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

VICE News visited northeast Nigeria to meet some of the thousands of women who have been held captive and forced into marriages with Islamic militant group Boko Haram.
Mujeres en un campamento de desplazados internos en Yola, en el estado de Adamawa. (Imagen por Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Samira is 14, and she looks it. She's skinny and shy. Occasionally, she zones out of conversations, tilting her head towards the ceiling. Quietly watchful, her rare smiles give the impression she's just started practicing them again.

For seven months, Samira was locked in a room and raped repeatedly by multiple men. Most of the time the perpetrator was her "husband" — a Boko Haram militant she was forced to marry. When he left for regular fighting missions, Samira fell victim to any other man who wanted to rape or assault her.


When she finally escaped, Samira first ran and then walked nearly 200 miles to Maiduguri. As the city appeared before her days later she realized she had made it and immediately collapsed.

Samira is just one of thousands of women and girls who have been abducted by Boko Haram, officially the deadliest terrorist group in the world and whose attacks have displaced almost 2 million Nigerians and killed tens of thousands more. [The names of victims have been changed to protect their anonymity.]

Earlier in April, VICE News visited Adamawa State and Borno State — the areas in northeast Nigeria most affected by the seven-year conflict — to meet several former Boko Haram captives. All of those we spoke to were held by the Islamic militant group for periods between two days and one year, and all have escaped within the last few weeks or months.

Their stories provide new details about what life is like in territories under Boko Haram's control, including the systematic abuse of women and girls by its militants, and the tactics the group are using to encourage those imprisoned to become suicide bombers.

While initially it was believed that between 500 and 2,000 women and children had been abducted by Boko Haram during the insurgency, NGOs working in the area now believe the number is much higher.

Over the past year and a half Boko Haram has gone from controlling 19 out of 65 government areas to just two, the result of a long-awaited offensive by the Nigerian army, with a spokesperson for UNICEF telling VICE News that this year alone 1,000 people have already been rescued from captivity.


* * *

Samira was kidnapped when militants showed up at her family home in the Dikwa local government area in Borno State. Spotting the teenager, one made her an instant offer: either she could come quickly away with them, or they would slaughter her father in front of her.

She felt that wasn't a choice and was taken on a motorcycle to Bama, a local government area where Boko Haram had a base. "There were many girls there. There were many men too. We were put in a compound," Samira said.

When we met in the government-run Sanda Kyarimi internally displaced person's (IDP) camp in the Borno State capital of Maiduguri, the first rain of 2016 had just fallen and pools of water lay between the makeshift shelters that people were living in — sometimes sleeping 10 or more to a tent.

Related: On Second Anniversary of Chibok Kidnapping, the Man Who Started #BringBackOurGirls Dismisses Critics

We sat on white plastic chairs in an old school room. Some of the roof had fallen through and "Mathematics: number systems, successive multiplication" was written on the blackboard in faded chalk.

The doorframe was an empty gap in peach-colored stone, as were the windows. Curious children from the camp sat out of earshot and four or five to a window ledge.

Samira wore a light blue dress and a white headscarf, and stroked her chin as she talked. "Because I was the youngest my situation was a bit easier." Sometimes militants would pay her after raping her, she said, and she would use the money to buy better food. "They also shouted at me."


Women walking in a market in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Among the fighters were converts from neighboring countries, including western Chad and Cameroon, said Samira.

After seven months in captivity, the Nigerian military recaptured the area she was being kept in. "The sect started running," she said. "On the way we separated ourselves from them. I ran from one village to another. Many of us ran but only two of us escaped, the others got nabbed again. The Boko Haram men could run faster than us."

Samira has now been in the government-run camp in Maiduguri for two months and has no family with her. She said there is little to do there, though she is taking classes held by UNICEF. Her parents, who are also staying in the city, know she's alive and where she is, but they haven't come to see her.

She counts as lucky: a 15-year-old former captive also staying in Sanda Kyarimi has recently given birth to a baby, and now social workers are looking for a guardian who can take care of both the newborn child and its young mother. There's also a nine-month-old boy living in the camp, among about 100 other unaccompanied minors.

* * *

"When Boko Haram attacked us in the village everyone was just running helter skelter," Saratu Zakaria, 44, told VICE News. "The kids followed their dad but along the way they got lost."

Zakaria, from Gwoza, Borno State, lost all four of her children that day: three girls and one boy aged between 7 and 16.

"There's a place where we normally went to hide, it was like a refuge point for all of us in the village, but the bad guys came to that very spot and they abducted everybody."


Zakaria told VICE News her story in a camp in the grounds of St. Theresa's church in Yola, Adamawa State, where around 1,000 Christians have found temporary and very basic shelter.

"There was a massive killing, even when we were in the village after the invasion," Zakaria continued. "In my presence, a lot of women were slaughtered [and an] uncountable number of men.

"When Boko Haram came they captured the whole town. I was one of the lucky ones, that after the attack I was still alive. These guys were securing the whole area, making sure we didn't have access to food or water… Boko Haram were telling [women] they had to get married seeing as their husbands had left them. That was how we continued. They were forcing us to get married and killing us one by one."

