In an impoverished region of Nigeria, women have lost their husbands, been forced into slavery by militants and then raped by soldiers who were sent to save them.
Fatima sits cross-legged on the floor of a room in an unfinished apartment building in Dalori camp for displaced people in the city of Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state. The joyous sound of children playing out in the rain mixes with the pitter-patter of the rain on the roof.
The room has an uncovered ceiling and its corners are dotted with empty cans of milk and malt drink and cooking pots. Rainwater trickles from the chinks in corrugated zinc sheets, which cover the windows. Fatima covers herself with an overall head-to-toe veil, which also works to keep her warm in the cold.
“Bama was peaceful, and we had a good life with a lot of food and [profitable] trade,” the 30-year-old mother of one, tells TRT World.
That changed in May 2013, when the radical militant group Boko Haram attacked the town of Bama, some 70 kilometres from Maiduguri.
What was once a boisterous commercial hub and Borno’s second-largest town, morphed into a hotbed for bloodshed, arson, firefight, and later – heart-rending stories of loss, ruin and deprivation.
Boko Haram started an insurgency in 2009 to create a so-called Islamic state in the region. So far, the conflict has not only displaced more than two million people, but it has also killed at least 20,000.
Populations in the region are vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings. Some 7.7 million people – half of whom are children – in the worst-affected northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.
Fatima is just one of the many needy, her fate tied to how much food and financial assistance she can get from international agencies and NGOs. Life, she says, “was not like this” when “Bura was by my side.”
‘Life was hard under Boko Haram’
Fatima’s husband Bura was a tailor and farmer. He was “full of energy,” she says, flashing a wide grin. But Boko Haram’s increasing attacks in and around Bama made the Nigerian military suspicious of residents.
One day, in July 2013, soldiers and the the state-sponsored vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), gathered many men, including Bura, in the market for screening.
Some 98 of them were taken to nearby military barracks for interrogation. Fatima took Bura’s ID card to the barracks, but by then he had been transferred to Giwa Barracks, a notorious detention facility in Maiduguri.
“I never saw him again,” Fatima says.
Then in early September 2014, the insurgents seized Bama and made the town its headquarters.
Life under Boko Haram’s control was, says Fatima, “hard and full of restrictions” on movement. Women were not allowed to leave their homes – not even to get food, fetch water, go to the farm or market and to earn their livelihood. Farming and trading crumbled.
Women who flouted this rule say they were flogged. Residents could not leave the town. Townspeople were executed for breaking the radical group’s rules.
Boko Haram’s reign of terror left many families in fear. Its members gave women a “deadline of one month” to marry or “we would come and marry you,” Fatima recalls the insurgents telling them. Militants from the group began to visit her home, asking her to marry them.
Fatima sought out men in her own town and settled for Bukar.
“He was above 50 years, but at least he was a better choice for me than Boko Haram [members],” she says.
Many women and girls were forcibly married to the terrorists. Parents who hesitated to marry off their daughters were punished.
Girls and women who went into these marriages suffered rape and restrictions. Only those engaged in domestic chores and Quran classes were allowed outside their homes. To complain was to ask for death, torture or lashings.
Soldiers continued to conduct counter-insurgency operations. The Nigerian armed forces recaptured Bama in March 2015 as Boko Haram lost control of more and more towns.
After an announcement on radio asking displaced people to come to Bama, Fatima and her husband Bukar trekked for a whole day back to the town. At the entrance, the military searched them, their belongings and “put clothes on our faces,” she said.
“The soldiers and CJTF flogged our men. Sometimes you will see a man shouting like a child,” she says, wincing at the memory.
“They searched my husband and saw around 50,000 naira ($150) in his pocket and they said ‘how will you be in the bush and have this kind of money?’ They tied him with a rope and told him to agree that he’s Boko Haram. But he refused and they took him and other men to a separate room,” Fatima said.
After four days, the men were allowed to bathe and change their clothes. “The next morning we saw other men and my husband with clothes tied around their face.” She draws a circle around her face with her hand to explain.
These men were loaded onto a truck and transferred to Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri.
“This is the second time my husband would be taken away from me,” Fatima says with a sigh. “First it was Bura, now Bukar.”
