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How I Escaped Boko Haram: One Woman's Story

VICE News visited northern Nigeria, where one Boko Haram victim explained how she was released by the militant group with her five children after "pretending that I was insane."
Photo par Sally Hayden/VICE News

"My husband was killed in front of me — he was slaughtered by 10 men," Naime Buba recalled. "My house was burned down. Lots of people were killed. Many men."

She is sitting under a fan in a white plastic chair with the words "Grace of God" emblazoned on the back. Outside this small reception room, the temperature is a sweltering 110 degrees Fahrenheit. For Buba, this shelter offers a reprieve from the dusty, hot camp that is now her home, shared with 5,500 others. This is the NYSC government camp in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, just one of the many formal, and vastly more informal, settlements the region's 2 million displaced people are living in.


Buba is also just one of the largely undocumented victims of a seven-year insurgency led by Islamic militant group Boko Haram — currently considered the deadliest terrorist group in the world.

Her town of Bama was attacked repeatedly, with Boko Haram first targeting the military barracks stationed there, and then using the base as a launchpad to capture the rest of the town in September 2014. Buba says she was taken hostage exactly one year and 10 months ago.

"Lots of women were abducted with me. The majority of females in my locality," she said. "Lots of the women ran away before they started kidnapping the females, but I had my children with me. I couldn't run away and leave my kids behind."

Naime Buba pictured in the reception area of the NYSC government camp in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Buba has five children — aged 11, 9, 7, 5, and 3.

She was held by Boko Haram for three months, a group infamous for their abuse of women, including systematic rape and the use of young girls as suicide bombers. Buba's experiences backed up reports by other former captives. "Lots of women were forced into marriage, and those that resisted were shot," she said.

During that time, they solidified their hold on Bama, the second largest town in Borno State — state capital Maiduguri is the biggest. The militant group controlled it until March 2015, when they were ousted by the Nigerian military. Buba said during her time in captivity: "There were very many fighters based in the town — I couldn't count how many."


When asked what the militants were like, she responded: "They're just normal human beings but with dirty hair and everything on their faces and on their head. They thought they were fighting for the right cause with respect to Islam and everything."

'When I began pretending that I was insane they left me with my children'

Buba — who is Muslim herself — said Boko Haram's members did not try to make her join them. "Nothing like that was done. But when they abducted us they put us in a large compound and locked the gates. When they came around with foodstuffs, food items, and everything, mostly women cooked for them."

Buba could only see one way out. "I had to pretend that I was insane, that I was mad, by putting dirt on my body and everything," she explained.

"I put dirt, mud, everything on my body. It was difficult to convince them, I had to use whatever was at my disposal. Even if it was vegetable oil, I'd pour that on my body. It wasn't easy."

"When I began pretending that I was insane they left me with my children," she said.

"That was when they had to leave me because they thought I was mad, it wasn't even worth it holding me. That was when they let me leave. Once I started portraying madness I was no longer of use to them. It was that easy. They were able to let me go."

Related: Boko Haram's War on Women: Abductees Speak of Systematic Rape, Suicide Bombers, and Survival

Buba and her five children walked barefoot for three days without food to find safety. All six were starving and she was worried they would die. "At one point I thought I was going to lose my kids."


Buba pointed to her bare toes, showing where sharp, dry plants in the bush punctured them as they walked, and where blisters quickly erupted.

"When we came here, my children were admitted to the medical center in the camp, where they were treated," she said.

The Maiduguri camp's conditions are far from ideal and residents are cramped with little privacy. Those living here are only guaranteed two meals a day of rice, beans, cornmeal, or soup.

Buba has also received no counseling — though she freely admits she wakes up regularly from nightmares that transport her back to the bush and to captivity.

"Compared to being in the hands of Boko Haram, it is okay here," Buba said, though like many, she's wondering when it will be safe for her to return home — while the government is keen to get displaced people to go back to their villages, NGOs operating in the region say it is much too dangerous. During a visit to Nigeria's northeast in April, VICE News heard multiple reports of killings and kidnappings still happening in more rural parts of the region.

"I am hoping if things get better I would want to go back," Buba said, but she couldn't comprehend how she'd survive when she does.

"When I was staying before in my town I was supported by my husband — whatever he got he would bring back home. So I'm not really sure what I'm going to do when I get back."

Related: Nigeria's Self-Styled Warriors: Meet the Vigilante Army Taking on the World's Deadliest Terror Group

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd