IBRAHIM ADEYEMI spent a month combing the length and breadth of Borno in search of children sired by Boko Haram rapists as well as the violated women. In this four-part series, he tells the love-hate story of women left to suffer after the death of their rapist-husbands and do not know whether to love or hate the children born of the unholy affairs.
Whenever Alte Usman, 21, sets eyes on her only child, a smoldering anger consumes her contorted face. What usually follows the bouts of anger is a stream of tears.
“I have been to hell on this earth”- Alte
Alte’s two-year-old daughter, Umaymah Adamu, is a simultaneous prompter of her sorrowful past and her tearful present. On the one hand, Umaymah reminds her of her dreary days of slavery, torture, and gang rapes in the captivity of Boko Haram in Sambisa Forest. On the other hand, the daughter puts a smile on her face, being the only relative she can count on. Others — father, mother, sisters and brothers — vanished in the middle of the insurgency.
A GORY STORY OF TERROR — AND HORROR
This is the first time, after many years in captivity, that Alte will tell her story to a journalist. This is also the first time that Umayah, her only child, will hear the tales of how, when and where she was born — even though she is still too young to make any sense of her mother’s narrative of misery.
“I have been to hell on this earth,” Alte says, tears coursing down her wrinkled face.
Seconds into the conversation with Alte, she buries her head in her armpit, takes one long regretful look at her daughter, then looks away.
She shakes her head pitifully before breaking the silence.
Anyone familiar with the level of havoc wreaked by Boko Haram on Borno, a state in Nigeria’s northeast, can recreate Alte’s pains as a mother in her prime age.
It was here in Borno that Boko Haram started visiting destruction on millions of people in the northeast, starting from 2009. Now, the armed group has gruesomely killed tens of thousands of people, abducted at least 2000 and forced more 2 million to flee their homes.
It was in this same Borno that the killer insurgents launched a tradition of killing kidnapping, bombing, looting and burning innocent civilians.
Towns and villages have been pillaged, and schools, churches, mosques and other public buildings demolished. The terrorists continue to dehumanise civilians trapped in areas under their control, disrupting the provision of health, education, and other public services by the Nigerian authorities.
A LIFE OF SORROW
Alte is mad again. She is mad at her daughter for crying in her arms. Anyone who has watched closely can easily spot her despondency. Clad in a faded red-coloured purdah, Alte desires to return home — to reunite with her family members. But, for now, that prospect is suicidal. The family members are nowhere to be found, even.
And, oh, her daughter! What saddens Alte about her is not only the siring of the girl by a terrorist-rapist but the bleakness of her future.
“Whenever I see my daughter, I see her as an orphan,” she says, tearily locking eyes with the girl. “She has no father and has no future. And even if she has her father’s relatives, they will scorn him because he’s a killer; they don’t love him neither do they his daughter.”
Alte’s gestures depict the terrible condition she and her daughter have been subjected to since narrowly escaping from captivity. No good food. Mother and daughter live in austere plague and gnashing of teeth.
“I hate to see my daughter hungry but I have no choice,” she says. “Sometimes we go out in search of food. I want my daughter to go to school so she can become a doctor but I have no means to sponsor her education.”
Mother and daughter live their dire lives inside a boundless row of tarpaulin shelters, housing hundreds of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at Bakassi camp — a makeshift accommodation set up for people ambushed by the terrorists — emplaced in the downtown of Borno.
Away from the fuzzy blue sky decking the red-and-blue aluminum roofs of the camp, Alte and many others endure the waspish stings of mosquitoes at night and the sweltering ray of the daytime sun that visits the doorless tarpaulin shelters.
There and then, as darkness of the dusk takes over the sunniness of the day, Umaymah’s mother sits on her tattered mat — to unveil, chapter-by-chapter, how she and her daughter live a life of sorrow. It is a tale of trial without any triumph in sight.
A DEADLY DAY IN GWOZA
The day Alte lost contact with her family members was a deadly one in Gwoza, a town in southern Borno. Blood-blemished bodies rolled on the streets of Cikidea, behind Dutse Sau in Gwoza. This was not the first time Gwoza would be turned to the hellhole of Boko Haram’s ambush.
In April, 2014, the insurgents caused the displacement of hundreds of civilians in Gwoza. Later, in August, they declared the town their headquarters of terrorism. The brutality of these killings had ruined lots of lives before the Nigerian Army took over Gwoza from the terrorists in 2015.
“When they came to Gwoza, I ran to Madagali with my mother and others. There my mother got lost,” says Alte, recounting her ordeal. “So, one of our in-laws in Madagali, a man, told me to stay in his house… that he would go in search of my mother and older brothers. I stayed there with him but the money on him was not enough to get him to Yola.”
Up till this moment, six years after, Alte has no idea of the whereabouts of her mother, father, sisters and brothers. “It was once rumoured that they had all fled to Cameroon,” she says. “But no one knows if this is true, especially as they have never been in touch since.”
One evening, Alte left Madagali — 280 kilometres north of the Adamawa State capital, Yola — and headed to Gwoza in search of her lost family members, only for her to discover the ruin of human wreckage.
Therefore, she returned to Madagali empty-handed, to seek refuge with an ally. This would only be the beginning of her doom.
Alte has lost count of how many times she was gang-raped in the forests by the terrorists
SEEKING REFUGE IN A TERRORIST’S ABODE
At Madagali, everybody was afraid of housing anybody, thus Alte had no choice when asked by her ally to take up an offer of temporary accommodation with a strange man — in a shallow, muddy room.
“I stayed there. But unfortunately for me, he was a Boko Haram member,” she says. “So, when the Army came to repel the attacks in Gwoza, he became scared and asked us to flee. They took us to one thick forest in Sambisa.”
Alte has lost count of how many times she was gang-raped in the forests by the terrorists but she vividly remembers how she was forced to marry one Abu Sufyan, who would later die during one of his suicidal insurgent missions in Borno. She was with him for more than a year.
After being severely and repeatedly violated by Abu Sufyan, what followed was another forced marriage to another killer-terrorist simply known as Adamu.
“I was divorced by my second husband but I didn’t know that I was already pregnant for him,” she says.
Meanwhile, the pregnancy gave rise to her only daughter, Umaymah, who is now two years old. She adds:
“Immediately after I gave birth, another man forced me to become his sex slave; I fell ill and my breasts were hurting me.”
Abu Lukman, his name, was the third and the last man to engage Alte in sexual slavery and forced marriage. But the more brutal part was that while the terrorists forced her and other sex slaves to farm, all the harvests went to their wives. The sex slaves were left to starve.
‘KILL YOUR PARENTS’ — THE MESSAGE OF HATE
How and when Alte and her daughter escaped Boko Haram’s territory of terror is inexplicable. “It is quite mysterious and miraculous,” she says of her escape from Sambisa forest. “I can’t even explain how it happened; I just know I saw myself with soldiers who brought us here.”
But there was a significant occurrence while in captivity: the insurgents preached hatred of fatherland to them.
“Day and night, they urged us not to believe or love the people of Nigeria,” she recalls. “This is because at that time, there were pictures of people being medically cared for by the Nigerian Army; pictures of children being treated at hospitals by soldiers and other aid workers. These pictures were poured into Sambisa by the Nigerian soldiers.
“If you’re caught looking at the pictures, you could be killed. Sometimes they gathered these pictures and burnt them. They would say, ‘Don’t believe in what the people in Nigeria say. Don’t think about going home. Don’t reveal our secrets. And even if your parents are against this movement, kill them. Do not do anything out of the lines of Islam.”
AT BAKASSI CAMP, THERE IS HUNGER, THIRST AND DEATH
“The insurgents took us captive and I was with them for five years. They took my father and I to Sambisa. They asked me to get married to them but I refused. I told them I had my sick father to look after”
At just 22, Aisha Hassan’s sight is fading. This is a plague that even a sexagenarian may deem too soon to happen. “Look at me! Am I not looking too much older than my age?” she asks the journalist, teary-eyed, but without waiting for an answer.
Actually, she isn’t wrong. Aisha looks at least twice her real age. Her face has wrinkles of old age. She’s dying of neglect after being dehumanised by Boko Haram terrorists.
Those who witnessed her arrival at the Bakassi camp say she came almost naked, teetering on the brink of madness, her breasts flapping left and right as she rallied around the camp. Now, one year later, she is recovering from the acute neurological damage but hasn’t yet slipped out of the optical damage. When asked to describe the current situation in her temporary home, she says, in Hausa: “In this camp, there is dearth, hunger, thirst — and there is death.”
