of insurgents were killed while thousands of residents fled the city. The group’s headquarters was seized and Yusuf was killed. Security forces declared Boko Haram defeated.

What happened next?

Boko Haram regrouped under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau. In 2013, it was declared a terrorist organisation by the US after it emerged that it had developed links with other militant groups such as al-Qaeda.

In Borno state, the group used motorcycles to carry out attacks on police, politicians, Christians and even Muslim clerics who criticised them. Schools became a particular target. For a while the government took the decision to close all schools in Borno.

Why are they abducting young girls and boys?

Young men are coerced into joining the group with the promise of money, guns and “wives”. Young unmarried girls are abducted from their families and given to the fighters.

What about the fight back?

The military began to make advances and by 2016, many areas previously under the control of Boko Haram were seized by the army. In August 2016, the group apparently split and a number of those abducted started returning to their families. President Muhammadu Buhari has declared that Boko Haram “practically defeated”.

What is happening now?

Boko Haram has shown an ability to adapt and adopt new strategies in its jihad and it has recently turned to suicide bombers.

Its  preferred bombers are young girls. In many cases the bombs are poorly constructed and they kill only the carrier. But this may change.

Pictures by Steve Humphreys

Indo Review

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