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Healing a generation wounded by Boko Haram

Why We Wrote This

This is the story of the thousands of women and their children, born of sexual violence, whose abduction did not capture headlines, and who all too often no one welcomes home. But maybe that can change.

Andrew Esiebo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Fatima, who was kidnapped and severely abused by members of Boko Haram, sits with her son, Mohammed, who was born while she was in the militants’ custody.

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“The child of a snake is still a snake.” It’s a phrase people commonly use here to describe children like Mohammed. His mother, Fatima, was abducted by Boko Haram, pressured into marriage with a fighter, and barely survived her escape.

But for Fatima, and many other survivors, coming home was hardly a refuge. The young women and their children are frequently shunned, with neighbors blaming them for the abuse they suffered, or even accusing them of being spies for insurgents. Many mothers struggle to accept their children, who were often born of rape.

Today, though, Fatima is one of a small number of success stories, in still-nascent efforts to help women heal and rejoin their communities. Not everyone who participates is transformed. In fact, most aren’t. Some husbands or families simply won’t accept their wives or daughters back. But for others, the groups give an accepting space to recover, forge new friendships, and step toward the future. “She’s a very strong woman and a resilient lady,” psychologist Patience Shikson says of Fatima, “because she has been through hell and survived it.”

Fatima portrays little emotion as she describes how she came close to killing her own son. Wearing a black headscarf that accentuates her dark, almond-shaped eyes, the 18-year-old Nigerian is lovely, although the raised scars than run down the left side of her face, neck, and body – scars she got escaping from the brutal terrorist group Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria – suggest some unspeakable horror. 

“I did not like the boy in any way,” she says softly of her son, Mohammed. “I didn’t want to have eye contact or even see the child. I tried to murder him, to poison him. God must have intervened, because people wouldn’t have been powerful enough to stop me.” 

Fatima is subdued and matter-of-fact during the several hours we talk about her ordeal. We are sitting on a mat on the dusty ground in an open-air tent that does little to abate the relentless heat in Bakassi camp for internally displaced people in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the birthplace of Boko Haram. But when someone fetches Mohammed, now 4 years old, from school, her face opens into a broad smile. She laughs as she swings him over her shoulder and tickles him, and he giggles with delight. “I don’t want anything to come between us,” she says through an interpreter. 

Fatima is one of the small number of success stories in the still-nascent efforts to help the girls and young women who were abducted by Boko Haram heal and rejoin their families and communities in northeastern Nigeria. The initiatives are considered essential to saving a potentially lost generation of young women and children and to stabilizing communities that are still struggling to overcome the near-constant conflict here in Africa’s most populous nation. 

This is not the story behind #BringBackOurGirls – the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls from Chibok whose kidnapping by Boko Haram sparked an international social media campaign to rescue them. It is the story of the thousands of others and their children, like Mohammed, born of sexual violence, whose abduction did not capture headlines and who all too often no one welcomes home. 

The children are considered irretrievably damaged, with the “bad blood” of their fathers coursing through their veins, destined to become Boko Haram fighters as well. “The child of a snake is a snake,” a common saying goes. For Fatima (who last name was withheld for her safety) and other mothers, their children can be a cruel reminder of the violence they suffered and an additional source of discrimination. Some have tried to abort their babies. 

The mothers, many no more than children themselves, are shunned by their husbands or fathers or mothers and forced to live in isolation in the squalid camps that have mushroomed around Maiduguri. On top of the widespread stigma against victims of sexual violence in this traditional, patriarchal society, the survivors face an additional burden. Many people fear that the “Boko Haram wives,” as they are derisively called, have been radicalized and are spies for the insurgents or may even kill them – fears that are compounded by Boko Haram’s practice of using girls as young as 10 as suicide bombers.   

Andrew Esiebo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, a mélange of tin-roofed shelters, houses more than 26,000 people displaced by fighting in northeastern Nigeria.

The people’s worries are understandable, says Cindy Chungong, country manager for Nigeria for International Alert, one of a handful of nonprofits that in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) are working to reintegrate victims into communities. People have suffered tremendously at the hands of Boko Haram. Many witnessed their family members and neighbors slaughtered, their cattle stolen, their crops and livelihoods destroyed. But still, “it is absolutely traumatizing for those girls and women [to be rejected], especially if they have been raped and are having difficulty accepting the child,” says Ms. Chungong. “It is just heartbreaking....”

