Ajuji and her children
‘Wives’ of Boko Haram commanders who returned from Sambisa Forest after their escape have continued to be stigmatised by their community members who have lost trust in them. OLUFEMI ATOYEBI and HINDI LIVINUS write
United by grief, ‘wives’ of Boko Haram commanders had different tales to tell, even though they were held in the same confinement by their abductors for years. Their stories are about human suffering, agonies, survival and ultimately, triumph. Although they could be inspiring, they are stories of assault on humanity.
At some point, many of the captives had to eat grass to survive the grueling starvation so they could see another day. There were those, who in an attempt to flee and escape the harrowing experience of starvation and malnutrition suffered by their children, set out at dawn to escape but they did not reach their destinations as they found death on the way. Some were felled in their tracks by search parties of Boko Haram fighters who were saddled with the task of ensuring that anyone who attempted to escape never lived to enjoy freedom. But for many of them, despite their escape, life remains harrowing.
For Hauwa Babajo, who gave birth to a daughter after her union with a Boko Haram commander, anyone that had a plan to escape risked betrayal if they confided in any of the fellow captives or even their ‘partner’. She escaped from Sabilu Huda, a settlement within the forest. She said women who returned from the forest were also stigmatised by people in the communities who do not seem to trust them.
“You don’t expect any of the wives of the Boko Haram fighters to confide in their husbands that they plan to flee. In the forest, there were commercial activities going on. There were tailors, butchers and so on. Most of the trading was done by Boko Haram commanders who had partners in Michika, Madagali, Gwoza and Damboa. Living in Sambisa Forest was hellish.
“We face all manner of abuses from members of our community who call us Boko Haram. Our children are also not spared; they are called children of vipers. They say after being chased away from Sambisa, we returned with snakes from our Boko Haram husbands,” she said.
Sometimes, she wished she had never returned to Madagali because of the stigmatisation she and her daughter, Zara, have had to endure since their return six months ago. Her Boko Haram husband was allegedly killed by the Nigerian military in a raid.
Married off to one of the Boko Haram fighters in Sambisa, Mary Palam, similarly fled the forest after almost three years in captivity because of the difficult life she was subjected to. She said many of them begged to survive.
“There was acute food shortage at the camp and finding clothes to wear was also one of the biggest challenges of living in Sambisa. Our experience can be described as living in hell while on earth. It was tough. There were people who lived on begging in order to survive. Only few families, especially those belonging to commanders, were able to feed their families,” she said.
Mariam Ajuji, who was married off to Umaru Abdullahi, following her abduction in April 2014, said she also escaped from the enclave of Sambisa because of hardship, adding that she had two children for Abdulahi in the forest.
“I had known him to be fighting for the group ever since I was taken into captivity by the sect. When the insurgents stormed our house in Madagali, Abdullahi indicated interest in taking me and my sister with them. My family members were initially resistant but the sect threatened to kill our father. They took us and other ladies to Limankara and later Jaji.
“It was hell on earth. There were days when we were locked up without food or water. Those were days that the men would say they were going to do god’s work, meaning they had gone to either attack a town or wage a war against the Nigerian Army. My sister was separated from me but we ended up re-uniting in Sambisa again,” she said.
Her eldest brother and father had died during the time she was away. She said her brother had fled to Cameroon with his wife and two kids but was killed by Cameroonian gendarme, who took him for a member of the sect. He was killed in front of his wife and children. Mariam said her days in Boko Haram captivity came to an end in November 2018 when she escaped from Sambisa Forest. After failing in her earlier attempts, her husband divorced her and threatened to execute her but took her back as wife before her fourth and final escape plan succeeded. With a search party launched to find her, a woman came to her rescue, hiding her in her home until the search was called off.
One of the ‘wives’ of Boko Haram insurgents who escaped
For Bilkisu, her husband, Buba Yusuf, also known as Bubarisko, had no option but to agree to join the Boko Haram sect as a leader after threats that their two sons would be killed if he disagreed to abide by the sect’s doctrine. She said one of the leading figures of Boko Haram, Mamman Nur, visited her husband in Madagali and took him away. He was only returned after he agreed to do their bidding.