Zakaria was held in the Boko Haram camp for eight months and six days, until she managed to escape to Cameroon and eventually make her way back to Nigeria. She was reunited with her husband but says they now they have "problems" — he remains distrustful of her and disbelieving of what she went through in captivity. Zakaria claims she avoided conversion and was not sexually assaulted while she was being held. The fate of her children remains unknown.

* * *

Six days before we met, 25-year-old Gloria gave birth to twin girls.

"People advised me to abort the pregnancy but I didn't want to because I was afraid," the new mother said. Abortion is illegal in Nigeria unless it's necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman — though backstreet procedures are available at a cost.


Gloria's children will probably never meet their father: a Boko Haram militant who abducted Gloria and her sister from the town of Dikwa, Borno State, nine months ago and raped her over a period of several days before she escaped.

During those difficult days the fighters took Gloria, completely barefoot, to several towns. She escaped when the militants journeyed to another village to fight. "A very good Samaritan [brought] me to this camp," Gloria said. "I stayed for about three weeks, then became sick."

A trip to the local hospital confirmed Gloria was pregnant — something that irrevocably brands her as a Boko Haram "bride."

Now she's subject to stigma, which is difficult to avoid because of the camp's cramped and claustrophobic conditions, with many women sleeping in the same room.

The six-day-old twin girls born to a woman who was abducted and raped by Boko Haram militants. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Gloria's social worker, Aisha Shettima, advises women who have been captured by Boko Haram to stick together.

"When [Gloria] came to the camp she was very angry," Shettima told VICE News. "It took weeks of counseling to reduce the trauma in her. But now as a result of the counseling and preaching, women [feel better].

"We usually do counseling in this camp. I tell them whatever happens it's God who made it happen this way. So people now understand and the stigma has been reduced."

Gloria is the youngest of 10 siblings, some of whom have died. Before she was kidnapped Gloria was living in Dikwa with her father and attending Islamic schooling. Now her father is one of the displaced in the city, but he won't speak to or visit her because he's angry at the situation she has ended up in.


"You know the culture of this place," Shettima said. "It is not her fault but her father would not be happy."

Gloria wore a pink hijab and looked both worried and enthralled while gazing at her newborns. She joked about how difficult it is to hold both of them at the same time. She was desperately trying to gather contributions to buy food for a naming ceremony the next day — tradition dictates that this has to happen within a week of birth.

"When I go back to my village I don't know what I'll do," Gloria said. "Only God can help me. I will stay with the babies and I will look for assistance. There is no way I can go back to my village yet."

* * *

In the Malkohi Health clinic, an NGO-funded center in dusty Yola, Adamawa State, as many as 50 women displaced by Boko Haram give birth each month.

Fatsuma Mamut, a friendly trainee doctor, supervises the deliveries. When I visited, she told me about a pregnant woman who was recently a patient. "She got pregnant in the Boko Haram camp. She successfully delivered but didn't want the baby, even though it was well."

The woman and her baby were discharged after 24 hours and have since left for Maiduguri, their future together and their relationship uncertain.

Fatsuma Mamut in the Malkohi Health clinic in Yola, Adamawa State, where some of the women displaced by Boko Haram give birth. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Higher up the medical chain, in Yola's Federal Medical Center, the biggest hospital in Adamawa State, Jitj Useni is collecting files on the injuries suffered by women who have been held by Boko Haram.


A sharp, fast-talking man, Useni is the doctor in charge of IDP care for the whole state. There are around 700,000 IDPs in Yola alone, and this hospital has been treating them since 2014, when mass displacements escalated to an unprecedented scale.

He told VICE News that 270 women have been referred for trauma counseling: some were waking up screaming in the middle of the night, others were so mentally damaged they lost the ability to speak.

Related: As Video of Chibok Girls Gives New Hope, We Speak to Survivors of Boko Haram

Children who have been held by Boko Haram are marked by physical scars: one boy, recently treated by physiotherapists, lost the ability to move his hands because of the way he was tightly bound for a long period of time. Others had bullet injuries or shatter wounds.

Useni also emphasized that abuse can continue outside captivity too. Reaching for papers kept in the top drawer in his desk, he flicked through recent rape cases, counting seven reported incidents in IDP camps in Adamawa State since December. Of these, Useni said most were women but one victim was a 2-year-old child, raped by someone from a host community. He died the same day.

* * *

"When I escaped at least 100 females were ready to do it," Hawwa said.

The mother of four was talking about suicide bombings. Hawwa was held by Boko Haram for more than a year. When we met she had only been free for six weeks and she was staying in an informal settlement in Maiduguri with her brother.


In her early 30s, Hawwa wore a pink hijab and a blue and cream dress. She looked at the ground as she spoke, while her naked baby son lay in her lap.

As part of a tactical move, Boko Haram has been increasingly using women and girls as suicide bombers. In February two women killed 56 in a camp for displaced people in Dikwa. Earlier this month, while VICE News was in Maiduguri, four women were apprehended as they approached a village near the city, strapped with explosives.