Their suffering is part of the collective nightmare that has gripped northeastern Nigeria for a decade now – in which virtually everyone has been affected. What’s unusual about the crisis is that some of its most severe effects are psychological, says Feargal O’Connell, who heads the Nigeria program of the nonprofit International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The depth and breadth of trauma cannot be underestimated at an individual or community level,” he says. And for the girls and women who have returned from Boko Haram, Mr. O’Connell adds, it is “trauma layered upon trauma.”

***

Borno State, where Fatima was born, is a parched swath of the Sahel in the northeastern-most corner of Nigeria. Abutting Lake Chad on one side, it shares borders with Niger and Cameroon, which the insurgents cross freely, terrorizing the population on each side. It is a world apart from the carefully planned streets of the country’s capital, Abuja, or the sprawling, chaotic port city of Lagos some 760 miles away in the relatively prosperous, largely Christian south.

The north is a no man’s land, the mostly Muslim population long ignored by their government, desperately poor, with abysmal health conditions and high illiteracy. With no jobs and few prospects, young men are easy prey for extremist groups such as Boko Haram, one of the deadliest terrorist groups on the planet, which espouses violence and its own twisted version of sharia (Islamic law).

“There were incredible levels of deprivation in northeastern Nigeria before the crisis,” O’Connell says. “That is the root cause.”

Boko Haram emerged as a force in 2009. At first, its attacks were small and sporadic, targeting mainly police and the military. But soon it spread across Borno and into the adjoining states of Yobe and Adamawa as the group expanded its caliphate. During their rampage, the militants pillaged and burned schools, clinics, and entire villages. They murdered men, conscripted boys to kill their own people, and abducted girls and women, who are used as sex slaves or forced to marry Boko Haram fighters.

The insurgency has claimed nearly 30,000 lives, according to some estimates, displaced 2 million people across three northeastern states, and left 7.7 million in need of humanitarian assistance. More than half of the displaced are children, according to Milen Kidane, head of child protection at UNICEF in Nigeria. And there is no end in sight: Despite government claims to the contrary, terrorist attacks and atrocities have intensified in the past few months and, with the recent murder of two aid workers, some humanitarian groups have suspended operations in parts of Borno.

Still, Boko Haram did not garner much international attention until the 2011 bombing of the United Nations building in Abuja. It gained even more notoriety with the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014. (Many of the Chibok girls have been freed, but about 100 remain in captivity.)

A 2016 assessment by International Alert, in partnership with UNICEF and other groups, punctured the myth of the happy reunion of the survivors with their families and communities. Studying conditions in four camps for those who have been internally displaced, they found instead that the girls and young women faced additional emotional abuse and sometimes violence when they returned.

Andrew Esiebo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Vehicles dart through one of the gates leading into Maiduguri, a city of more than 1.1 million people.

Those who were gone for several years and who were married to combatants face the worst discrimination, Chungong says. Locals often assume that because they didn’t escape, they must be sympathizers. Some women did join Boko Haram willingly, although Chungong questions how “willing” it really is in a culture that dictates you follow your husband or risk being killed. “I mean, they weren’t physically forced, but it was under tremendous pressure a lot of them went.”

***

Fatima’s life is divided into before and after. Before she lived in a quiet village in Marte and helped her family on their farm. During the chaos of Boko Haram’s attack, as villagers scattered, she and another girl found themselves in a car with three men escaping to nearby Dikwa. But the insurgents overcame them, murdering the men and taking the two girls to Sambisa Forest, where Fatima was held for three years. 

At first Boko Haram kept her and other new captives separate from the militants, but she eventually agreed to marry the fourth in command. She says she had no choice – she was terrified. “Marriage is a kind of protection for you,” says Patience Shikson, a clinical psychologist who formerly worked with the small nonprofit Neem Foundation and who also served as our interpreter on this visit to the camp. “You don’t touch someone else’s wife.”

Fatima tried to escape three times, only to be caught and returned to the forest. On the fourth attempt, the insurgents were not so kind. They tied her and another girl up and dragged them behind motorcycles and left them for dead.

After she regained consciousness, bloody and weak, Fatima saw her baby nearby. “My mind told me I should just leave him,” she says. But she relented and struggled to carry him to a nearby village, where people cared for them. Fatima still does not know whether the other girl survived.

The Nigerian military sent Fatima to a transit center in Maiduguri, where newly freed or escaped captives are sheltered for several months and treated. Then she was transferred to Bakassi camp, where people from Marte have been relocated. The camps are organized by place of origin – entire villages have been transplanted – which is a mixed blessing, Chungong says: You are returning to your community, but everyone knows you have been with Boko Haram. And that makes the rejection even more painful. 

Bakassi houses more than 26,000 people who have fled the violence carried out by both Boko Haram and the military. They are crammed into a messy mélange of flimsy tents or unfinished buildings. Except for a few struggling tufts of grass, everything is dust, which clogs your nose and coats your ankles. To get anywhere, you have to sidestep fetid puddles. Food and water are scarce, and proud, once self-sufficient farmers are reduced to relying on handouts. The toilets are communal pit latrines, which sometimes overflow and are not safe for women or girls at night. 

Once at Bakassi, Fatima says she was especially branded by her scars, which are a visible reminder of where she had been. “People would become irritated just looking at me,” she says. Her family refused any contact, the community shunned her, and she was forced to live alone with Mohammed in a segregated part of the camp called Sambisa, after the forest where she had been held. Some people called her a demon; her son was denigrated as a “hyena among dogs.” Other mothers would not let their children play with him, and some women would not even be in the same tent with her – all of which compounded the trouble she was having in accepting her child. Desperate, she tried to take his life.

When her parents learned of it, they took him in but still wanted nothing to do with their daughter. At this point, Neem stepped in. The group is unusual in that it tries to foster reconciliation by offering intensive, one-on-one psychological counseling for children and young adults, like Fatima. 

Andrew Esiebo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Girls participate in a bonding and reintegration activity, organized by the nonprofit Neem Foundation, at the Bakassi camp.

The community leaders are the entry point into the programs, says Emmanuel Bosah, who runs Neem’s rehabilitation and reintegration program – they know every child who returns from the forest and the troubles they face. Neem, UNICEF, and other groups rely heavily on these respected elders and religious leaders, who they train to help heal the psychological wounds. 

“Religious leaders use a lot of imagery about forgiveness and putting yourself in the shoes of another person,” says Chungong of International Alert. “This is both Christian and Muslim, because we have displaced people of both faiths.” 

Initially, Fatima rebuffed Neem’s overtures. But one day she came on her own and then agreed to join a peer support group. “These are essentially safe spaces where women and girls who have returned from Boko Haram can come and talk to others who had similar experiences,” says Chungong. “Before, they used to feel so traumatized and so stigmatized that they just kept everything they were feeling to themselves.”

Gradually, the nonprofits bring into the group other young women who were not associated with Boko Haram but who have also seen horrors and may well have suffered sexual violence. “They get to hear, sometimes for the first time, what other women went through and realize they are just as much victims of the conflict as they are,” Chungong says. 

In her individual sessions, Ms. Shikson says, Neem helped Fatima understand that “she needs her child, and he can be a source of comfort, a source of joy. She has learned to accept that.”

The groups also work with families. They try to get the parents to understand that their daughters are victims and that they are doing the best they can to rebuild their lives under tragic circumstances.

Acceptance can be especially hard for husbands. If a wife returns with a child, or pregnant, they often don’t consider how it happened. “It is almost irrelevant if it was by rape or choice,” Chungong says. “It’s just ‘I cannot be a father and welcome a woman who is carrying someone else’s child.’ ”

The leaders preach a similar message to community members. They tell them that the children born in captivity had no say in how they came into the world, and what’s important is how people raise them, not their bloodline.

Some communities are surprisingly pragmatic. They realize that if they don’t accept these young women they may go back to Boko Haram – and some have. Similarly, if communities reject the children, they may indeed grow up and join a militant group.

Not everyone who goes to these sessions is transformed. In fact, most aren’t. Some husbands or families simply can’t or won’t accept their wives or daughters. “We are quite realistic,” says Chungong. “We don’t think just because a father says, ‘OK, I accept you or you can come live in my house,’ that she is welcome or well-treated, or that long-term change has happened. But over time, we hear some positive results.” 

