This story was published through a partnership between VICE World News and The Fuller Project.
The enslaved woman faced double charges. Count one: she refused to willingly wear an explosive belt and go for a suicide mission. Two: she incited other enslaved women against their captors. Her sentence, the commander said, would be to detonate a bomb vest. Not at a market or a crowded mosque, as is the norm, but inside a building with other disobedient women. The bomb was strapped to the woman’s frame.
Hours later, it went off.
On a Sunday evening in December, six years later, Balaraba — who asked to use only her first name for safety reasons — lifted a grey hijab to bare scars from the blast that ripped through her body. Her arms are a patchwork of mangled skin, blacker in some places than others. Her thighs are the same. Blotches of black skin sit on her nose and chin.
The 29-year-old is one of possibly hundreds of women who survived years of enslavement by the terrorist group Boko Haram, and who are now reliving their experiences as the fighters surrender to the Nigerian government in an unexpected wave of defections. In the space of six months, thousands of fighters have swarmed Maiduguri, the city in northeast Nigeria where the insurgency started more than a decade ago. The fighters are waiting to be freed and returned to the communities where they once lived.
After several botched negotiations, the Nigerian government is seeing some success with a popular rehabilitation-to-release program, which offers a path for defecting Boko Haram fighters to return to society without punishment. The mass defections, though, are unsettling for survivors who told VICE World News and The Fuller Project that while they recognise the need for peace, they also want their experiences acknowledged and their abusers punished.
In all, half a dozen women kidnapped between 2012 and 2016 recounted tales of torture and rape — testimony they’ve never been asked to provide by the state, but which are so grave, they could amount to war crimes.
“My body is covered with wounds,” Balaraba said, sitting on a mat spread on the verandah of her Maiduguri flat, an uncompleted bungalow. “I never thought I’d make it.” Dusk settled lazily, but it was still bright enough to see more scars peek from her neckline. The men responsible for her disfigurement could soon be free. She’s not happy about it, but there’s not much she can do either.
Since 2009, Boko Haram has waged a deadly war on northern Nigeria and parts of Chad and Cameroon, seeking to create an Islamic caliphate. The group’s territory has shrunk in recent years, in part because of internal clashes. But at the height of the war, Boko Haram militants devastated Borno State, the birthplace of the insurgency, with suicide attacks and raids. More than 30,000 people have been killed and nearly two million displaced.
Boko Haram members invaded towns and villages, killing and abducting at will. Women were a major target of the kidnappings, taken from their homes and schools — like the 276 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 — and used as weapons in suicide attacks. By 2018, more than 500 women had been recruited in suicide bombings, the highest number of any terrorist group ever.
Boko Haram seized Balaraba in February 2012. The men dragged her away after hacking her husband to death. She was forced to leave behind her 3-month-old daughter and sick mother. They tied her up alongside 14 other women from her Maiduguri suburb.
In a forest about 130 km south of the city, Boko Haram held her with nearly 100 other women of varying ages. Those who agreed to marry the men were given the status of wives, and fewer domestic duties. Others, like Balaraba, who refused, were designated as slaves. Every morning after prayers, the women sat for sessions of violent preaching: Anyone who supported the government is an unbeliever to be killed, the terrorists said, and education is sinful. After that, the women set about their chores; they washed and cooked and cleaned, nonstop, and when the men came back injured from battle, they nursed them.
The work was gruelling but those were Balaraba’s better memories. The men got violent with their female prisoners regularly, punching them to the floor for mistakes or insubordination. Balaraba received many beatings. Once, she told the other women that no paradise awaited them if they conducted a suicide mission and tried to convince them to plan an escape. Her captors found out.
Boko Haram terrorists regularly forced themselves on the women, even those categorised as wives. There was no routine or predictability to the rapes. Balaraba was raped about four times a day by different fighters during her 48-month capitivity. The men who supplied the fighters with food, guns and money borrowed the women from the camp and returned them days after, like neighbours borrowing garden equipment. “They wouldn’t even mind if we were on our periods,” she said.
Sometimes, to punish those bold enough to oppose them, the insurgents would withhold food for days. Other times, they asked women to walk forward and aimed guns at their backs. Balaraba, they kept for longer, to see how long she would last, even though, needing an escape, she wanted to be killed.
“They said leave this one, she is stubborn as a goat,” Balaraba recalls. “We will see what will come of it.”
Several escapees had similar accounts. Hadiza, 20, was serially raped with her head, her legs and her arms held down. Zainab, 16, was abducted as a child. Khadija, mid-20s, was kept in a dark room for days for refusing to marry one of the fighters.
Some 24,000 people have now surrendered to the Nigerian government, army officials say. There are about 7,000 men — about half of them fighters and another half, enslaved men. They came with their wives, some 11,000 women. The rest are children.
The wave of defections first started in August, after Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s feared leader, blew himself up as fighters from a breakaway faction — the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) — closed in on him.
Shekau’s death, coupled with intensified bombardment from the Nigerian airforce and the growing strength of the ISWAP faction, prompted the mass defections. But crucially, there was also the promise of what amounted to near amnesty from the Nigerian government.
