Two years ago, extremist Islamist group Boko Haram orchestrated the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls, presumably forcing them into sexual slavery as they have done with so many other women. Despite the efforts of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, most are still missing. And those who’ve been rescued? They are regarded not so much as victims, but suspects.
As the Nigerian army infiltrates Boko Haram’s camps, the women held captive there are finally freed from vicious rapes and forced marriages. But rejoining their communities—or finding their places within new ones—has been a fraught and devastating process.
As the Washington Post reports, “Most of the surviving women no longer have homes. Their cities were burned to the ground. The military has quietly deposited them in displacement camps or abandoned buildings, where they are monitored by armed men suspicious of their loyalties.” Many refer to them as “Boko Haram wives.” They live in displacement camps, often shunned and sometimes taken away for intensive questioning by the Nigerian army.
The suspicion surrounding the women who return from these camps is, according to authorities, born from Boko Haram’s terror tactics:
“Last year, 39 of 89 Boko Haram suicide bombings were carried out by women, according to UNICEF. Twenty-one of those female attackers were under the age of 18, many of them girls abducted from villages and cities and converted into assassins. Since January, female attackers have killed hundreds of people across northeastern Nigeria, in mosques, markets, and even displacement camps.”
The fear is thus that women held captive by Boko Haram have themselves become extremists through the process of indoctrination. In summer 2015, as the number of women taken from captivity swelled, “there was [simultaneously] a surge in female suicide bombers.” The women and children who entered local communities and displacement camps were also eyed as potential Boko Haram allies, victims of brainwashing who had become “tools.” Ann Darmen, from the Nigerian aid group Gender Equality, Peace and Development Center remarks to the Post, “The simple truth is they pose a serious threat to the general public.”
But Boko Haram survivors Hamsatu and Halima, who only gave their first names to the Post in order to speak candidly, explain that they continue to be shunned even after proving to the army that they are not threats. And because Hamsatu became pregnant by her rapist, she is viewed with especial suspicion:
“In many Nigerian communities, people believe that the father’s blood courses through the veins of his child, ‘so that at some point in the future they will be likely to turn against their own community,’ said Rachel Harvey, UNICEF’s head of child protection in Nigeria.”
Hamsatu was married prior to her kidnapping, but does not know her husband’s whereabouts, or whether he is even alive. Boko Haram often slaughters the men who are unable to flee their attacks. After seven months, the Nigerian army raided the camp where she and Halima were held captive, but “it hardly felt to the women like a rescue operation. Soldiers burnt the huts while women were still inside and shot wildly at everyone, they said. Several women were killed or disappeared during the operation, according to accounts from several captives.”
Now women like Hamsatu and Halima seek solace in one another, and attend group therapy sessions that assure them of safety they do not feel. Some women “down bottles of homemade cough syrup to get deliriously high alone.” And they suffer looks of scorn from those who accuse them of having been “married to Boko Haram.”
“There is no trust here,” Hamsatu declares.
Image via Getty.