Freed from Boko Haram: “They said we should convert to Islam, and they treated us as slaves”

The surviving child of one of captives. Sitting next to his mother in the hospital ward, he is notably listless for a three-year-old, with patches of his skin wrinkled like an old man’s. When he and several other children suffering malnutrition first arrived at the ward last week, they also had distended stomachs and thinning hair. For Nigerians, such cases are reminiscent of Biafran civil war in the 1960s, when TV footage of starving children gave the world one of its first glimpses of the horrors of conflict-sponsored famine.

When the Nigerian troops began storming the hostages’ camps in recent weeks, the militiamen initially tried to make the women flee with them. At one hideout, women who had been forced to act as guards even shot back at the soldiers, killing seven of their would-be liberators before being gunned down themselves…

…Among them [who are willing to discuss their captivity] is Marta Joanna, 30, one of hundreds of Christian refugees given temporary sanction in a makeshift camp in the dusty grounds of Yola’s St Theresa’s Cathedral. As a choir sang prayers on Friday evening, she told how she spent nine months in Boko Haram’s captivity until March this year.

“They said we should convert to Islam, and they treated us as slaves,” she said, sitting under a tree near a large cauldron cooking over an open fire. “They made us learn the Koran, and beat us with a stick if we got the verses wrong. The drinking water they gave us was so filthy that we had to pour it through our dresses to filter out the dirt.”

Most of the days, she said, were spent idle, the kidnappers apparently unsure what to do with so many hostages. The boredom, however, was punctuated by moments of extreme terror as male captives were brought into the camp and beheaded in front of everyone. “It happened seven or eight times, but eventually they stopped it as it was frightening us all so much,” Ms Joanna added.

For those now looking after the women, the challenge now lies in trying to defuse that trauma. The more the ex-hostages can be counselled to move on their ordeal, the less it may blight the rest of their lives, and the less chance there may be of Boko Haram’s atrocities straining Christian-Muslim tensions in Nigeria even further.

But it will not be easy, according to Dr Fatima Akilu, a behavioural expert with the Nigerian government’s national security office, who is advising on rehabilitation.

“It may take a long time just to rebuild a sense of safety in their minds, so that they can trust people who want to help them,” she said. “Their families may also have difficulty re-connecting with them.”

That is particularly true for hostages used as “bush wives”, a euphemism officials use when referring to Boko Haram’s practice of raping captives who take their fancy. Fearing dishonour in their home communities, few of the recently-freed hostages will admit right now to it happening. But at least a dozen are already in the early to mid-stages of pregnancy, and officials believe there will be more cases…

unnamed-6Nigerian girls and women are released after being held in captivity by Boko Haram