Many Nigerian women who were once married to Boko Haram fighters are navigating their trauma, though by not denying their experiences. They also want to raise their children in anonymity, hoping their true identity is never revealed.
The wind blew in all directions, hurling the cinnamon-hued, powdery dust northern Nigeria is known for, covering Hadiza and Yakura’s hijabs. The girls sat idly under a neem tree, peering into the sky through the leaves that shielded them from the blazing sun. It has become part of their daily routine to lounge around this detention camp where girls like them are kept, for some fresh air and a lone conversation with their soul.
What are the odds that the paths of these two would cross . . . again? Both were married off to fighters of Boko Haram as teenagers. They each lived with their husbands in the Sambisa forest, and as faith would have it, they escaped alive—with undetonated improvised explosive devices strapped around each waist. Instead of blowing themselves up and killing thousands of civilians as instructed, they had surrendered to the Nigerian military.
With a blue hijab wrapped around her head and draped over her shoulder, Yakura’s face was barely exposed, but her fears were evident in the deep contours of her eyes. She looked pale and forlorn, her fingers restless as though she was praying to the gods to change the day that changed her life forever; to bring back the norm of her not-too-distant childhood that was defined by little but love and togetherness with her siblings.
Yakura lived with her family in a village in northern Nigeria called Banki, a neighbourhood of mud huts and thatched roofs. Men would clutch their transistor radio to their ears with one hand, while the other did whatever else was needed. The women and girls walked together in groups and children played in the sand. The once-bustling trading hub, known for the finest sundried tomatoes, bell peppers, meat, and other livestock, attracted traders from far and near, including neighbouring countries like Chad and Niger. All of that was wiped out shortly after Boko Haram launched armed attacks in 2009.
Yakura, her mum, and siblings all ran for safety when gun shots came barrelling down from the skies, letting out such a deafening sound that it disrupted decades of accumulated quiet. Boko Haram rounded-up the men from each household. On their knees, the men were asked to raise their hands in total surrender to the guns pointed at them. The fighters were seeking allegiance to the group’s cause, which has since included the creation of a Caliphate and the toppling of the Nigerian government. Men who refused were summarily executed in what has become Boko Haram’s signature style.
“My father was one of the men killed on the day Boko Haram attacked our village,” Yakura said, her eyes fixed on the mat she sat on. She traced the edges of the mat, back and forth, staring blankly.
The women, suddenly widowed, fled on foot, some ran as far as the eyes could see. Some were bleeding through the trauma. Boko Haram never used to do much with the women and girls except delight in their misery, but as the number of widowed women and fatherless children grew in northern Nigeria, the group found a new purpose for the lot—abducting them to be used for sex slavery and suicide bombings.
Yakura’s mother had heard about girls disappearing after Boko Haram attacks and to protect her teenage daughter, she made a decision to send her off to a safer place. “My mother sent me to Kusiri, a nearby village in neighbouring Cameroon, to live with my relatives because of the fear of abduction,” Yakura said. This maternal instinct had inspired a brave decision, but patriarchy required her to do otherwise. She had to retire her good judgment and wait for the next available man in the family to make a move. In Yakura’s case, her fate was rewritten by a man who should have protected her.
Yakura’s uncle was not a relative she knew very well, and neither did her mother. The man’s claims to legitimate family ties were with the now deceased, and patriarchy demanded that he takes over administration of everything that belonged to the dead. And now, family duty called.
When her phone rang a day after she arrived in Kusiri, Yakura could hardly believe her ears. She was ordered by this man to return to a village that she had fled. “One of my uncles, who was uncomfortable with my mother’s decision, phoned and ordered that I return to Banki.” She said he warned that he would “deal with anybody who opposed his decision. Someone was later sent to bring me back home.”
Patriarchy is typical of the culture in northern Nigeria and there are grave consequences for women who defy it. When a man dies, his widow is passed on to the next man in line after her late husband. Her opinion on choice is not sought, neither is it important. In a culture where men hold the keys to the society, Yakura’s mother’s unilateral decision to protect her children is seen as nonconforming. And so she surrendered logic and instinct for the rules of the society, in exchange for the great burden of losing her beloved teenage daughter.