In its programs, International Alert has reached about 7,000 girls and young women who survived Boko Haram. The group estimates that some 200 families have taken back their daughters and wives.

Fatima’s family now welcomes her. She can visit freely, eat with them, and sometimes spend the night. But because the family is crowded into one small shelter, she resides separately with Mohammed. Other children now play with him.

With a quiet smile, she says she dreams of being a doctor or a nurse, but for now she has no way out of the camp. She has had no education and is not comfortable attending the basic classes UNICEF offers to young children who have never gone to school. She wants something better for Mohammed. She takes him to school each day in the community outside the camp, borrowing a bicycle if she can, and pays for his education largely by selling half of her food rations. 

Fatima is still being treated for depression, but is sleeping better now. Like many others who have returned, however, she tires easily and suffers from chest pains and what Shikson describes as panic attacks.

But Fatima is strong, Shikson says, affectionately stroking her arm and occasionally resting her head in Fatima’s lap as we talk. “She’s a very strong woman and a resilient lady – because she has been through hell and survived it.”

***

Andrew Esiebo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Asamau, who was abducted by Boko Haram, sews a cap that she will sell to help sustain her living at the Bakassi camp for displaced people in Maiduguri.

Others are not so fortunate. Also in Bakassi we meet a young woman named Asamau. Tiny, with an angelic face, she looks closer to 14 than the 18 years old she is. As Shikson begins to narrate her story, Asamau starts crying uncontrollably and crawls off to the corner of the tent. “She is in crisis,” Shikson says. “She’s battling with how to cope with life without her mother, without anyone around her, because her father was killed in her very presence and her mother has now rejected her and gone away.”

When Asamau returned from Boko Haram with a baby girl, her mother initially accepted them. But then the mother met a man who wanted to marry her and take her from the camp. When he learned her daughter had been with Boko Haram, he would not let Asamau join them. Her mother left without telling her.

Asamau’s baby died at age 1. She now lives alone, isolated. Her only friend is Fatima.

“She should not be alone, with no one to talk to,” says Shikson. She was hoping to find the young woman a foster family, but the day we talked, Asamau was still waiting for her mother to come for her.

Since then, Mr. Bosah says, Asamau has been in one-on-one counseling at Neem. She still lives alone, but the suicidal thoughts she has been struggling with have ebbed, he says, and she is now more hopeful.

With its intensive approach, however, Neem can reach only a fraction of those in need. The Yellow Ribbon Initiative that Fatima and Asamau are part of has helped 1,500 young people who were scarred by violence and associated with armed groups, not just Boko Haram but the vigilante group that has sprung up to fight them and also the military. Yet Bosah estimates that more than 10,000 children and young adults require support in Borno alone. “There is a huge, huge void,” he says. 

Counseling programs get just a tiny fraction of the funding that other initiatives do. The humanitarian situation in northeastern Nigeria is so acute that most international aid goes to food, shelter, medicine, and other life-saving needs. 

As of December 2018, programs aimed at addressing so-called gender-based violence in northeastern Nigeria had received only 6.2 percent of their funding from the international community. That’s about $2.5 million out of a total of $1 billion requested for the crisis overall. “I am completely dumbfounded” that it can be so low, IRC’s O’Connell says.

Andrew Esiebo/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Boys who were once abducted by or persuaded to join Boko Haram do a bonding exercise at the Bakassi camp in Maiduguri.

An even tougher problem looms – the return of boys and young men who were abducted or persuaded to join Boko Haram and became fighters. While community members and families can sometimes be convinced that the women and girls who were seized were victims, it is far more difficult to get locals to accept the return of boys and young men “who willingly picked up arms and who came and slaughtered people,” as Chungong puts it. Indeed, some of them have been killed when they return. But, UNICEF’s Ms. Kidane emphasizes, no matter what crimes they committed, any child is still a victim. 

Aid groups are beginning to recognize the importance of reintegrating boys back into communities. Neem is spearheading one such effort at Bakassi camp.

On the day we visit in August, we see a group of about 15 young boys sitting in a circle facing inward, with their bare feet touching. The children have all been held by armed groups and have been used as child soldiers or domestic servants. The space created by their feet in the middle symbolizes unity, Shikson explains. The boys are singing: “Together we can overcome. We are brothers. We are still one. By coming together we have conquered.”

And they are smiling.

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