Brave teen Fatima Bukar recounts her seven-month ordeal in the hands of Boko Haram, who used persuasion and threats to get her to marry one of them.
Fatima Bukar. (All photos by Fati Abubakar)
It was September, 2016. Just before dawn gunshots thundered on the outskirts of Maiduguri, rousing the Internally Displaced Persons in the Dalori Camp.
Fatima Bukar, 18, opened her sleepy eyes and looked around at the other IDPs who had sat up, their faces apprehensive, listening to the gunshots, the sounds that had hounded them out of their towns and villages. What could be happening, they wanted to know.
“It is Boko Haram,” Fatima had said nonchalantly and laid her head down to continue her sleep.
“How could it be Boko Haram?” one of the IDPs asked. “This is Maiduguri. It could be the soldiers shooting. How can you be sure it is Boko Haram?”
“I spent seven months with them. I know the sound of their guns,” Fatima said, more annoyed by the disruption of her sleep than afraid of what was happening.
Before September 2nd, 2014, Fatima had been attending school in Bama, Borno State, where she was born and was looking forward to graduating and whatever else life would throw to her afterwards. But then Boko Haram had come charging into Bama, shattering her dreams and life as she had known it. She was only 16 at the time.
A week after the town fell to the insurgents, Fatima, her mother and her sisters were rounded up by Boko Haram and bundled into a large compound with other women.
“We were about three hundred women and children,” she said, sitting on a desk in a tent that used to be a classroom in the Dalori Camp before it was ripped apart by a sandstorm. She fiddled with a large ring on her finger, occasionally slapping her palms together as she talked, words tumbling out of her mouth. She recalled the uncertainty of those first few days as Boko Haram seemed unsure what to do with the women.
“They said those who agreed with them are free to stay and those who did not could leave,” Fatima said.
Fatima, her mother and her sisters took the latter option. Gathering a few of their belongings, they headed out of Bama on foot. Their destination? Maiduguri. But they didn’t make it out. “We met [Boko Haram] on the bridge and they asked us to turn back or be shot,” she said.
Back in Bama, the women were gathered and addressed by a Boko Haram commander. “We have killed your men,” he said, caressing his gun as he spoke. “Only you are left, and we shall marry you all.”
Fatima snorted. That was something she was determined she would never let happen.
But her captors believed in their methods. They subjected the women to series of lectures and preaching, all designed to indoctrinate them. But the preaching was accompanied by threats of decapitation should any of them attempt to escape.
But while this was going on, one of the insurgents told Fatima and the other women that they were only interested in marrying them, and would surely do so.
Sometimes the insurgents came to the compound, Fatima said, and they would search the faces of the women. “They looked out for the fairer ones, the ones with bright faces, and they took them, sometimes one or two at a time,” she said. These women were reportedly ‘married’ by sect members. Because she was young and beautiful, Fatima knew that her turn would come. And it did.
“Where are you from?” they asked her on the day they singled her out from the crowd.
She told them she was a native of Bama. She didn’t look like a native of Bama, they said.
“I told them I have been living in Abuja with my husband and they said, you do look like Abuja people,” she said.
They asked her questions and she told them she had been married for less than a year and that she was six months pregnant. “What you will give birth to is a bastard infidel and we would kill him as we have killed all your men,” one of the insurgents told her.
They left her alone for a few days, but their interest in her never waned. And not too long after, the Boko Haram Ameer came by himself to interrogate her. He wanted to know if she was truly married and if she was really pregnant. When she said yes, he asked for a doctor, whom Fatima said had been caught from Konduga to examine her.
The doctor asked to take her outside and asked her if she was pregnant. She said yes. He looked her in the eye and said, “Indeed, you are!”
That proclamation bought Fatima some time.
But the insurgents’ interest in her would only waver. Often they came round to talk to her and one of them confessed to her that he knew that if he left Boko Haram and went back to Maiduguri, he would be killed there because of his association with the terrorists. And if Boko Haram knew he was thinking of leaving them, they would kill him as well.
At other times, Fatima said, they would confront her mother and ask her why Fatima would not marry one of them. Her mother, who was just as feisty as her daughter, would tell them off often exchanging insults with the armed men.
“She would not marry you, even if you would kill her,” her mother said to one of them once. He didn’t take that rebuff too well and wanted to assault her mother.
“She told him he was not man enough to do that,” Fatima said.
Eventually, the insurgent was restrained by his colleagues but it was becoming clear that the women were becoming a handful and the insurgents didn’t know what to do with them.
So they returned days later with trucks and said they were taking the women to Maiduguri. Fearing that they were going to be shot dead in cold blood along the way, the women refused to board the trucks and pleaded for their lives.