Both men are among some 20,000 people who were “arbitrarily arrested” by the Nigerian military mostly on suspicion of being a Boko Haram member, according to a 2015 report by Amnesty International.
Sexual abuse in displacement camps
In late 2015, the military started establishing informal settlements known as satellite camps to host displaced people.
The Bama General Hospital, which was battered by the insurgents, was converted into a camp. Fatima and over 15,000 people moved to the site. Displaced people from neighbouring towns and villages also came to live with them.
The military controlled the camp alongside the civilian militia or CJTF. No international humanitarian aid had come to the people yet.
Famine-like conditions left children severely malnourished. Hunger was rife. Women sold their jewellery and clothes to officials for food.
Dozens of people died every day, a handful of women told TRT World. Security officials latched on the chance and offered women food in exchange for sex. And, in some cases, raped women who refused to take this offer, the women say.
Fatima’s height and shapely figure made her stand out.
One day a soldier offered her food and asked a member of the CTJF – whose name Fatima vividly remembers – to follow her and see where she stayed in the camp. Thereafter, Fatima says that a military van delivered coolers full of rice and beans twice. On the third occasion, the same soldier came with the van and announced before the five other women who shared the tent with her: “I want to marry you.”
“I told him ‘you know my husband and you flogged him and detained him, how can I marry you,’” she said.
“Then he told me: ‘Anybody who is taken to Giwa Barrack is not coming back again. You have to take your mind away from him.’
Giwa Barracks, a detention facility in Maiduguri, has gained notoriety following the Nigerian military's imprisonment of thousands of people accused of being Boko Haram members. Most of them were rounded up during military counterinsurgency operations.
Amnesty International called the military detention ”a place of death” in a May 2016 report which found that 149 out of about 1,200 people believed to be held at Giwa at that time, had died, including 11 children under the age of five and babies as young as five months old.
The military man returned as often as he wished to rape her, she says. Sometimes when she heard the roar of his van outside the tent, Fatima would run to her room, while other women would go and get the food and “leave me inside alone.”
“I will pretend to sleep and he would come and pull off my clothes and rape me. Sometimes they will take me off in a car to an unknown place and rape me,” she says, her face buried in her palms.
Kellu, 30, and other women in the room smile and banter as Fatima recounts her experience, their pain buried underneath their cheerful exterior. All the eight women TRT World interviewed shared similar stories of sexual exploitation.
“People, especially children, died from hunger and sickness. Everybody was hungry, so when you take the food you must sleep with them [security officials] in the night,” Kellu, a mother of three, launching into an angry tirade.
“Our children were dying. Hunger forced us to accept the food.”
But Kura barely joins the women when they banter. She looks detached, her pain etched on her weathered face. It is present in her sunken eyes, sober expression and unwillingness to look up.
“If we don’t accept [the food], our children will die,” 20-year-old Karu says. “In my family [alone], we lost 15 in Bama hospital camp, including my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and some of my husband’s children [from another wife].”
A survey by Nigerian research organisation NOI Polls in late 2016 found that 85 percent (around nine in 10) of displaced people lacked access to healthy food and regular meals.
The situation only got better in June 2016 when the Borno state government increased food aid to people living in satellite camps like Bama, and evacuated thousands of vulnerable and sick people.
More importantly, a team from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) visited Bama. It highlighted the plight of displaced people such as Fatima by calling for a concerted aid response. In late June 2016, MSF warned that Borno state was on the verge of a “humanitarian catastrophe” where half a million people were in “urgent need of food, medical care, water, and shelter.”
More aid trickled in. UN humanitarian agencies got busier. NGOs expanded their operations. Fatima and other people in the camps began to hope again. Some of them were even moved to Maiduguri for treatment.
Evidence and denials
A 2016 report by the Human Rights Watch documented cases of sexual abuse of 43 women and girls by government officials and other authorities in displaced camps in Maiduguri, including testimonies of victims who said they were drugged and raped and coerced into sex through false marriage promises and other assistance.
Amnesty International stepped in again, this time with a damning report that was widely published around the world in May.
The report, “They Betrayed Us,” claims that women and girls were not only raped by Nigerian soldiers but also starved and forced to take food in exchange for sex.