A Strange Village
Everything looks different now in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, with military barricades positioned at nearly every kilometre from the airport to the city center. Uniformed men in camouflaged security vehicles patrol every square meter, their guns dangling in all directions. Apart from the people’s indifference, this place looks like a war zone, in stark contradiction to the signpost that welcomes first-timers: “Borno home of peace. Islam is for peace. Shariah is Islam.”
Maiduguri was once a regional capital recognised for welcoming people of all religions and ethnicities; a college town long known for its party scene and a vibrant city with a bold, often broad-minded youth culture that — even after almost a decade of war — seemed it could not be extinguished.
This seamless interlocking — of art, culture, faith, and religion— is at the heart of the ideological battle at play in this city, and has flung far to the rest of Nigeria’s northern states. Advocates of religion want faith detangled from this mixture, and extolled for what it is — sacred. In 2009, those who consider themselves custodians of the Islamic faith demanded that the government establish Borno state as an Islamic caliphate, eroding its past while securing it’s religious future.
Boko Haram was born out of the need to sanitise the city of presumed religious grime, in this instance, of art, culture, history, and sometimes people. Taking to violence and bloodshed, villages were raised and their people displaced. An estimated 35,000 lives have since been lost, while more than two million people remain internally displaced.
We drove through Dalori, Kasagula, Konduga, Kabuiri, all the way down to Bama, where Boko Haram’s reign of terror lasted for fifteen months. Men had been butchered in the dozens while in the presence of their families. What’s left of the ruins are neem trees and other shrubs at their greenest.
The wind brushed past my ears impatiently as I wound down the car windows to see clearly this place where thousands of people, now either dead or displaced, once called home. The vast expanse of nothingness demanded our attention be on what life must have been like for them when Boko Haram invaded.
Yakura said it felt strange traveling back home to Banki at her uncle’s request, and observing all the destruction on the way there. Fear rattled her teenage heart as she struggled to keep calm. Before she could muster the courage to make what could have been a life-changing decision, in retrospect, a call came in from her uncle demanding that Yakura be kept in a strange village. At first she thought it was a transit stop; and “little did I know that my uncle was a Boko Haram terrorist,” at that time, she said.
Boko Haram Uncle
There are many Boko Haram sympathisers in northern Nigeria— where more than seventy percent of the population survive on less than a dollar a day. The terror group started off as a religious institution critical of government corruption and offered “a purer version of Islam.” When it proclaimed itself a terror organisation in 2009, by declaring war on the Nigerian government, it was readily supported by former members of the religious group. Then came the next surge of membership through religious teachings that promised a guaranteed entrance to Jannah—the Muslim faithful’s ultimate life-after-death nirvana—with virgins waiting to receive the men who would commit to jihad.
These kinds of religious teachings seemed far fetched to me until I got a rare opportunity to interview a former Boko Haram fighter now in military custody. Mustafa Mohammed Bello belongs to what is now known as the Albarnawi section of the terror group. His personal account cleared my doubts: “The reason I joined Boko Haram is because they preached to us that if we follow their path we will be rewarded with Paradise. We followed them, they brainwashed us with their teachings and taught us how to use guns during battles on the field. We used to raid villages and towns, kill innocent people, and seize their properties by force.”
There is the last group of people who joined for economic reasons. According to a UN report, Boko Haram is able to pay its fighters with funds it receives from international and local donors sympathetic to its cause. The report identified extortion, charitable contributions, smuggling, remittances, and kidnapping as ways the group is funded. A woman whose husband is still an active fighter told me he joined because he couldn’t find a job or support his nine children.
It’s hard to find how much a Boko Haram fighter earns per month, but similar terror group like Daesh paid fighters between $400-$1,300 a month. They are also provided a house, a car, a wife, and fuel, according to the Congressional Research Service. Yakura’s uncle was a paid member of Boko Haram who also believes in the group’s cause, thus offering his niece as a treat. “He held me hostage in his home for almost one year and married me off to a Boko Haram fighter who impregnated me in Sambisa forest.”
