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Life with Boko Haram: The Escapees Speak Out

VICE News talked to a Human Rights Watch researcher about a new report based on interviews with Nigerian women and girls horrifically abused in Boko Haram camps.

by Sally Hayden
Oct 27 2014, 6:45pm

Image via Reuters

A newly released Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has revealed the horrific abuse that Boko Haram abductees have been subjected to.

"Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp" is based on interviews with 30 individuals who escaped from eight camps run by the Islamist militant group. All were girls and women abducted between April 2013 and April 2014, aged between 15 and 38. They were held in eight different locations for periods of between two days and three months.

Boko Haram, which is often translated as "Western education is forbidden," has kidnapped at least 500 women and girls from northern Nigeria since 2009. Until now, very little has been known about what happens to the girls once in captivity.

Those interviewed said that they were subjected to sexual abuse and rape, coerced to marry, physically and psychologically abused, forced to participate in military operations, and made to cook, clean, and perform other household chores

Most girls seem to have been targeted for being either Christian, or in education. Some were threatened with death unless they converted to Islam, stopped attending school, and complied with Islamic dressing practices.

The returned Chibok students have received limited counseling and medical care but, according to the report, none of the other victims was aware of any sort of support or medical care available to them, or received it.

And the kidnappings continue. At least 30 boys and girls were taken from the town of Mafa in Borno state this weekend, according to CNN. Residents and community leaders also reported that 60 more women and girls were kidnapped from next-door Adamawa state last week.

Ceasefire questioned as reports surface Boko Haram has abducted more girls. Read more here.

A range of issues make northeastern Nigeria fertile ground for a militant armed group such as Boko Haram. These include widespread poverty, corruption, longstanding impunity, and abuse by security forces. 

Between July and September 2014, Boko Haram claimed more than 10 major towns in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. HRW estimates that around 4,000 civilians have been killed in 192 attacks in northeast Nigeria since May 2013.

VICE News spoke to Mausi Segun, HRW's Nigeria Researcher, and one of the people who researched and authored the report.

VICE News: You started researching Boko Haram kidnappings before the Chibok girls were captured. What prompted you to begin?
Mausi Segun: There were reports of people being kidnapped from 2009. We heard of these abductions continuing to happen through 2013, and I kept on trying to research it but it was difficult to find the victims themselves. I spoke to a couple of witnesses who saw the abductions take place, I spoke to health workers who had treated victims after they returned from Boko Haram camps. But the families would often bury them away from the community. 

The numbers kept on increasing gradually. It seemed that the authorities were ignoring that this was happening and so we needed to investigate further and just get as much evidence as possible on the fact that this was happening. So we had begun to do this long before news of the Chibok abduction broke. We spoke to the media in November last year about the fact that these abductions were taking place and that young women were returning pregnant, distressed and traumatized.

There's a culture of shame and stigma around the kidnappings that can prevent escapees from discussing it. Was it difficult to encourage the girls to talk to you?
We really worked through those who they trusted, and worked with them over time. Just understanding why they kept crying about what had happened to them. Understanding their experience, and what had happened, and explaining why they should receive professional help for what they had experienced, and why telling their stories would help validate the fact that this had happened to them and they could help to stop it happening to someone else. I remember one of their mothers saying: "This has gone on for long enough. We just have to stop it and if telling my story will help to do that I will." So that's how I got to gradually piece all of the stories together.

What was the most distressing story you heard?
It would be the story of this young 19-year-old who spent three months in captivity and not only suffered abuse but she's also traumatized by the fact that she was used to carry bullets for the insurgency operation. She was used at another point to lure young men into the camp, and they proceeded to kill these young men because they refused to be recruited. She said she was handed the knife to kill one of them and she couldn't. She said all she could think of was grabbing the gun that one of the militants was holding and killing herself so that she would end the horror that she had been witnessing. 

I think that these are very brave women who have experienced horrific acts that most people have never even heard about. Even after they have returned home they have received very little support or help from the authorities that would help them recover or move on with their lives.

Has it been possible to collect information from the girls about the military tactics and strategies of Boko Haram?
Yes, some of the girls have interesting stories about their understanding of what they saw in the camp and the way that the group is organized. At the same time it's a shame that the authorities have not taken the chance to collect their experiences and allegations and investigate it. Perhaps some of that information would have been useful in understanding the group.

Do many of the girls and women worry that, as escapees, they will be personally targeted in the future?
Absolutely. It's one of their continuing fears. They feel unprotected, that they're still as vulnerable as they were before the abductions took place. Some of them who were in school before they were abducted haven't returned to school for fear that Boko Haram will come for them. And some of the other women have continued to receive telephone threats from insurgents threatening that they would deal with them if they ever spoke out about what they saw in the camps, and so there's a continuing fear of being abducted or targeted.

The report mentions that the Nigerian government has set up a Victim Support Fund. Are you hopeful that it can help the returnees?
I think so, yes, but it would require that the government run the victims' documents for the victims. Without proper documentation the fund might end up in the wrong pockets, or not reaching those for whom it has been set up, so I think the first steps will be to document the experiences of victims, like the ones that are contained in the report, and setting up programs to benefit everyone, not just a select few.

Can you say something about the human rights abuses being carried out by the Nigerian security forces in response to Boko Haram?
They are the reason why a lot of the victims that we spoke with continued to express their doubts that they would receive any help from the authorities, because they believe that the authorities themselves would be abusive, not just to supporters of Boko Haram but to the whole population. 

So the heavy-handedness with which the government itself and the security forces have responded to the insurgency has not helped. It hasn't helped to put down or reduce Boko Haram's attacks. Neither has it helped the country to receive the kind of assistance and support it would have received from other countries who have the equipment and technological wherewithal to assist the Nigerian government because everyone is concerned that whatever assistance they give to the military will not be used in further validating human rights.

A week and a half ago, there were reports that an agreement had been reached to release the Chibok girls. Has there been any further verification of that?
None at all. What we've been told is that the negotiations continue, but we've also seen that the attacks from Boko Haram continue, as do the responses from the Nigerian military. So there doesn't appear to be a truce in place. If there are plans to have a truce it hasn't happened and the government's announcement is premature.

Five African countries declare 'war' against Boko Haram. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd