“People often don’t realize how much choice Boko Haram gave women,” a psychologist who operated a deradicalization program said. Many were extended freedoms they’d never experienced before.
Around 6:30 p.m. on an evening in April, 2013, Aisha Yerima was at her home in Banki, a town in northeast Nigeria. Aisha was twenty-one, slim and dark-skinned, her face wrapped in a hijab. She had been raised in Maiduguri, the nearby capital of Borno state, and, unlike many girls in the region, she had attended the Government Girls Secondary School. “I am educated,” she boasted to me, recently. When she graduated, at fifteen, her family married her off to a man named Mustapha. But after seven years the couple divorced, and Mustapha took custody of their three-year-old son. Aisha was preparing to move back in with her parents, and she was chatting with her former in-laws about the move when she heard gunshots. She looked out the window and saw militants from the jihadist group Boko Haram advancing on a unit of Nigerian soldiers, who were stationed in town and appeared to be outnumbered. As the militants fired on the buildings, residents scrambled for safety. In the chaos, Aisha ran in a different direction from her ex-husband and child. She made her way to a grove of trees and hid for what seemed like hours, panting and praying. That evening, the militants found her and loaded her onto a truck bed, along with dozens of women and children. “I was among those captured and taken away into the forest,” she said.
Since its founding in northern Nigeria, in 2002, Boko Haram has razed villages and massacred townspeople in an effort to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region, which is largely Muslim. The militants have bombed dozens of public places, including the United Nations building and the national police headquarters, both in Abuja, the country’s capital. In 2011, the government launched an offensive, forcing the militants to flee from their base in Maiduguri into the Sambisa Forest, a former game reserve. Nigerian soldiers destroyed their homes and arrested any family members left behind, including the widow of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder, and the wife and children of Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader. Shekau threatened retaliation; since then, the militants have kidnapped thousands of girls and women, using them as servants and marrying them to militants against their will. In 2014, Boko Haram abducted two hundred and seventy-six girls from a school dormitory in Chibok, prompting a global campaign for their release—led by spokeswomen including Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai—called Bring Back Our Girls.
Aisha was driven through a dense tangle of tamarind and baobab trees, deep into the Sambisa Forest. After hours of travelling, the group arrived at a clearing filled with zinc-roofed buildings and tarpaulin tents, home to scores of militants and their families. The women were taken to a tent and fed dates—known in the Hausa language as dabino. Dates are revered in Islam: during Ramadan, the Prophet broke his fast with them, and many Muslims do the same today. Locals believe that militants place charms on the dabino that they feed their captives, in order to bewitch them. Some former captives have told me that they surreptitiously avoided eating the dates. Aisha did not believe that they were enchanted, but she was struck by the gentleness with which the militants fed them the fruit. They offered the women water to drink and encouraged them to get some rest. “That was when I started realizing that they were not as bad as people said they were,” she said.
Aisha began her life in captivity as a slave, running errands and doing chores for the wives of the militants and spending eleven hours a day in Quran classes. The captives were all kept in a single small tent, and militants came each day to select wives from among them. Almost immediately, a man named Mamman Nur began courting Aisha. Nur was a senior commander, or amir, and a close adviser to Shekau. He is thought to have been the mastermind behind the U.N. bombing, in 2011; shortly after the attack, the Nigerian government set a hundred-and-sixty-thousand-dollar bounty on his head. But to Aisha he was tender. Whenever he visited the tent, he paid her compliments and sang her songs in Arabic. “He was very romantic,” she said. “He showered me with gifts, like expensive wrappers, jewelry, and so on—any of the kind of things that women like.”
Four months into her captivity, Aisha married Nur and moved into his home. “I was the last of his four wives, and his favorite,” she said. “Anytime I wanted to be with him, he put every other thing aside to satisfy my needs.” About a year into their marriage, Aisha gave birth to a son. Each wife was allocated a different section of the house, and Aisha began to quarrel with Nur’s second wife, who she thought was jealous, always peeping into Aisha’s room whenever Nur visited. Eventually, Aisha asked Nur to divorce his second wife, and he agreed. “None could get him to do her bidding except me,” she said. As a commander’s wife, or amira, Aisha had scores of slaves—other recent female captives—who did her chores. “The only task I didn’t allow them to do for me was preparing my husband’s meals,” she said. “I preferred handling that myself.” She dismissed any slave who seemed to have her eyes on Nur, instructing that she be taken back to the tent where the other female captives lived. Militants feared and respected Aisha. “The men could hardly look me in the eye,” she said. “They always spoke to me with their heads bowed.”
Aisha’s account of her captivity differs sharply from those of hundreds of other women, who returned home with stories of brutal sexual violence. She insists that she was never harmed. “No one raped me or even once attempted to rape me,” she said. All extramarital sexual relations were strictly prohibited in her camp, and men found guilty were punished by death. The camp’s residents were compelled to watch the executions. “They would bury the person in the ground with his head sticking out of the hole, then slit his throat,” Aisha said. “Anyone who was caught not looking while the person was being killed, he too would be punished.” An official ban on sexual violence seems to be consistent across Boko Haram’s territory. “You are supposed to protect women,” Aminu Shagari, a Quranic scholar and former Boko Haram commander, told me. “You should not allow anyone to harm them.” However, women interviewed by Amnesty International in 2014–15 reported that Boko Haram members secretly raped them at night. Several Chibok girls told me that militants took advantage of their classmates during periods when military air raids threw their usually regimented camps into chaos, forcing women and men to mix. Many women also told me that they were pressed into marriages and then forced to have sex with their new husbands—a form of sexual violence that Boko Haram does not recognize as a crime.
Aisha was not the only prisoner who began to identify with her captors. In 2014, Zara John, a chirpy fourteen-year-old, was kidnapped from Izghe, a village near Banki. She watched the militants burn down the homes in her village and kill the men. She was loaded onto a truck with her mother and driven to Bita, a town near the Sambisa Forest that was then under Boko Haram’s control. During the journey, her mother fell off the truck and chased after it on foot for several miles before giving up. “As soon as we arrived, they told us that we were now their slaves,” she said. Zara was soon fed a meal of dabino. She is convinced that the charms in the dates were responsible for how her feelings about Boko Haram changed during her captivity. “I was not in my right mind,” she said.
After two months, Zara was forced to marry a tall, quiet commander named Ali. At first she was scared of him, but she came to appreciate the status she gained as an amira. She moved from a room that she shared with other female captives to a thatched-roof hut that she shared only with Ali. “Before I got married, they were tough on us,” she said. “But after I became a commander’s wife I had freedom. I slept anytime I wanted, I woke up anytime I wanted.” Ali gave her gifts, including food, clothes, jewelry, and a wristwatch. “All the Boko Haram men used to respect me,” she said. “I stopped being afraid of them. Anything I wanted, they did it for me. I felt like a queen in a palace.”
The respect that Aisha and Zara commanded contrasts with the situation of most women in northern Nigeria. The region is one of the nation’s poorest. In Borno state, according to the United Nations Population Fund, nearly sixty per cent of girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen are married, and many have begun bearing children. Wives typically require permission from their husbands to leave the house, and they have little say in family decisions or public life. “People often don’t realize how much choice Boko Haram gave women,” Fatima Akilu, a psychologist who runs the Neem Foundation—which operated a deradicalization program for female former captives of Boko Haram—told me. The wives of commanders, and also women who joined the group voluntarily, were extended greater freedoms than are typical for women in the region. “We usually dismiss Boko Haram as anti-women and anti-girls, but they knew that a powerful recruitment strategy was to tell women that, ‘If you join our group, you can have whatever role you want,’ ” she said. “ ‘Even if you want to be a combatant, we will train you to be a combatant.’ ”
Aisha was curious to see the fighting up close, so, not long after they married, Nur invited her to come along. They prepared for the journey with a long period of fasting, then set off with scores of militants. They had barely made it out of the forest when they encountered a unit of soldiers. They killed most of them, and took one captive; they gave him water and allowed him to say his prayers before taking him away. (Aisha does not know what became of him.) She claims never to have fired a shot, although she often polished and assembled Nur’s weapon for him. “My husband killed many soldiers,” she said. She vacillated between admiration and horror. “I asked him, ‘Why? Why all this?’ ” she said. “He told me that these were the people killing members of Boko Haram, so they had no option but to treat them the same way.”