I Tried to Escape Many Times
Sambisa forest was once a beautiful game reserve. In the 1970s, about a decade after Nigeria’s independence from Britain, the reserve was used for safaris. It had a large population of leopards, lions, elephants, hyenas. It attracted tourists, some reportedly from neighbouring African countries and a few remaining colonial officials could observe the reserve from cabins or safari lodges. The name of the forest comes from the village of Sambisa, which is on the border with Gwoza in the east. The Gwoza hills have peaks at 1,300 meters above sea level that form part of the Mandara Mountains range along the Cameroon-Nigeria border.
We travelled as far as Gwosa on a UNICEF helicopter because the security brief showed that we risked encountering landmines if we drove from Maiduguri. The undulating mountains with hues of serene greenery scattered along its rigid edges would have made Gwosa and Sambisa forest Nigeria’s foremost safari destination—now raking in millions in dollars, but for its new occupants.
In 1991, the government of Borno state incorporated this reserve into the national park of the Chad Basin. But it abandoned the project following the Sambisa takeover by Boko Haram insurgents in February 2013. The animals gradually disappeared, lodges were destroyed, and the vegetation eroded. Finally, the Yedseram and the Ngadda rivers, which flow through the the forest dried up.
Sambisa forest is now Boko Haram’s stronghold, the Nigerian military’s new frontiere of the war on terror, and was Yakura’s’s home for four years. Her duty as the second wife was to clean and care for her husband, offering her burgeoning body for sex as many times as was required of her. She pondered and planned her escape many times, but the vastness of the forest blurred her waning imagination. “I tried everything possible to escape back to my mother, but there was no way to run,” she said. As fate will have it, Yakura’s husband was killed in a military raid, which left her with more opportunity to plan her escape. When she finally devised a plan, it was one that would literally take her breath away.
Women as Suicide Bombers
Turns out Yakura was not the only girl quietly planning to flee Sambisa. Hadiza Yinusa was scheming her way out too. The girl had married a Boko Haram fighter at the age of fourteen, following him to Sambisa only to lose him to a younger love. The vastness of the forest gives little room for a sloppy prison break, so needless to say, if caught, they would be butchered and fed to the vultures. But death, they concluded, was a worthy risk.
Although the group used to spare women and girls, leaving them widowed and fatherless after slaughtering the men in front of their families for refusing to join Boko Haram as they did in Bama, reports of girls missing began making the rounds across villages. Hardly anyone paid attention until over two hundred girls were kidnapped on the night of April 14, 2014 — a feat that brought the terror group international fame. There have been several other abductions since then, locals have told me.
Between April 2014 and December 2015, Boko Haram deployed women and children as suicide bombers. This led to an increase in civilian targeting and resulted in its most lethal and injurious period. The women and girls deployed as suicide bombers often wore the hijab, which became a way to hide explosive devices from victims and the military. The female suicide bombers were able to blend in and detonate before anyone could suspect their intent.
It is widely thought that the girls who went missing from the villages are hostages in Sambisa forest and are the same girls that are now deployed as suicide bombers. Research by the United States Military Academy on combating terrorism reveals that from April 2011 to June 2017, Boko Haram deployed 434 bombers to 247 different targets during 238 suicide-bombing attacks. At least 56 percent of these bombers were women, and at least 81 bombers were identified as children or teenagers.
Hadiza and Yakura watched as girls were strapped with suicide vests by their “husbands.” After a brief, ceremonial talk about meeting again in paradise, they would leave the camp. Like remote-controlled robots, they walked into the wind, leaving behind memories of their brief existence; each one gone forever.
Hadiza is like that of many teenage girls in northern Nigeria—uneducated and from a poor family. Her parents married her off in exchange for financial security. Forty-three percent of girls in Nigeria are married before they turn eighteen. Seventeen percent of underage girls become brides before their fifteenth birthday—many to men near their fathers’ age. The practice is prevalent in the northwest and east, with a combined figure of more than 80 percent of teenage girls become child brides.
