MUBI, Nigeria – Aisha’s new home is a plastic tent in the grounds of a brick factory. She has no belongings, and sleeps on a mat, along with the other women and children who share the tent. But, she says, this is the first time in years she’s felt safe.
This transit facility takes in people who have escaped Boko Haram.
Aisha, 20, and her husband were kidnapped from their village in southern Borno state three years ago. Their village had been attacked several times, but one day armed men arrived en masse in greater numbers than ever before.
“They came with cars and said we had to get in,” she says. “I didn’t know where they were taking us, but we ended up in the bush.”
Aisha and her husband were taken to a camp in the huge Sambisa Forest, which until recently was a stronghold for the armed insurgents.
Birth and Death Under Boko Haram
Aisha and her husband got pregnant during their time in captivity, but her baby son never met his father.
“My husband was killed when he tried to escape,” she says.
The pair planned to run into the bush one night, and then split up. Her husband was worried if he was found by security forces he would be arrested on suspicion of being an insurgent. But before they could get out of the forest, her husband was caught.
“We were quite young and we were in love,” Aisha says. “We were still in our honeymoon years when this happened.”
For Aisha and the other captives life in the camp was a constant struggle to find enough food.
“Some days we didn’t get anything, I had to go and beg from the other hostages,” she says. “If you went to Boko Haram and begged for food they wouldn’t give you anything.”
“We went around the camp to try to find plants and anything else we could eat.”
Aisha’s testimony, collected over two days, sheds a light on life in the camps for women who have been kidnapped.
“When we saw military airplanes they would take us and make us hide in the bush,” she says.
She gave birth while still being held by Boko Haram. “When I was in labor, it lasted all night. I gave birth in the morning,” she says, holding her 14-month-old son, Habu. “Then we saw the military planes coming so we had to get up and run into the forest. I was in serious pain, my body was all swollen.”
“I didn’t have any help.”
Starved for Refusing to Bomb
Boko Haram fighters have kidnapped thousands of women and girls since 2009, most famously the 276 school girls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014. Women are targeted for various reasons: To convert them to Islam, to provide wives for the fighters and, increasingly, to use as suicide bombers.
Researchers from West Point and Yale University found that, for those whose gender could be identified, two thirds of suicide bombers used by Boko Haram were women and girls.
“There were women from Boko Haram who had guns, and they told us we should go and become suicide bombers,” Aisha says. “They would go off and carry out the attacks. Some would be killed; others would come back.”
“For those of us who refused to become suicide bombers, they would keep us separate from the others. They would starve us as we refused to follow them.”
When Habu was 10 months old, Aisha tried to escape, along with two other women, one of whom was pregnant. They ran through the night but were caught, brought back to the camp and locked in a makeshift prison cell. Aisha spent four days inside with her son, and says she was given no food.
“I was beaten with a fan belt from a generator,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “I had my baby with me, he was starving.”
The day she was released from her cell, she found the other two women and they escaped again. They thought if they stayed they would starve to death.
“We pretended to go to try and find some plants and herbs to cook, and then we decided to leave.” They ran into the bush.
“Whenever we heard anything we would lie flat in the grass and we would wait until it was quiet, then we would get up and run again,” she says. “It took us two days, we kept running all night.”
“When we saw the town [of Madagali] and other people, we were laughing and we were so happy. We had finally made it.”
Life After Captivity
Aisha’s life remains uncertain. Not only has she effectively swapped life in one camp for another, she also is coming to terms with the mental anguish of seeing her husband killed, and having no way to support her son.
The transit centre where she lives is currently home to 57 people, but over the past year tens of thousands of refugees have passed through, as they return from refugee camps across the border in Cameroon.
With Boko Haram forced out of most of the towns they controlled in north east Nigeria, refugees are coming back in huge numbers. A representative from the Nigerian Red Cross told News Deeply they expect 50,000 more to arrive in the coming months.
The International Committee of the Red Cross offers medical and psychological support to women, especially widows, affected by the crisis.
“Some of them are still mourning their husbands,” says Kingsley Nworah, the mental health field officer from the ICRC. “Those of them who are still grieving their losses and have lots of regrets, we work … to get them to understand how to articulate all these things in their minds.”
“Sometimes when people are grieving they don’t really have the ability to think, they don’t see the future, so our job is to help them think about the future,” he says.
But there are so many women who need support, and aid agencies are unable to help everyone. So far, Aisha and Habu have received nothing apart from food and somewhere safe to sleep.
Aisha says she can’t return to her home village as it still isn’t safe, and her house has been destroyed. With no way to communicate with her family, she can’t even find out if her parents are still alive.
Her future remains bleak, but her mind is still often in the past, unable to process the horrors of what she experienced. She thinks of those who she left behind when she escaped.
“There are still women in the camp,” she says. “Many will have starved to death.”
This is part of a series of articles to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.