Three years into Aisha’s captivity, Nur was on the front lines, accompanied by the majority of the battalion and one of his other wives, when he received warning that the military was approaching the camp in the Sambisa Forest. Aisha is good at recalling figures—she is able to reel off her friends’ mobile-phone numbers on the spot—and she remembers the exact date: March 6, 2016. Nur called a militant, stationed near the camp, who returned to drive Aisha and several other women and children to safety. They were fleeing through the forest when soldiers surrounded them. “I thought they were going to kill us,” she said. She told the other women to stand still and wait for death, but the soldiers assured her that they had come to save her. They let her fetch some valuables from the house—six sets of jewelry, expensive clothing, and euros and dollars that she had never needed to spend—and then they burned it down.
Aisha’s rescue was part of a sustained crackdown on Boko Haram, which began in 2015, when President Muhammadu Buhari took office. The government moved its offensive command center from Abuja to Maiduguri and formed a task force, comprised of military units from neighboring countries, that launched attacks on Boko Haram’s camps. The task force reclaimed dozens of occupied towns and villages and rescued thousands of women from the Sambisa Forest hideout. Following negotiations, Boko Haram released a hundred and three missing Chibok schoolgirls (four others were found during military operations or by local fighters). A few had children with them.
Many former wives of Boko Haram commanders were viewed with suspicion when they returned home. Their children were treated as outcasts—victims of the superstition that any child whose father was a Boko Haram member would inherit his murderous traits. The stigma was much worse against women who had married militants voluntarily. At first, former Boko Haram wives were brought to a camp in Dalori, on the outskirts of Maiduguri, that housed thousands of people who had been displaced by the fighting. The wives occupied a cluster of about seven tents, which the other refugees nicknamed Sambisa, for their former home. Residents refused to interact with them, or to let their children play with the children of the militants. A representative from the group had to be present at the kitchen at meal times to insure that the women received enough food to eat, and camp officials created a segregated space for their children to play. Eventually, the government set up a safe house for women rescued from Boko Haram—a bungalow in an upmarket district of Maiduguri, hidden behind high walls and an imposing gate and guarded by armed soldiers. Guests needed official permits. Families could visit, but the women were not allowed to leave.
A day after arriving in Maiduguri, Aisha moved into the safe house. She shared the three-bedroom compound with thirty-three women, including two elderly mothers of militants, and also dozens of children. She lived out of a suitcase and slept on a thin mattress spread out on the floor. Because her husband had been senior to those of the other women, Aisha resumed her leadership role. When the state governor came to visit, he brought gifts for the women, and Aisha was responsible for distributing them. But over time her influence waned. “When we first came here, everyone still respected me,” Aisha said. “Whenever my child soiled himself, people scrambled to clean him up for me. Now all that has changed. I have very little power left.” She sometimes fantasized about what life would have been like if she had stayed with Nur. Four months after she was captured, Nur co-founded a splinter group that pledged allegiance to isis. “I would have been the big man’s wife,” she said.
The Boko Haram wives met regularly with Akilu and other psychologists from the Neem Foundation. Akilu had established a deradicalization program for the office of the national-security adviser, which had succeeded in convincing several former Boko Haram commanders to recant the group’s ideology and reintegrate into their communities. She hoped to achieve similar results with the wives. “When we started working with them, they were pretty tough,” Akilu said. “They came with a lot of attitude, because they felt that they were a chosen group. They had lived in relative luxury in the forest . . . and really felt that there was nothing we could offer them.” The women also met with Islamic teachers who argued against Boko Haram’s interpretations of the Quran. “In the early days, they would accept no responsibility for any of their actions, even the ones who had been involved personally in committing atrocities,” Akilu said. “They also displayed very little empathy for their victims.” In May, 2017, Boko Haram released a video that showed Dorcas Yakubu, a Chibok girl, wielding a weapon and saying that she no longer wanted to be reunited with her family members, whom she described as infidels. Her freed classmates told me that Dorcas became so radicalized in captivity that they feared she would harm them.