Many heeded the call. As they arrived in Maiduguri, they held up placards reading: “Nigerians, please forgive us.” And for their mates in the forest: “surrender and be free.”
“We are sorry for what we did,” said Abass, 28, a former commander and earlier defector who just completed the deradicalisation course, and who spoke on condition that only his first name be used. Many of the fighters are victims themselves having been captured and roped into the group’s atrocities. They are sons, husbands and brothers from Borno State who attacked their own communities. “Some of us were forced into it. ”
The rehabilitation course, called Operation Safe Corridor, has caused mixed reactions, illustrating the challenge of resolving conflict when perpetrators are community members. Aimed at low-risk defectors — those who were captured and compelled to fight — the course is conducted in a camp 300 km east of Borno. There, the men are taught moderate Islam, vocational skills, and given access to therapists. When it's over, they’re given startup capital for a business. Since 2016, about a thousand men have graduated, but few have been successfully returned to their communities as many in Borno won’t welcome them. They object to the government spending money on perpetrators while millions of people remain displaced by the war.
Still, more and more defectors troop into the guarded Maiduguri camp, waiting to start the course.
A Borno government spokesman defended the program, pointing out that the low-risk defectors are the sons and husbands of Borno residents and themselves victims of Boko Haram. Importantly, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity, there’s a corresponding drop in the numbers of attacks in the areas where most of the men left. The government is taking back more territory that was under terrorist control. The plan is to continue promoting Operation Safe Corridor so more men surrender. The defectors are being held in Maiduguri, which is well-guarded by the Nigerian military, to prevent possible revolts, the official added.
But their presence reminds residents of their torturous kidnappings, survivors tell The Fuller Project and VICE World News, and the men remain a security risk. The insurgents have rioted twice in the Maiduguri camp, raising widespread suspicion that they aren’t remorseful.
“It feels like they are about to come and carry me again,” said one female escapee, who blamed the government for abandoning women like her in favor of the defectors.
“I feel like picking up a gun and shooting them,” said another. “May Allah judge and punish them.”
After the commander sentenced her to death, Balaraba was locked in a building with some other women, bombs on their chests. One minute. Two. An explosion. When she came to, she was on the floor, bleeding.
That’s how another captured woman found her. The two ran into the bushes and escaped, years after Boko Haram first kidnapped her.
She has healed from the wounds, but Balaraba still remembers the men’s names. Bilal. Abacha. Gugura.
After her return, her family members mostly stayed away from her. Like many women who escaped, the stigma of once being in Boko Haram’s den is a heavy, visible cross to bear. “They destroyed my life,” Balaraba said. “They left a scar on me which I can never forget.”
Many of the survivors who spoke to The Fuller Project and VICE World News say they want justice, but they mostly called on God to mete it out. That view is not uncommon in Nigeria’s mostly-Muslim north.
How to achieve that justice remains tricky for authorities.
There are vague talks of prosecuting fighters most responsible. But trials will take a backseat, for now, a government official said. Authorities are focused on stopping the war so that people can return to their homes. Trials of thousands of defectors, which could take years, would stop more men from coming out and spoil the government’s plans, according to the Nigerian government spokesperson.
A private negotiator who has pushed for dialogue with the fighters believes the reality that some of them could go free, even if low-risk, is uncomfortable. The best step, she said — speaking on condition of anonymity due to safety concerns — would be for community members to define what punishment looks like for different categories of fighters. “Even God will not just forgive the fighters like that,” she added.
Countries like Rwanda have faced the same dilemma of defining justice where perpetrators were community members and numbered hundreds of thousands. Gacaca courts flourished in the east African country after the 1994 genocide. Although they faced criticism, the courts saw community members judge individual cases, including cases of rape, and give community service sentences to perpetrators who were later re-integrated. In Colombia, former rebel fighters were successfully disarmed, but they are struggling to return to civilian life.
Analysts say Nigeria needs similar mechanisms to protect victims.
“What the government has failed to do is establish platforms for reconciliation,” said Father Atta Barkindo, head of Nigeria-based think tank, The Kukah Center. “We have to come up with transitional justice commissions where people are called to tell their stories and they get compensated.”
But those plans seem far off and distrust continues to fester among victims, said Barkindo, who once worked with teams negotiating with Boko Haram.
Balaraba saw much of Boko Haram’s weapon stash in captivity. It’s several times more than what the men have surrendered, she believes. She doesn’t trust them.
“They’re lying,” she said, coolly. “What about all their weapons?”
But although it's hard, especially with the fighters so close by, Balaraba says she wants to forget about them.
Since returning in 2016, things have been gloomy. Balaraba can’t hold down a job. The frisk-and-search work she volunteered to do in the female section of Maiduguri’s mosques was paused as suicide attacks became less common, forcing her to sell snacks. And she deals with a constant sharp headache.
Finding another husband has been a task too. “No man wants to marry me,” she said.
So she will stop searching for a husband, she said, resolute. She has a child and a business to look after. She’ll survive. She’s done so before.
Additional reporting by Sani Adam and Amina Abbagana.
Shola Lawal is a contributing reporter with The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women.