The recently uncovered Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed caliphate in northeastern Nigeria was a savage campaign of rape and sexual slaver. Thousands of girls and women were captured against their will and subjected to forced marriages and relentless indoctrination. Every evening they waited in thatched huts in the middle of the forest for their rapists to return. Death was their only hope of escape as even the youngest among the women was eight years old. Those who resisted were shot and with fear they all had to cooperate with their abductors.
However, many of the women were rescued by the Nigerian military who dislodged the extremist Islamist group from most of the territory it controlled. Although most of these women have reunited with their families, some of them no longer have homes to go back to, as their cities were burnt to the ground. The military has quietly deposited them in displacement camps or abandoned buildings, where they are monitored by armed men suspicious of their loyalties These women are now tagged “Boko Haram wives.”
While the country wailed over the abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, one would assume that these other kidnapped women that were rescued would be warmly welcomed and treated with so much love and care. Instead, they are neglected to wallow in pain, misery and stigmatization.
For seven months, Hamsatu, now 25, and Halima, 15, were among Boko Haram’s sex slaves, raped almost every day in the remote Sambisa Forest. Now rescued, they currently live in a narrow, white tent in a displacement camp, with empty cement bags sewn together serving as their curtain. The women spoke on the condition that their full names were not used in order to freely describe their experiences. According to Halima, whenever she leaves the tent to get food for the two of them, people living in the camp scowl at her and avoids her like a plague.
She said recently an older woman spat at her and said “You’re the one who was married to Boko Haram,” while a guard said she can’t be trusted. This dismissal must have erupted when about 39 of 89 Boko Haram suicide bombings were carried out by women, and according to UNICEF, twenty-one of those female attackers were under the age of 18, and are suspected to be among the kidnapped girls converted into assassins.
However, the innocent ones like Halima now bear the grunt from people around her locality. Hamsatu, who was kidnapped 18 months ago and released after she got pregnant, said people are also skeptical about associating with her, especially because she still cares for the baby of her captor. Hamsatu, and Halima were among the other women who were captured from their home city of Bama, near the Cameroonian border in September 2014 by Boko Haram fighters. Many of the 350,000 residents managed to flee, the male civilians who couldn’t escape were killed and thrown in mass graves.
Hamsatu, Halima and 25 other women were moved by the militants from home to home and then forced to travel on foot and on the backs of motorcycles to the Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram had set up camps for their sex slaves. The ladies’ were raped on daily basis and it happened like that even when they eventually realize they were with child. These men had wild appetite for sex and violence. They also believed that any child they father would grow to inherit their ideology.
Severally, Hamsatu had attempted to escape, but was caught and returned by guards. After a while, the pregnancy slowed her and she stopped trying. Then came the Nigerian military; it hardly felt to the women like a rescue operation. Soldiers burned the huts while women were still inside and shot wildly at everyone, killing several women.
Most people, including the government still see most of the rescued women as suspects. They watch their every move and treat them as low lives, with no shelter, good food or hospitality. Unlike most of the world’s refugee or displacement camps, which are run by the United Nations and international aid groups, the camps where Boko Haram’s victims live are administered by the Nigerian military.
The camp at Dalori is secured by an army captain who stands by the front gate. Visitors are patted down. A poster of high-level Boko Haram suspects hangs on the perimeter wall of the camp. Aid workers need military permission to enter the camps. Some women who lived under Boko Haram are occasionally hauled off to a military base for questioning, and then returned. Even local relief workers worry that the women they have been sent to help might be concealing loyalties to their Boko Haram abductors.
Although there are few signs the situation will improve. Many international aid organizations won’t work in the north because of the continued insecurity. The government once opened a deradicalization center to help re-integrate the former victims, but it closed late last year, after admitting only 311 people. However, some of the women attend group therapy sessions in a tent that says “Safe Place for Women and Girls,” ones every week. All they are asking for is a life that was stripped off from them months/years ago.