At first, Aisha refused to consider any criticisms of Boko Haram. “It got into my mind that we were the ones doing the right thing,” Aisha said. “I believed everything I was told.” But, after a few months of psychology sessions and religious classes, the ideology began to lose its hold on her. She started to question whether Boko Haram was actually the legitimate government in Nigeria, as she had been taught, and whether everyone who didn’t serve the group was really an infidel. When she heard audio recordings that Nur released promoting his splinter group, “I laugh at what he is saying,” she said. “I think, Is this my husband? Why is he doing this?” When she had first left the forest, she longed for Nur physically—she shuddered when she recalled the intensity of her desire. But after months in the safe house she thought of him less often, and no longer considered herself married to him. “Even if I cannot forget about him, I can never go back to him, because my life and his are not the same again,” she said. “Even if he comes back to take me, I won’t follow him.”
When I met Aisha, in January, 2017, she had been in custody for almost a year. Her parents visited often, accompanied by her first son, who is now seven; his father had returned him to her family soon after the attack on Banki, worrying that the militants would kidnap him. The government had recently determined that the women were sufficiently deradicalized, and was ending the program in the safe house and preparing to reintegrate the women. (Akilu worried that the decision was premature but had little say.) Aisha was set to leave the safe house in a few days. “I believed that what we were being taught in Boko Haram was the right way to do things Islamically, but not anymore,” she told me. “Now I am out of their fold.”
Before Aisha and I parted, she made me promise to send her a few of the selfies that we had taken together. When she returned to her family’s home, in Maiduguri, she got a mobile phone, and we spoke regularly. She often texted photos of herself dressed up for an evening out, in heavy makeup and false eyelashes. I got the impression that her first weeks outside the safe house were exciting. She attended family weddings and spent time with relatives, usually accompanied by her twenty-three-year-old sister, Bintu. When I called, it was often too noisy for her to talk. Gradually, though, reality set in. After a few weeks, she sounded more subdued. She didn’t face significant stigma—her family was welcoming—but she had no money. At one point, I sent her fifty dollars to buy formula for her son with Nur. She found work selling fabric in a market, but she still sounded unfulfilled.
At the time, Zara also was adjusting to life away from captivity. In early 2015, before her husband, Ali, had left for a battle, he gave her a cell phone so that she could keep in touch, and then used a knife and charcoal to tattoo his name onto her stomach. He explained that this would insure that, if he died in battle, members of Boko Haram would know that she was a commander’s widow and treat her well. “The knife was painful, but I accepted it,” Zara told me. A few days later, the Nigerian military arrived in Bita and shot every Boko Haram member in sight. Helpless and terrified, Zara lay on the ground as bullets flew over her head. “If I had a gun, I would have shot at the soldiers,” she said. Zara and other women were brought to a displaced-persons camp in Yola, and she was delighted when Ali called and promised to rescue her. But the soldiers soon seized the women’s phones, moved them to another camp, and then reunited them with their families. More than a year later, Zara was still in love with Ali, though she had no way to reach him. She regretted not committing his phone number to memory. She rejoiced at news of Boko Haram’s attacks.
In 2016, I did a short interview with Zara for the Reuters Foundation. She was one of the first former captives to admit that she was still in love with her husband, and she was soon inundated with media requests from around the world. Zara was from the most remote region of Nigeria, where people stare, mouths agape, at foreigners. “A white person came to my house, and she took a photograph with me!” she told me. “I’ll send you the picture.” Soon afterward, the American University of Nigeria, in Yola, which was giving scholarships to the Chibok girls, offered her a spot in the program. Zara’s family rejected the offer because the university was too far away, but a journalist raised money for her to enroll in a local school. After Zara returned to the classroom, I asked her if she still had feelings for Ali. “God forbid,” she replied. “Boko Haram doesn’t know what they are doing.” She had been deradicalized—though she insisted that it was because her family had spent months praying, which had caused the effects of the dabino to wear off.