Child marriage is an open gig in northern Nigeria, though the constitution opposes it. But the society doesn't seem to frown much at the sight of a young girl just reaching puberty having sexual relations with a man in his final phase of life, and under the guise of a holy matrimony. The rich and the poor practice it, the former armed with money, the latter with an abridged and delusional version of love. Mothers who raise these girls also subconsciously prepare them for the only life they themselves have come to know. Dressing them up as adults, rubbing lipstick on their thin lips and kajal on their eyebrows, as early as age five.
Perhaps what is also aiding this cultural nuisance is the unrestricted birthing spree many northern traditional families are known for. Polygamous by nature, poor or rich, they make more babies than they can keep track of. For the poor especially—the majority of northern Nigeria—sending girls to school is a waste of limited family resources. In Bama village, I met a man who had three wives and twenty-two children. He’s a farmer who’s comfortable enough to feed his family but has too few resources to offer them quality education. In my opinion, this is the substrate that feeds the Boko Haram insurgency—a massively illiterate population of restless young people swayed by extreme religious values. And may I add that Nigeria currently has the highest number of children not in school in the world.
My own recommendations on ending the Boko Haram insurgency would include rolling out a classified birth control project in the region that would lead to population control. I would conduct a population census to know the number of children out of school and design school projects ensuring basic education. Using a decade timeline, we would see the birthrate drop drastically, and raise children where they are in an environment less prone to be radicalised.
Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking since those in power also marry underage girls. In 2013, I wrote a report about how a former governor of Zamfara in northern Nigeria, married a 13-year-old girl. Now a senator of the federal republic of Nigeria, Sani Yerima’s cohorts defended his decision by claiming that the parents of the girl had consented to the marriage, and his actions were in line with Islamic laws. Many Islamic religious leaders have denounced these claims as false.
Hadiza is now aged twenty-one and has two children from her estranged Boko Haram fighter husband. Reflecting on the last seven years, she concludes everything had been a mistake. “I don’t love him anymore and I never want to meet with him again,” she said. After a silence moment, she concluded, “what the Boko Haram insurgents are conducting is unethical and immoral, it is not the teaching of Islam. Killing innocent people is not good. They always claim they will go to Paradise, but they will not.”
Hadiza and Yakura’s friendship developed over several evenings of concocting detailed escape plans. It was a long shot but a shot still. Even if it meant dying, their bodies shattered by an improvised explosive device (IED), the hours leading to their likely death, getting away from their abductors was all they were counting on. Fear that someone will smell their fear, and know the weight that they are carrying under the colourful hijab that mostly leaves nothing to see.
The day they were to be dispatched to their certain death, the young women met the usual “we’ll meet again in paradise” talks took place. Hadiza and Yakura realized they were to have separate missions when they were loaded into separate vans. Their escape plans were ruined, including the months of courage they had mustered through their brief friendship. Without a chance to say goodbye, they were taken in opposite directions.
Hadiza’s abductors took her on a 2.5 hour drive all the while she was strapped with an explosive vest. They drove from Sambisa through Masba, Kama, Konduga, Bama, and Dipchari villages to reach Banki, the mission’s destination. This is not how Hadiza had imagined her escape, she told me. But there are few options and previous attempts had failed. Yakura and Hadiza, she explained, “We have attempted to escape on severally occasion, but our husbands will always threaten us that if we escape, the soldiers will catch us and kill us. They said the soldiers will slaughter us and eat us.”
When they reached Banki, Hadiza was carefully offloaded from the van. The skies were grey and the shadows of her abductors hard to trace. Her body released periodic spasms causing her to shiver and nearly betray her commitment to the mission (jihad). With a little courage left, she listened attentively to the last set of instructions. She would walk into a mosque in Banki town during prayer time and detonate her explosives. The flattened button next to an assortment of wires clinging to her chest was all she needed to press as soon as she reached her target. She nodded to acknowledge she understood every detail.
Her abductors drove off, leaving her to carry out her assignment. She walked to the dimly lit street meters near the mosque, as the clergyman bellowed on the megaphone, and his congregation responding in unison “Allahu Akbar.” This is Hadiza’s cue . . . . and now she is on her way to Paradise.
