Boko Haram and the Lost Girls of Nigeria
After a military rescue, captives tell their story to The Wall Street Journal.
By Patrick McGroarty in the Wall Street Journal
MALKOHI CAMP, Nigeria—Fatima Bukar last saw her husband and home in December, the night Boko Haram swept through her village to kidnap the women and children.
Armed insurgents herded Ms. Bukar, her 2-year-old daughter and dozens of others on a two-day march to a hide-out in the Sambisa Forest, a wilderness bordering Cameroon, joining about 300 women and children held there.
They spent their days hungry, foraging for firewood and edible plants, serving as wives or human shields for men whose conduct swung between cruelty and indifference.
“I pray to God to help us find each other,” Ms. Bukar said of her husband, who fled during the December attack. But so much has happened. “Maybe,” the 27-year-old women said, “life will not ever be the same.”
Ms. Bukar is among 275 women and children who have been living in this makeshift encampment since Nigeria’s military rescued them last week from retreating Boko Haram militants. Military forces freed about 1,000 women and children, and chased the insurgents into distant pockets of the wilderness. No one knows whether the victory will last.
A dozen of the women told The Wall Street Journal of their injuries, their lost children and the day-to-day brutality of living under the hand of a guerrilla force that two months ago declared its allegiance to Islamic State.
Zarah Mohammed, 24 years old, said she watched Boko Haram fighters slice off her husband’s head. Months later, she gave birth to his daughter. Amina Abubakar, 16, was abducted a week after her wedding last year. “All I want is to see my husband,” she said, “and go back to him.”
In a crowded hospital ward in Yola, the regional capital near the women’s camp, 16-year-old Habiba Audu winced with the pain from a bullet wound in her shoulder. She was struck in crossfire last week as Nigerian soldiers overran the Islamists’ encampment where she had been held for nine months.
Ms. Audu said she was forced to marry a Boko Haram fighter, a man later killed in action. “I want to forget that life,” she said, picking at a plate of rice with a fork until the pain in her shoulder stopped her. “It was circumstance that made me a wife of Boko Haram.”
Nana Musa, another woman recovering in the ward, said she was assigned to serve coerced brides after she refused to marry a militant. “We became slaves to their wives,” said the 25-year-old mother of two surviving children.
As Ms. Musa walked out of the Boko Haram encampment during the military rescue, she carried her third child, an infant named Bakaka, strapped to her back. A land mine exploded and killed the baby instantly. The left side of Ms. Musa’s face and body were badly burned.
“All I wanted was for us to go home. Now she’s not with us,” she said, her hand wrapped in bandages, blue stitches knitting the wounds on her lips.
Some women died of hunger. Others were accidentally run over and killed by armored military trucks sent to rescue them. Doctors say some women may have been impregnated by their captors.
Ms. Bukar escaped with her daughter Maryam, whose protruding shoulder blades and rust-colored hair testify to her malnutrition.
“We don’t know what will happen to us,” said Ms. Bukar, who is also looking after six children who lost their parents. “At least now we can eat.”
The women described a strict hierarchy in the Boko Haram camps, where they could bargain for better treatment by converting to Islam or marrying fighters. Food and shelter in the forest stronghold were scarce, they said. They sought shade trees to block the equatorial sun and slept outdoors, fending off snakes and scorpions.
Now safe at Malkohi Camp, the rescued women receive daily counseling sessions in the dusty courtyard. The profound impact of their ordeal is only beginning to emerge.
Some Christian women have refused donated Western clothes, preferring to keep the hijabs they adopted after their forced conversion to Islam. Others are desperate to get in touch with husbands and parents who may not know they are still alive.
Meanwhile, hundreds more of the captives remain lost. Amnesty International says that half of the 2,000 women and children kidnapped by Boko Haram since last year are still missing.
Women here said the remaining captives include some of the more than 200 students taken from a boarding school in the town of Chibok last April—the kidnapping that drew global attention and spawned a ubiquitous social-media campaign #SaveOurGirls. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has pledged to free them.
The counteroffensive this year by Nigeria’s military was bolstered by regional allies, better weaponry and new battlefield resolve. Troops have so far reduced Boko Haram’s territory by more than 80%, from an area the size of Belgium to a few city-size chunks of the Sambisa Forest.
The rapid retreat has raised hope for an end to Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency, which has displaced more than a million people from their homes and cost 23,000 lives.
“Now they are in disarray,” said Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade, Nigeria’s military spokesman. "We are optimistic we will secure the release of more hostages.”
The insurgents’ collapse, however, has raised concerns the militia might just be retreating to regroup.
Military officials won’t say how many fighters its forces have killed; Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, remains at large, authorities say.
Boko Haram has exploited two of Nigeria’s key weaknesses: the anger of disaffected youths in a country with high unemployment and the dysfunction of the Nigerian army. Years of failed efforts to beat back insurgents helped cost Mr. Jonathan a second term in presidential elections in March.
Nigeria’s incoming president, Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general, campaigned, in part, on his military credentials. He has sought to dampen hopes for a quick end to the insurgency. “The expectation is too high,” he said Tuesday, “and I have started nervously to explain to people that Rome was not built in a day.”
Seeing through a costly military campaign will be difficult, given Nigeria’s economic troubles. The fall in global oil prices has sapped federal revenues in Africa’s top crude producer. The government is struggling to pay for public salaries and imported gasoline in a country with little refining capacity.
Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies is among those who caution that insurgents may now be regrouping.
“Boko Haram is evolving into something else,” said Mr. Ewi, a native of Cameroon, where Boko Haram has also attacked villages and kidnapped women and children.
“We could see a return to the kind of stealthy terrorism where they attack a public target and then melt back to walk among the people,” Mr. Ewi said. “That could be even more difficult to stop.”
Last week, Boko Haram stormed a network of islands on Niger’s side of Lake Chad, killing dozens of civilians and soldiers.
Here in northeast Nigeria, displaced villagers, even those who backed Mr. Buhari over Mr. Jonathan, say their patience is wearing thin.
“You see, we are still here,” said Jalo Usman, the leader of some 400 people who moved to a warren of brick-and-plywood sheds in Yola after Boko Haram overran their town in September.
Before the March election, Mr. Usman planned to soon return home. But now, he said, many of his neighbors don’t have the means to make the trip back or fear for their safety. The few dozen people who have gone say the homes had been torched and the stores looted.
Several families from in his community have reunited with daughters and sisters they feared were forever lost.
Fatima Mustphar said she expected a long wait before her 24-year-old sister Salamatu was ready to travel, and even longer until her sister feels safe again in their hometown. “She suffered a lot,” Ms. Mustphar said.
At Malkohi Camp, a half-hour down a rutted dirt track from Yola, the freed women and children say they are exhausted and traumatized—but eager to fight their way back to health and rejoin their families.
“I’m so happy I am here,” said 15-year-old Fatima Abba, a broad smile filling her face, framed by a leopard-print hijab. “I want to stay somewhere safe, guarded by the military.”
For Amina Mohammed, sitting with two friends on a concrete stoop nearby, the joy of freedom is tempered by deep grief.
The 24-year-old woman was kidnapped five months ago with her two children. While living in the forest, Boko Haram fighters made her cook their food, but left her to forage for nuts and roots to feed her children.
Two days before Nigerian troops liberated the camp, her children died of what she believes was cholera. “Each time I remember, I feel pain,” she said.
Her husband, a farmer, avoided capture by fleeing to Cameroon, she said, and she doesn’t know if she will be able to find him now. “I want to forge a life, despite what happened,” Ms. Mohammed said. “I want my life to go on.”
—Gbenga Akingbule contributed to this article.