After the Nigerian soldiers invaded Madagali to liberate it, her husband fled to Sambisa while one of her sons was killed with 29 other males after they were identified as Boko Haram fighters. He lost another son in an air raid. After her return, she was handed over to the Nigerian Army by people who identified her as the wife of a Boko Haram commandant still in Sambisa.
“It has never been my husband’s will to join the sect. There was a slim chance we could get out of their web; we considered the fate of our four middle-aged boys and what would happen to them if we went against the instructions of the sect members. My husband was given a leadership role in Madagali and referred to as Amir. When I survived military onslaught with my two daughters, we returned to our community but members of the community handed us to the military over allegations that we had come to spy for my husband.
“I was put in chains and taken to the military camp in Chibok where I was interrogated and asked to reveal the identities of other members of the group. But after a month, they issued me a clearance with documents (which she proudly brandished),” she said.
However, Amina Mohammed, 42, was not married off to a Boko Haram insurgent; she and her husband were kidnapped by the group. She made her escape from Sambisa Forest while she was three months pregnant, but she was delivered of her baby during her journey to freedom.
“I gave birth while I was fleeing. I saw a Nigerian fighter helicopter hovering over us during the journey. The soldiers took us to Gwoza which was nearby, but I told them I could not find my three-year-old son. I left my newborn child with one of the women with me when the soldiers rescued us and I informed them I was going in search of my son whom I had left behind in Sambisa.
“I found the boy playing with the children of my neighbours in one of the Sambisa settlements. I took him and found my way back to Gwoza. This was after spending three days inside Sambisa Forest. I made my escape under the cover of darkness,” she said.
Amina said she was held with her husband, a teacher. According to her, the escape was not a smooth one because she was twice betrayed by neighbours who told one of the Boko Haram commanders about her intention to flee. Afterwards, she was locked in a cell and threatened to be killed if she attempted to escape.
“Wives of Boko Haram fighters literally live from hand to mouth and those who have difficulties coping with the deprivation and starvation choose to escape the suffering by fleeing the forest once the opportunity of escape presents itself,” Amina added.
For Aishatu Usman, her sadness is that even though her daughter, Zainab, was rescued by the military from Sambisa, she (Zainab) lost her sanity while in captivity. Zainab was in junior secondary school three when she was kidnapped with other young girls and married off in the forest to a Boko Haram fighter.
She said, “I have spent all I have to see that she regains herself. Right now she doesn’t like the company of people. She doesn’t also like her hair plaited; at night she awakens every one with cries of what seem like Quoranic citations. I have been suffering with her since she returned. My girl was fine before her abduction. All of her hallucinations started after her return from captivity.”
The District Head of Duhu, Mohammed Sanusi, has been a source of succour to many of the women upon their return to the town. Many of them said that they would have made their way back to Sambisa Forest but for the love shown to them by Sanusi.
A few years ago, Sanusi set up a reconciliation committee named Kabara Committee, as part of a post-insurgency recovery plan. The committee, which draws its membership from the headship of the six villages under Duhu District and representation from Christian and Muslim communities, identifies returnees, especially women, who were either rescued or had fled Sambisa, for resettlement.
Speaking on his effort, Sanusi said that nearly 60 per cent of the youth from the area joined the Boko Haram sect, stressing that the community must come up with a system so that those who joined the sect would have reasons to abandon it and return home without fear of stigmatisation.
He stressed that if the community could be more accommodating; those who felt they had done any wrong could be encouraged to return.
He said, “We have to treat these women well and get them re-integrated into the communities because we have learnt that many of them have a communication channel with their husbands and we believe that they will convince them with time to come out of hiding and stop fighting on the side of the insurgents.
“We seek partnership with local and international non-governmental organisations which we relay their needs to and many of them have obliged us with assistance for the women. It is still work in progress, many of them are trained to acquire skills that they want and given financial assistance that will enable them to start their own businesses.”
A member of the Kabara Committee, Shinapi Pakka, said returnees were given tests to ascertain the veracity of their stories.
“If someone returns from Sambisa Forest, the committee will sit with the person and find out from them if they were truly from Sambisa. We have links with NGOs which offer assistance, including livelihood support and some money to start a trade after proper checks have been carried out to ascertain that the returnee poses no threat to the peace of the community,” he said.