Panic. Chaos. Men are running in opposite directions. Women are cursing and praying in same breath. The crowd is growing bigger. The praying has stopped. The prayer stopped? Not even in hell. Then, this isn’t paradise . . . no, not quite. Then who are these people? Hadiza’s thoughts rage as they faded.
The street has been cordoned off. Military officers are bent over her, loosening one button at a time, careful not to detonate the explosives. Half alive, Hadiza was hurled into a van and quickly detached from the IED explosives, now placed in a bucket to be studied by the military.
Hadiza regained consciousness in a military hospital where officers doted on her until she fully recovered. After her story was checked out, she was moved to a military detention camp for thousands of women and children rescued from the terror group.
In this camp, there are motherless children, some in need of breastfeeding. There are mothers whose children have gone missing, and there are girls like Hadiza, considered a minor without a home. They are fed and clothed here, but their future or a chance to have a dream is not guaranteed. Still, it is a far cry from the hostage situation in Sambisa forest. According to the Nigerian military, some 30,000 women and children have been rescued from Boko Haram since 2016.
Four months after Hadiza had been transferred to the detention camp, she feels freedom on most days. She can say her prayers aloud and curse the day she took her marriage vows—to a husband who derailed her destiny. Some days, idleness and the restlessness of adolescence kicks in. Casting her mind back to her captivity, she imagines what the faces of her two boys look like now, and whether she will see them again someday.
One Friday afternoon after prayers, Hadiza saw a rounded figure walk pass by her room, heading towards the kitchen area. The person reminded her of Yakura, and she wondered if she was losing her head. Perhaps, Allah may have answered their prayers after all, and kept the two women alive. She thought, could this finally be paradise? Because the odds of both girls surviving is too surreal. This sighting jarred her thinking, as if she had forgotten something and now wanted to get it immediately.
The shoulders were squared, revealing a small bulge around her waist. “Uhn? Yakura!” Hadiza blurted, as she made her way to the veranda. Facing each other, now, for the first time since they were sent on suicide missions. They hugged and praised Allah. They cried and cursed the men that had altered their lives forever. Their reunion was a spectacle to behold, and the residents of the detention camp stood still for a moment to thank God for their rare luck.
Yakura had been taken to Maiduguri for her own assignment. Her target destination was a market. But since the city is more heavily patrolled by the military than the inner villages, it was easy for her to hand herself over to the officers. An experience much less dramatic than Hadiza’s. Yakura received routine medical check up at the military hospital and she found out about her three-month pregnancy. Yakura was detained in a separate military facility, to allow for a full recovery before being transferred to this detention camp.
Now sitting under the neem tree together, Yakura’s body was curled-up sideways on a mat and the baby in her growing tummy was at nearly six months. Hadiza sits close to her, picking at the skin on her fingers. Both looked young and lost but grateful to be alive. When I asked what is next for them, Hadiza said she wishes to prove Boko Haram wrong by getting the Western education they so vehemently oppose. “I want both Islamic and Western education. My husband was able to brain wash me because I had no knowledge then,” but now he can’t do that, she said.
I pushed further, wanting to know whether she would change her mind for the sake of love and precious gifts.(The second comment is the answer. Some women/girls have reportedly returned to their Boko Haram husbands because he feeds them—at best. Most of them have nothing/no one to return to. “ I will never want to follow that ideology in future. Even if he buys an airplane for me. I’ll never want him again.” Her response shut me up at the time. When Yakura summoned the courage to respond to my question, she looked me directly in the eyes and, with a wan expression, said, “My greatest hope is to be reunited with my mother.”
But there’s no homecoming for anyone associated with Boko Haram, whether as a slave, wife, mother, or surrendered fighter. The community sees them all as representing an enemy of the society. With most communities still reeling from the mayhem unleashed, there a shared sentiment of unforgiveness, protectionism, and reprisal.
For Yakura to return home is to allow her passage to her own death along with her unborn child, the military said. This is the general situation assessment for thousands of girls living in the detention camp. In villages nearby, residents are riding their communities of those who had ties to Boko Haram. They are burned, lynched, or outrightly discriminated against—including cases where a woman had borne children for a fighter. That is why it is unsafe for Yakura to return home, the military explained when I asked why there were no efforts made to reunite her with her family.
I visited a survivor of a Boko Haram attack and his family in downtown Maiduguri. I had made the trip to learn about the rift the war has left in communities. Abubakar Modusheriff is a man in his late thirties, and has a wife and two sons. Unlike most young northern men, he had a decent job as a trader. He sold bags of onions harvested from farms in Banki and Bama. They are are shipped by truck from hundreds of miles down south, where they are resold at a higher price. “I had plenty of money to take care of myself and my family,” he said.
“I travelled to places, going to market for my day-to-day activities by myself.” Sheriff told me as he pointed his cane ahead to assist each step. But Modusheriff lost everything, including his eyesight, three years ago when he was robbed by Boko Haram in Maiduguri. He was shot in the face while he was travelling with other traders to meet customers in a nearby city. Boko Haram ambushed his car, shot everyone, and made off with their money. Only Modusheriff survived the attack.
He spent all of his money on therapy and said he had received no government support in paying hospital bills. His home now had no semblance of having once had enough. I sat quietly by a clay pot that was used as a water reservoir, and I watched him maneuver his way around the one-room apartment he shares with his wife and two children. His wife, Kadija, fed their two sons with a blank emotion that was hard to read. I asked how she is coping and she seems to think Allah knows best. She gave birth to her second son after her husband lost his eyes; her immediate worry is that Modusheriff will never see the boys grow.
Kadija tends to have bad days when looking at pictures of her husband taken before the attack. Her grief mounts whenever she has to explain to her young boys why their father has no eyes, especially to the younger son. Modusheriff has refused to give into to self pity. He takes part in a privately run empowerment programme, where he’s taught to make soap, shoes, and bags. This new skill will help him start a new business so he can support his family, he said.
He was furious to hear that the government and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) are supporting women and children linked to Boko Haram. Modusheriff thinks the government’s priority should be people like him. “And why is the government helping them?” he asked, swiping away flies that try to peck at the red membranes around his eye socket. “I’m the one who needs help, but nobody is helping me. I’m trying to get my life together and feed my family.” He said if the government believes this is the right thing to do, he cannot do anything about it.
His sentiment is shared by many victims who now roam the streets begging for alms, widowed or homeless. They have joined a long list of destitutes in a society now increasingly populated by them as a result of the insurgency.
Yakura and Hadisa know that society rarely recognises them as victims of the war. They would like the opportunity to redefine their destinies, though not, they admit, by undoing their experiences,( because they believe it is their fate and that it is impossible to erase the past) or by denying them. They are women who lived with Boko Haram and bore babies for them; served their sexual needs when they returned from battle. They fed the terrorists and made them stronger to fight — none of which was done from a position of strength. “We are victims too,” they said. The women say they want to raise their children in anonymity, hoping their true identity is never revealed. If it is, they do not want for their children to be judged by a situation far beyond their control.
Now in its tenth year, the Boko Haram insurgency has driven a wedge between the people and their immediate communities, disrupting cultural norms and realigning the core of society. Distrust, fear, and frustration permeates everyday living, sometimes forcing the average person to resign to self pity. Still home to thousands, coping with the aftermath means suspecting every woman and girl, especially those wearing a hijab.
Terror does not end when the gun is dropped or when the enemy is shot. Its impact lingers long after the grenades and artilleries have stopped pounding. The social impact of terror wars like the Boko Haram insurgency are far-reaching, and women and children are the inadvertent victims.
[NOTE: The narrative is an excerpt taken from The Refugee's Messenger Lost Stories Retold, published by TRT World Research Centre.
The author is currently working on a book focusing on women who “married” fighters of Boko Haram, whether forcefully or willingly. It tells of their deep reflections on what led to their estrangement, and their desire to regain the trust of the community they once called home. They desire to reintegrate, yet their attempts to seek forgiveness—if not for themselves, but at least for their children—is the toughest task yet for their deeply wounded communities. These women and children are in limbo, perhaps, for the rest of their lives.]