The Nigerian military looks to be slowly gaining the upper hand in its fight against Boko Haram. But the Islamist terror group isn’t going quietly and has begun using young girls as suicide bombers. We talked to some of those who escaped.
She awoke early in the morning. The baby, just a few weeks old, lay next to her breathing peacefully, his face pressed up against hers. Fatima* heard the voices of women approaching her hut before they came in, grabbed her by the wrists and dragged her outside. Fatima screamed, cried and kept stumbling to the ground.
She knew what these women wanted. She had seen how they had outfitted the other girls with suicide belts, how fighters had driven them to the outskirts of the city in pick-ups and how they had returned without the girls.
Fatima would make for a particularly efficient bomb. A girl with a newborn baby would not arouse suspicion and she could easily push her way into the center of crowds. She could kill a large number of people.
“I won’t do it!” she screamed. “Then we’ll kill you,” the women responded and continued pushing her. “I don’t care, then go ahead and kill me,” Fatima screamed. “I’ve seen so many die.”
The camp commander stood in front of his shack and waited. He was an old friend of Fatima’s father and lived in the next village over. As a child, Fatima and her siblings had helped harvest onions from his fields. “Not her,” he told the women. “She’s too scared. She’ll blow us all up here in the camp!”
Fatima is sitting in a plain room at the UNICEF medical practice in a refugee camp at the edge of the city of Maiduguri, located in northeastern Nigeria. It is late afternoon and the sun is blazing hot. The baby is lying quietly in her lap. “The women were furious. They beat me with sticks and cables,” she says. She lifts up her robe to show the dark welts and scars on her belly and hips.
Fatima has been living here for the last few months. Her forehead is hot and she has a headache and fever — she is worried they might be symptoms of malaria. She says she thinks she is 15 years old, but the teen is not sure.
The story that the young woman has to tell opens a window into a world that generally remains hidden. With its extreme nihilism and complete disregard for human life, it is a world that seems unreal and imaginary. But it is real and it starts just 60 kilometers away from Maiduguri. It is a world that abhors life and pays homage to a religion-tinged death cult created by the most deadly of all Islamist sects: Boko Haram.
Like a Morphing Virus
No other terror organization — not al-Qaida and not Islamic State — has murdered as many people since 2009 as has Boko Haram. The total is thought to be as high as 27,000.
Recently, the Nigerian army — led by the country’s new president, the former general Muhammadu Buhari — has recaptured some territory and pushed back the Islamists. A military coalition made up of Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin has reported significant success in their fight against Boko Haram. Military leaders claim that an important leader of the terrorists has been taken into custody and hundreds of hostages have been released. “We have destroyed 70 percent of Boko Haram, says the head of a citizens’ militia that works together with the military.
But the Islamists still haven’t been completely defeated. The group has gnawed its way deep into the land and has spread into neighboring countries. It has also changed strategies, not unlike a morphing virus. Despite its military losses, it has found a way to infect broader society, by using young girls as human bombs.
There are two scars on Fatima’s cheeks that look almost as if they could be dimples. When she was small, her parents had the cuts made as ornamentation. But ever since that fateful Saturday when Boko Haram fighters attacked her village and shot the men, including her older brother, she hasn’t had any contact with her family whatsoever.
The militants packed the women and children into pick-ups and took them into the bush. There, Fatima slept under a tree next to other girls, all of whom the fighters referred to as “slaves.” Fatima speaks with tired eyes but a firm voice.
She says she refused to drink the red liquid they would bring to the girls in a gourd, pouring it out onto the ground when nobody was looking. The girls didn’t know what was in it, but Fatima had seen what it did to her friend.
It was a girl with whom she used to sell milk at the market. As Fatima tells it, the friend writhed on the ground with foam coming out of her mouth. The fighters then put a gun in her hand and told her to shoot Fatima’s aunt in the forehead because she had refused to marry on of the terrorists. The bullet, Fatima said, exploded out of the back of her aunt’s skull.