"[Boko Haram] did a spiritual ceremony," Hawwa said. "[Girls] are not forced, but once they did this spiritual thing girls and women would willingly volunteer."

Hawwa said Boko Haram militants would read "spiritual quotations" to the captured women and girls, before asking for volunteers. "A lot of young girls and some married women would raise their hands and they would separate them, give them everything they wanted, and tell them 'this is what you're doing, if you do it the right way you will go straight to heaven,'" Hawwa said. "It's psychological, that's how it's done."

Bombings would be celebrated, Hawwa continued: "They don't have any means of doing a celebration, they just celebrate with shouting, with gunshots, all the incantations."

A woman walks through an informal IDP camp in Maiduguri, Borno State. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Already pregnant, Hawwa and three children were originally taken from Madagali, Adamawa State. She gave birth to her fourth while she was being held. "They abducted a lot of us. They brought us to the bush. We were being maltreated like animals. When security personnel tried to approach they'd change our place. That was how we were living. It was hell."


"We were staying in a group because there were a lot of women and children. We had to cook for them. I'm among the luckiest ones because I was able to cook for them, not used as a sex slave, the others were just used as that."

She said the women who had money with them were able to buy food from the militants, but otherwise you had to eat what you were given. "They don't cook good food, they didn't give us butter, there were no ingredients for soup."

"If you willingly wanted to marry they will enable you to," she continued.

"If you're a lady it's a mandate, it's a must, it's not an option, you are forced into it, and if you don't every morning you will be lashed — 10 lashes. And some are willing to get married not because they want to but to have a sustainable life, a means of livelihood because if you get married they will provide everything. But the stubborn ones among the ladies, if you don't every morning you'll get 10 lashes continuously."

Haruna Thuma, 65, (left) whose wife was abducted by Boko Haram. He has recently remarried a 23-year-old (right). (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Hawwa also claimed that foreign militants who wore black, spoke only English and Arabic, and carried Islamic State (IS) flags — the same flag later adopted by Boko Haram in March 2015 after they swore allegiance to IS — came to visit Boko Haram's short-lived caliphate — an area roughly the size of Belgium and centered around Gwoza — occupied by the group between August 2014 and March 2015.

"I saw a lot of them… Inside the bush I saw more than 20. But there were more being hosted in the caliphate by the leaders. They'd just go around the community. They didn't have a means of communication because they didn't understand the local language.


"They came with the same flag as Boko Haram, the black flag with the Arabic writing, just like ISIS. They were coming the whole time I was there," she told VICE News. "They normally stayed in the caliphate before the security personnel took it over."

Hawwa said that, from what she saw when she was being held, Boko Haram is getting weaker and weaker. "They can be defeated because they don't have bullets, they are not that strong," she commented. "All the guns they are carrying, there are no bullets inside. They don't have a means of livelihood so they can be defeated. They aren't financially fit so they're even hungry. They don't have excessive power to fight."

A woman walks down a street in Maiduguri, Borno State. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Hawwa made two desperate escape attempts. The first was halted by a river that was too difficult to cross. "Then the insurgents came and took us back. The others with me were tied and slaughtered but I escaped this because of my boy. One of the insurgents commanded them to leave me because of my child… so if they killed the mother the boy would suffer… I had a narrow escape then."

The second time, she was even more fortunate. "When they were praying around 8pm we escaped. From [then] on we were running, running. We found our way in the morning and came to security personnel."

When she was finally reunified with her brother, Hawwa was given some heartbreaking news. Her husband had been dead all the time she was being held, killed by Boko Haram on the same night she was abducted. Since then, Hawwa said she hasn't had counseling, or even a debrief with anyone from the Nigerian security forces.

* * *

At an IDP distribution center in Maiduguri, 50-year-old Bulus Bglanda, an IDP and activist with a local NGO, told VICE News he was in the process of being trained by the International Organization for Migration to help women returning to their communities after being held captive.

In particular, he said, he's learning how to rationalize with men who will reject their wives rather than welcoming them back. "We go to the original husband and tell him to be patient, because it was done against her will. If a woman escapes we will bring her to get tested for HIV. If she is HIV negative, fine, we will bring her back to her husband."

This is no easy task. Away from the front lines of the fighting, life is moving on for the displaced who have fled Boko Haram. Two weeks ago this meant a celebration in one IDP camp, when 65-year-old Haruna Thuma got married to a 23-year-old Christian woman from his local government area. They held their wedding in the grounds of St. Theresa, the church in Yola they camp behind with 1,000 other displaced. Many of the people staying with them came out to wish the new couple well.

Thuma was separated from his wife and children more than two years ago, but reports have made their way back to him. His first wife was forced into marriage with a Boko Haram fighter as well as being forcibly converted to Islam. Thuma said he strongly believes she should have died rather than changed her religion. "My religion is very important to me."

If his wife comes back he emphasized that he won't be helping her — he's moved on now. "Life is not going to be normal for her," he added.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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