RAGED, CAGED, DERANGED
Aisha’s rare love for her father is glaring, even as she speaks of her travails. This love was what stopped her from fleeing while her mother and two brothers ran for their dear lives during a bloody Boko Haram raid.
The mayhem masterminded by the insurgents in May 2015 caught the sick father and daughter in a village called Jayi Garin Sarki in Gwoza Local Government Area of Borno State.
“When they got me, I was alone with my father who was sick; his legs were hurting. My mother and others had escaped,” she recounts. “People were running but I couldn’t leave without my dad. He had done so much for me; I couldn’t leave him when he needed help the most. I preferred dying with him to fleeing.
“The insurgents took us captive and I was with them for five years. They took my father and I to Sambisa. They asked me to get married to them but I refused. I told them I had my sick father to look after.
“I was taken with other ladies to a place called Handa; there, we were caged for a week. Every morning, they came to ask if we were ready to marry. Sometimes we were flogged 10 lashes. The caning was called tanzil (revelation).”
THE ‘MARRIAGE’, THE WRECKAGE
Threats upon threats and frustration-inducing cruelty overwhelmed the forest. Those who resisted the rapists were threatened with death. Forced marriage ensued, swiftly followed by wreckage of the victims’ bodies and souls.
“We were threatened to get married or be slaughtered. When I asked them what would become of my father, they said I must abandon him,” says Aisha, “We were forcefully married, just by word of mouth. I was taken away from my father and pronounced the wife of a Boko Haram man called ‘Baba Labba’.
“And even with Baba Labba, we did not stay in a place. We were taken from one place to the other. They gave us a gown that was so long it dragged behind us when we walked. We were warned not to escape. We were taken to a place called Garin Abu Asmau. They kept us there and most times, they would go out for war and leave some men behind to guard us.
Aisha continued crying, as the terrorists promised to slaughter anybody who didn’t cooperate with them.
“I had to comply,” she says.
“I stayed there with other women. Whenever they returned from the battlefield, they brought us gifts if they had the upper hand over soldiers. But on days they were not successful, they brought us nothing.
“I tried to escape with my dad but it was impossible. He and other aged captives were later killed. My father and many others were killed in my presence. One day, the man who forcefully took me as his wife went to war but never returned.”
A MARCH TO ‘MADNESS’
Aisha can still remember how she became psychologically traumatised and how she slipped from trauma into insanity. As a 17-year-old, her virginity was stolen by the cruel Boko Haram rapists. But that is not all.
“I was psychologically damaged by my suffering and that of the people who were slaughtered in my presence,” she recalls.
“Even here in camp, I still think about everything. We were not well-fed when we were in captivity. And also we trekked hundreds of kilometres. You can see I am older than my actual age. There wasn’t good food, shelter or bedding. The rain beat us and the sun burnt us.
“I lost my dad and later fell ill; I could not walk for two months. Nobody cared for me. I was alone in the bush with no hope of escaping. I could neither pray nor eat. There was a younger brother of mine who was abducted with us, I lost him too and I suddenly became mentally retarded.”
TRAINED TO KILL
Baba Laba’s years of having illegal sex with Aisha were not fruitless. Even if the terrorist had died on the battlefield, he never died without having a kid who was to take up his mantle of terrorism in the future.
“My child was named Abubakar; he was two years old when I left him. But as young as he was, he was trained to kill. He was always joining their training sessions where children and women were taught to kill Nigerians,” reveals Aisha.
“I used to try to take care of my child even though I gave birth to him in tears and agony. Whenever I ate something good I would breastfeed him. He was an innocent boy. It’s his father who wronged me; not him. I don’t know what became of him,” he says.
“When soldiers attacked us, most of us fled leaving our children behind. And because it was difficult to get good water to drink, most children died there. But I left my son healthy, so, who knows, maybe he is still alive.”
‘ONLY THE TOP TERRORISTS MARRIED CHIBOK GIRLS’
Chibok girls are first-class women in Sambisa Forest, she explains. They are treated differently, with soft hands
Aisha beams a smile briefly for the first time in 35 minutes of the interview. Something vital just struck her mind, she says. It is about her encounter with the abducted Chibok girls.
Chibok girls are first-class women in Sambisa Forest, she explains. They are treated differently, with soft hands. Unlike other girls who receive daily beating from their captors, Chibok girls are kept in a more pleasant setting in the forest. They are well-fed and clothed.
“And they don’t allow us to mingle with them,” she adds. “I don’t know why, but only the bigwigs among the terrorists could marry the Chibok girls. Even at that, the men were warned not to marry them if they were not strong enough to protect them.”
What Aisha probably does not know is that the Chibok girls have since been used as negotiating pawns in exchange for huge ransom and some of their commanders in the government’s detention. This must have been a factor in preferential treatment the Chibok girls received from the insurgents.
April 14, 2014 was a regular day in Borno until the Boko Haram terrorists came in the dead of the night to kidnap 276 schoolgirls from their school dormitory in Chibok, a primarily Christian village with a Muslim minority. The insurgents had presented themselves as Nigerian soldiers seeking to protect the girls from a Boko Haram attack by asking them to leave the school. In the ensuing hours, the terrorists took the girls in a convoy toward the group’s base in Sambisa. Meanwhile, 57 of them immediately escaped from the group’s convoy when they suspected the “soldiers” were really Boko Haram. The remaining 219 were taken away.
The 57 girls who escaped in the days after the kidnapping, the 103 girls released in these two exchanges and three other girls who were found separately with infants outside of Sambisa Forest are the only Chibok girls to have regained freedom since the April 2014 abduction. About 10 girls are however believed to have died in airstrikes, from disease, or during childbirth; there are about 100 remaining in Boko Haram captivity.
A LONG WALK TO FREEDOM AND FREE DOOM
After Aisha’s insurgent ‘husband’ Baba Labba went to the battlefield and never returned, she was forced to ‘marry’ another fighter by the name ‘Nijale’.
“It was at night when I was asked to go with Nijale,” she recalls.
One week after Nijale started forcefully sleeping with Aisha, the Nigerian Army laid siege to the forest. Next was to run, Nijale told Aisha. So, that evening, they moved, trekking a long distance in order to settle elsewhere. But halfway into the journey while Nijale led the long walk in the bush, Aisha and some other women escaped.
“We found a way of taking another road with some of the women; we kept walking for three days before we met with soldiers, who took us to Chibok where we spent two months and then we came to this camp.”
But unfortunately, Aisha’s long walk to freedom led her to nothing but free doom. Despite the torture she endures in Boko Haram detention, she’s had to put up with more suffering at the Bakassi camp, where she lives, with hundreds of other internally displaced persons.
“I used to run a business but now I’ve lost everything,” she laments.
“I can’t trace anybody that is related to me. I lost my dad, my child, and my wealth. In the camp, I lost my sight; I can no longer see well with these eyes. I slept here for two months unable to eat properly. I couldn’t even wear clothes. I became mentally ill”.
“I don’t do anything here and the food is insufficient for us. Even the small we have still get stolen. My bag has been torn thrice here. It makes me sad. I go out to labour for peanuts at times. I farm for even N200”.
”The people scare us with Boko Haram at times just to avoid paying us.”
In 2018, a farm some kilometres away from Bakassi IDP camp was quite a dangerous place but the farm owners didn’t notice on time, says Taminu Tahir, the Special Assistant on Media to Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum.
“The farmers shouting ‘Boko Haram are coming’ to IDPs working for them might not just be mischievously scaring them.
“We’ve heard cases of people being slaughtered in their farms. Some of the IDPs who have farms were living fine while some others were battling with hunger. During that, the government had to strategise on how to distribute food for the masses. From then, things have been better concerning food.”
A PLEA FOR HELP
“I am going blind and I don’t want to be blind,” says Aisha, wiping off the tears on her wrinkled face. For now, she needs not just good food or shelter but regaining her lost sight.
“If you asked me, the first thing I would want the government or anybody to do for me, it’s my two eyes. If I can get medical care for my eyes, I will be very glad,” she says. “Now, I can’t go back home anymore. Where will I go, and who will I meet? So, all I want now is my eyes.”
Alte, though, has other needs.
“I want my daughter to go to school,” she says. “Even though I hate to remember how I gave birth to her, I want her to become a medical doctor. I don’t want her to be like me and I don’t want her to go through what I have gone through in life.”