Working for Allah
Because Fatima repeatedly refused to watch when someone was being executed, the Boko Haram women tied her to a tree and forced her to watch as they taught the other girls to shoot, using goats as targets. She also had to watch, she says, as the women prepared the girls for suicide attacks.
Whenever they lost a battle against the military, the group would send out yet another suicide bomber. Some of them were Boko Haram women who volunteered for the job while others thought it might provide an opportunity for escape. Still others were forced. The women would pull off the girls’ black robes and clothe them in colorful dresses. They would wrap a belt around them which the men would fill with explosives.
“Go where there are lots of people,” the girls were told. “Then push the button.” It is a “holy war,” the fighters said, and they were working for Allah.
They then drove off with the girls, writing their names in a book. The others were told: “Pray for Aisha. Pray that you see her again soon in paradise.” In Fatima’s place, they sent a different girl to her death.
The strategy of using young women as living bombs has proven effective. It is one that reverses all certainties, transforming those who bring forth life into messengers of death — and it sows distrust. If you can’t trust young women in colorful dresses, after all, then who can you trust?
In March, two girls killed more than 20 people in a mosque at the edge of Maiduguri. Just a few days later, a girl blew herself up in front of a military patrol while a second girl tried to run away, but was shot. There were at least 89 such attacks in 2015, the majority of them carried out by women.
During battles in the villages, they run in groups toward the soldiers and then blow themselves up. Last June, two suicide bombers detonated at the Maiduguri fish market. A seven-year-old, who was also outfitted with a suicide belt, was found alive by the police.
Anti-Tank Ditches and Barbed Wire
In the Dikwa refugee camp in February, two more girls killed more than 70 people. A third refused to set off her bomb when she saw her own parents in the crowd.
Maiduguri, where Boko Haram got its start, is a dusty place — provincial and unhurried. Yellow tuk-tuks rattle through the streets and traders sell oranges and watermelons. A poster seeks to recruit new officers for the police force. But the calm is misleading. Maiduguri is surrounded by anti-tank ditches and soldiers have set up checkpoints on the roads leading into the city. Villas and refugee camps alike are surrounded by walls and barbed-wire, giving them the look of prisons.
The city’s population has swelled from its earlier population of around a million people to almost 3 million today. Many of the newcomers fled here from the terror in their villages, but very few of them live in official refugee camps. And they cannot return home because the enemy is still there. The city is populated by an army of the abused.
There are many children among them, such as Gbenga, a 12-year-old son of a taxi driver whose lanky frame is swimming in a huge red T-shirt with the word Prada on the front. One Saturday morning during Ramadan, Boko Haram fighters arrived and kidnapped him, together with a cousin, not far from his home village. “We will show you the path to Allah,” they told him at the Koran school in the terrorist camp. He was informed that killing all infidels was a commandment.
“I knew in my heart that they were wrong,” Gbenga says. He had gone to school after all, he explains. Speaking in their tribal dialect, he and his cousin made fun of their captors, saying: “These bloody Boko Haram.” But one of the Boko Haram women understood them and they were each punished with 10 lashes.
Because the two were still too small to go to war, they were forced to help out in the households of the Boko Haram families. They would care for their small children, serve food and do the washing. One day they were told to fetch water and they took advantage of the opportunity. They ran away.
Later, soldiers interrogated Gbenga and his cousin and the boys told them that they had not been forced to join the fight. They had constantly told the Boko Haram fighters that the weapons were too heavy and they couldn’t carry them. They were lucky that was the case, because the military locks up all who have undergone weapons training at the hands of Boko Haram.
The Birthplace of Boko Haram
Gbenga now lives with his brother in Maiduguri and has even begun going to school again. When asked about his future, he says he wants to become a banker. If you have money, people can’t just do whatever they want with you.
Not far from Gbenga’s new home, in the Railway Quarter, the walls are riddled with bullet holes. There is an empty lot, covered with weeds and blocks of cement, where a mosque once stood. It is from here that Mohammed Yusuf once spread his teachings. A destitute Muslim preacher, he founded Boko Haram as a protest movement.