Zara’s experience gave me hope for Aisha. When we spoke, Aisha told me that she wanted to write a memoir, or to speak about her experience on TV. I invited her to visit me in Abuja, so that she could see the capital city, and she agreed. After that, she refused to tell me anything else about her life over the phone, worrying that I would cancel the visit. “Wait until we see each other face to face,” she said. A day before the trip, Aisha’s father revoked her permission to travel. “It’s because of gossip,” she told me, sounding dejected. “People who won’t mind their business. They started telling him all sorts of things.” Three weeks later, in May, 2017, she disappeared.
The following July, I visited Aisha’s family in Maiduguri. Her mother, Ashe, and her sister Bintu bustled around to make me feel comfortable, unfurling mats and shooing away noisy children. Bintu and Aisha share a resemblance, but Bintu’s face is lined with worry. The family knew little about Aisha’s life in the forest; before she returned, they had agreed not to mention Boko Haram or ask her any questions about her time with Nur. They assumed that she wanted to forget, and thought that she was adjusting well to being home. “Aisha was happy,” Bintu said. “She was making some money from her business and enjoying going out.” Ashe had hoped that Aisha might find love again. “At least five different men wanted to marry her,” she told me, “including one from Lagos . . . He used to call me every day.”
But, a few weeks after Aisha came home, her friends from the safe house began returning to Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram had begun to regroup; Ashe used her fingers to count seven women by name. When the women’s families began trying to track them down, they often visited Aisha to ask if she knew anything. Some of the women called Aisha and encouraged her to join them. Ashe and her husband began to worry that they would lose their daughter again. “The kind of support you have in deradicalization programs does not follow you when you leave,” Akilu said, adding that women are often dropped back into their old lives, with no money and no way to make a living. “They struggle in the community, and it is that struggle that often leads them to go back.” Boko Haram’s insurgency is ongoing, and many women have personal ties to the group that go beyond ideology. “When you have fathers, husbands, sons still in the movement, they want to be reunited,” Akilu said.
In May, Aisha got a call from a friend in the forest, who informed her that Ba’ana, another of Nur’s wives who had been in the safe house, had just returned to Sambisa. Aisha saw Ba’ana frequently, but she had never mentioned her plans to return. After that, Aisha became morose, refusing meals and no longer socializing. She abandoned her fabric business. Bintu began to suspect that Aisha had plans to return. “I started following her everywhere and making sure she was never alone,” she said. But one afternoon, when they got home from running an errand, Bintu became distracted, and Aisha slipped out of the house. She took Nur’s two-year-old son with her, and left the seven-year-old, from her first marriage, behind. Her family believes that she followed her friends back to the forest. “Since then, we have been trying to reach her, but her phones are switched off,” Bintu said. In September, 2018, local media outlets reported that Nur had been assassinated by his own troops. Such claims are often later proved false, but, if Nur is dead, I wonder how uncertain life is for Aisha. I wonder if she is still alive.
For several months after they were released from the safe house, the Boko Haram wives convened monthly at the office of the State Emergency Management Agency, in Maiduguri, to receive special allocations of food. Each time they gathered there were fewer of them, as more women returned to the forest. In July, I chatted with a couple of them while they waited for their allotment. Asta, a nineteen-year-old whose husband joined Boko Haram after they were married, insisted that she has no plans to return, but she told me that she misses her husband’s voice and hopes to be reunited with him someday. “I will ask him to come and stay here with us and live a normal life,” she said. Hasiat, a twenty-two-year-old, had no interest in seeing her husband again. “Aisha’s husband was very rich,” Hasiat said. “He always bought her clothes. My husband had no position whatsoever in Boko Haram. He was just living there. Return to the forest because of the man? Let him remain there. After God has delivered me from that kind of suffering, how can I go and put myself back in it again?” Hasiat was tracking down her husband’s extended family in order to hand over to them the two children she had with him; being free of them would allow her to remarry, and perhaps to return to school. Still, many of her friends had returned to the forest. “Some people I thought would never go back have gone,” she said. “You can never tell who will return and who will not.”
The Women Rescued from Boko Haram Who Are Returning to Their Captors, by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
“People often don’t realize how much choice Boko Haram gave women,” a psychologist who operated a deradicalization program said. Many were extended freedoms they’d never experienced before.