Displaced women interviewed by the human rights group reported that at least 15 to 30 people died each day in Bama Hospital camp between 2015 and mid-2016 from hunger and sickness. Satellite images showed that the camp’s cemetery expanded during that time, Amnesty says.
Nigerian army spokesman John Agim took issue with the Amnesty report, calling its contents “blanket allegations.”
“In the armed forces, we maintain that we do not condone rape and do not have rapists among us,” Brig General Agim told journalists in Maiduguri in June.
He said the army was not in charge of the distribution of food and other relief materials in displacement camps. “Troops cannot access food that is not in their custody and cannot therefore trade food for sex,” he added.
The army’s denial angers 25-year-old Yikura, who says she was raped in Bama hospital camp and her husband locked up in Giwa Barracks. “If we are lying we can’t come out freely to talk. We cannot create false stories just to make us popular. Our children are growing up without their fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers.”
Isa Sanusi, Nigeria’s media manager for Amnesty International, argues that it is “usual” for the military to dismiss its report “without any efforts to verify our findings.”
“This shows that Nigerian military is not ready to address an issue as grievous as rape of women displaced by Boko Haram conflict,” Sanusi tells TRT World.
“We only insist that justice be done and women and other vulnerable people be protected from abuse by state and non-state actors.”
Since these allegations of rape and sexual exploitation of displaced women and girls started emerging in 2015, authorities have either denied allegations or issued perfunctory calls for investigations.
In October 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari asked the police to investigate sexual abuse documented by the Human Rights Watch. In June 2017, Nigeria’s army chief ordered an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by soldiers in Bama. Within the same period, police in Borno state claimed it deployed 100 female police personnel to oversee camps for displaced people. However, Amnesty International found that there were no female police officers in remote camps.
And recently in August 2017, Nigeria’s vice president Professor Yemi Osinbajo, then acting president, created the Presidential Investigation Panel to review the military’s compliance with its human rights obligations. The panel submitted its report to President Muhammadu Buhari in February 2018, but its findings are yet to be made public.
No further action has been taken until now. Barely any serious measures are in place to protect women and girls from being abused. No one has yet been held to account for the abuses reported.
Silence on the part of humanitarian aid workers is another problem. The humanitarian community has to be “very careful” because they do not want to lose “access to the people they want to help,” says a humanitarian worker and consultant, who does not want to be named.
“People are [also] afraid to complain because they are so reliant on the people abusing them. You can’t tell on the hand that feeds you.”
Fighting for justice
Fatima and Kellu want to turn the tide against their reported abusers and seek the release of their husbands and relatives detained for nearly three years by the military on suspicion of belonging to Boko Haram.
Early last year, they combined forces with human rights defenders as well as hundreds of other displaced women, mostly from Bama, to form the Knifar Movement. The group has grown from an initial 250 members to more than 1,300 women in different refugee camps in Borno state.
The women have compiled a list of the names of 1,230 of their husbands, children and and other relatives under detention in Giwa Barracks. They also produced a list of the names of 466 people they claim died at the Bama Hospital camp between late 2015 and June 2016.
In past year, some detainees have been released by the authorities, but thousands still remain incarcerated, activists and human rights groups say.
To amplify their cause, Knifar Movement has sent a list of the detainees to the National Human Rights Commission. It has created a YouTube video to demand justice, met with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and writtento the National Assembly requesting a public hearing into their plight. It has also testified before the Presidential Investigation Panel set up to investigate cases of abuses committed by the military.
In their letter to the president in March, the aggrieved women wrote, “If the military does have evidence that our relatives are Boko Haram members they should present it to a court of law and charge them.”
Hajja Hamsatu Allamin, a human rights activist in Maiduguri, is the co-ordinator of the group. Official responses to the grievances of the women are anything but “serious,”she says.
“Neither the activists nor the women are saying all Nigerian soldiers are rapists, no. Should there be one soldier reported [for sexual abuse] that soldier should be brought to book. These women need to know that someone cares about their situation.”
Fatima shares similar sentiments.
“We don’t want revenge,” she says.
“All we want is for government to release our husbands without excuses because they are not criminals or terrorists. We just want to let people know that these things happened to us and for the [authorities] to apologise.”