Yusuf vilified all that is Western and rejects the heritage of Nigeria’s British colonial masters in addition to the abusive behavior of the corrupt elite in the country and across the continent. He considered moderate Muslims to be traitors to the faith and his version of pure Islam promised justice and power to the many poverty-stricken men in northern Nigeria who got nothing from the country’s oil riches.
In the city of Yola, 300 kilometers (190 miles) south of Maiduguri, Adisa, a 15-year-old girl, lies sprawled in a worn, hotel-room easy chair. She has thrown her legs over one of the arms and her feet dangle in the air. She is drinking a cola and gnawing on a toothpick.
A beautiful girl, her braided bangs peek out from beneath a turquoise headscarf and she is wearing a colorful dress. She also speaks a bit of English: The subject, along with math, was one of her favorites in school.
Adisa has traveled here from her village to talk about her time as a prisoner of Boko Haram. When the name of the terror group is mentioned for the first time in our conversation, her voice becomes quiet and she gazes emptily into the distance.
When the fighters arrived and attacked her village, she ran into a cornfield, losing her parents and sister along the way. “I waited for several hours,” she says. When dusk fell and she could no longer hear any gunfire, she left her hiding place. Boko Haram fighters, she says, saw her, chased her down, threw her to the ground, tied her hands, covered her eyes and threw her into the bed of a pick-up.
The camp where she spent five months is called Pita. It’s located at the edge of the Sambisa Forest, which stretches out over 130-square kilometers. It’s likely that the 276 girls who were kidnapped from a school in Chibok two years ago were also taken to this forest area. Adisa says she saw very few other people during the months when she was held captive. She was locked up in a hut made of branches and leaves and men stood guard outside. She could hear their voices as they spoke of a caliphate.
Forced Marriage and Rape
When Adisa had to go to the bathroom, guards always accompanied her. She was given a plate of rice twice each day. Adisa spent her time watching insects and large ants march across the ground, and observed how they carried large loads. She came to think of them as part of a community in which everyone sticks together. She thought about her own family, wondering if they were still alive, and about her village.
“One day, a group of fighters came and stood at the hut entrance,” she says. One of them told Adisa that he wanted to marry her, Adisa recalls. She cried.
“If you don’t agree, then we will kill you,” the man, whose face was covered, told her.
A few days later they fired their guns into the air outside. “You’re married now,” they said, according to Adisa. As a wedding present, they gave her six sets of clothing. Her husband, she says, stayed for three days and raped her.
“I screamed and there were people outside who could hear me, but no one came to help,” she says. In the weeks that followed, the husband was often away: She says he was one of their best fighters.
When he did come home, he would rape Adisa. Then he tried to teach her the Koran by reading it aloud to her. When she refused to repeat his words, he would hit her with a stick on the back, chest, stomach and legs. He would then list off all the things forbidden by Allah — sins like fornication or theft.
Adisa believes her husband was a very young man, still half a child, though he never spoke about himself. She could sometimes hear the other men say they were members of Boko Haram because they thought the Nigerian government was bad or because the police was too brutal — or simply because they needed money.
At the country’s airports, “Wanted Boko Haram suspects” signs are posted showing the men in camouflage uniforms and turbans. Experts believe the Boko Haram can no longer be beat by purely military means. The group has reached critical mass and has built up an infrastructure it can use to constantly recruit new fighters. Poverty, illiteracy and state neglect have created the fertile soil out of which Boko Haram harvests its recruits.
The Deadly Stigma of Boko Haram Babies
Small drops of sweat form on the forehead of Fatima, the girl with the baby from the camp in Maiduguri, as she shares the story of her escape. A few days after she was supposed to set off as a suicide attacker, the military began approaching the camp, she says. She could hear explosions and saw planes in the sky. Fatima and other girls were ordered to beat clear an escape path for the fighters through the undergrowth. No one was guarding them, so the girls used the new path for their own escape.
Fatima ran for five days, drinking out of rivers. By the fifth day, she had grown so exhausted that she was no longer able to carry her baby, so she left it under a tree. When the girls finally reached a road, they were picked up by soldiers and taken to a hospital. One of the soldiers went back and rescued the baby.
They took Fatima to a refugee camp next to the village of Dalori near Maiduguri. People there were afraid of Fatima and her baby. “It’s from a different species,” the told her and they shunned both mother and child.
On January 30 of this year, Boko Haram fighters in cars and on motorcycles ambushed Dalori. They burned down huts, killed 86 people and set children on fire. Residents tried to run away, but three suicide bombers among the fleeing crowd detonated themselves. The military, which has its headquarters not four kilometers away, was only able to recapture the village after several hours.
Fatima moved to another camp and she created a story for herself, a truth that would help her survive. She can neither read nor write, but she can do a bit of math: When Boko Haram kidnapped her, she tells people, she was two months pregnant. She then spent eight months in captivity. Following the birth of her child in captivity, she wasn’t touched for 40 days, she says, as is tradition.
It was at the end of this period that she fled — and she has been back in freedom for four months. Her child, now five months old, is from her husband, she says, who she married just before she was kidnapped. She was reunited with him at the camp. She says that no Boko Haram fighter ever touched her. It is a story that Fatima tells over and over again. She is sticking to it.
Adisa too, the girl from Yola, also ran into the bush one day at a moment when no one was looking. She prayed and thought about her village. During her journey, she met people who told her the village had been recaptured by the army. After a journey of several days, she finally made it to her parent’s mud house. She arrived dirty, emaciated, wearing shreds for clothing and shoes filled with holes. Her father cried.
For weeks, she rested at home. When she did go out once, other villagers stared at her and Adisa ran into her old English teacher in the streets. “Everyone who has lived with Boko Haram are like Boko Haram,” he told her.
Adisa has now been sitting for more than two hours in a hotel room in Yola sharing her story. For the first time during the interview, she starts to cry.
For a long time, she says, she didn’t realize that she was pregnant. But one day, she could hear the neighbors whispering and her aunt drove her to a hospital in Yola. She was pregnant, already in her fifth month — very late for an abortion. “If you don’t kill the baby, then you were voluntarily with Boko Haram,” the Christians in the village said. “As soon as the baby is born, we will kill it,” a young man with the civilian militia threatened. Her father then kept her locked in the house until the child was born.
Those seeking to destroy a society must destroy the fabric of the family and community by penetrating its most intimate corners. Sexual assault is a means that is as common as it is effective. But Boko Haram goes a step further by forcing the women it takes as slaves to also act as suicide bombers.
It exploits women in two ways: The ideology of contempt reduces a woman to her body and degrades her into a kind of empty vessel.
Using girls wearing colorful dresses as weapons of murder who then target the weakest is extraordinarily effective. They sow fear and drive a wedge through society and the hate turns against the weakest. Every woman who is able to escape also becomes the subject of alienation and a target. Their return to their home villages, which should be a joyful occasion, carries the potential for disaster. As a tactic of war, it is unparalleled and unprecedented.
Eight girls who have successfully escaped from Boko Haram have been murdered after returning to their villages — by husbands, relatives or neighbors. There is no estimate as to the number of babies that have been killed.
‘God Gave Me This Child’
“God gave me this child so that I would look after it,” says Adisa as she pats her daughter’s chest. At first, she says she felt bad having the baby in her belly, but now she likes it. Does the baby resemble its father? She doesn’t know: She says she never saw his face.
Adisa would like to go to school and study, in the city if possible. One day, she would like to become a doctor.
She’s now venturing outside the hut again. The village elder announced that they were to leave girls like her alone. But she leaves her baby at home because people stare at it as if something evil were growing inside of it.
“I’m very afraid,” says a friend of Adisa’s who lives a few doors down and also has a small son from Boko Haram. “Once the military leaves, the village elder will no longer have a say. That’s when they’ll come and kill us.”
She checks the time. It’s after 11 a.m., almost midday. Time to go. The two girls have to be home before the curfew begins. They stand up, bind their children onto their backs, and make their way back to their village.