Eventually, the insurgents promised they wouldn’t take them to Maiduguri but would set them free, which they did, somewhere in the forest. With no idea where they were, with no food or water, the women were left to wander the wild.
They walked in the wilderness for two days. Hungry and tired, they chanced upon the insurgents yet again. “We have found the infidels of Bama!” Fatima recalls the insurgents saying, before loading them up on the trucks and driving to different camp.
But in this new camp, they were far from safe. The military had identified the camp and constantly, air raids by the Nigerian Air Force threatened their safety, forcing Boko Haram to load them up once again and head back to Bama, which they had declared as the capital of their caliphate.
It was here, in Bama, that Fatima and the others received treatment for their blisters and malnutrition at a Boko Haram-run hospital.
The Not-So-Great Escape
Weeks later, having recovered from the ordeal of their false release and constantly being threatened by their captors, Fatima’s mother decided that they should take their fate in their hands and escape, head in the direction of Maiduguri, even with the threat of beheading hanging over them.
They managed to escape the compound they were being held in and made it to the outskirts of Bama on foot, but they ran into a Boko Haram patrol and were once more rounded up. This time they were taken to the Bama prison and locked up.
However, ravaged as she was by hunger and fatigue, Fatima still caught the eye of one of her guards in the prison. He said he wanted to marry Fatima and offered her mother N500 to buy drugs for her daughter.
Her mother refused the gift and the insurgent got angry. He went and reported to his ameer, who ordered Fatima be brought to him in the house he had taken residence.
Her guard escorted her to the front of the house and ordered her in but she hid in the vestibule for an hour, until her guard had left then she returned and told them she had seen the ameer.
“Not long after, the ameer came by himself, shouting at his men that did they want to eat me, that they won’t send me to him when he had ordered them to,” she said.
The purpose of the order soon became clear to Fatima. The ameer was also interested in her and made his best attempts to woo her. When he was convinced he was gaining her confidence, he told her he was going on a mission and would make plans to marry her when he returned.
He never did.
Neither did many of the insurgents who went with him as they suffered heavy causalities in that mission. But one of them who returned, who knew of the ameer’s interest in Fatima told her about his death.
“Alhamdulillah!” Fatima and her mother exclaimed joyously.
“He got angry that we were rejoicing that one of them had been killed and wanted to deal with us,” Fatima said. “His commanders came and told him to leave us alone.”
Day of Terror
Perhaps reeling from the pain of the loss they suffered in the hand of the Nigerian military, Fatima said her captors became increasingly brutal putting on a spectacle of death, blood and gore.
“They caught a woman fleeing from a village on her way to Maiduguri and brought her to Bama,” Fatima said. “They gathered everyone in Bama and made us watch as they beheaded her. They said ‘see how beautiful this woman is? We have killed her as a warning to any of you who thinks of escaping.”
But that was not the end of the terror. They presented eight men who were accused of adultery. They dug holes in the ground, buried them up to their necks and stoned them to death. The women with whom the men were said to have slept with were lashed a hundred times.
“We were just screaming and screaming,” Fatima said. “But they wouldn’t stop.”
Fatima runs through this account almost mechanically, as if she were in a hurry to get over the story. But that killing spree was not the last she would witness while in captivity.
Shortly after, the insurgents attempted another raid on Konduga but were repelled by the Nigerian Army. As if determined to undo themselves, upon their return, Fatima said, the Boko Haram commanders rounded up between 20 and 30 of the insurgents and executed them for various offences.
With Boko Haram weakened, Fatima said her mother was still keen on the idea of an escape, despite the beheading of the beautiful woman. This time they sought the cooperation of a woman whom Boko Haram had appointed as the ‘Ameerah’.
“She was in charge of the women,” Fatima said. “If they bring us food or anything, she is the one who took charge of sharing it.”
Fatima’s mother was worried that her daughter was in danger and that perhaps she could no longer withstand the insurgents if they insisted on ‘marrying’ her daughter, so she reached out to the ameerah, who had a daughter Fatima’s age. The appeal to the ameerah’s maternal instincts, however, failed to score.
The ameerah was afraid. If the escape bid failed, she would be made an example of, having been entrusted with a position of authority by Boko Haram. She feared they would treat her with no mercy.
Undaunted, Fatima’s mother mobilised her children and waited until 1:00 am. They scaled the fence and ran into the night, farther and farther away from the town they had always called home. This time, they made it as far as another village. And for a few hours, they breathed freedom before Boko Haram came charging into the village, shooting people dead.
But the raid this time was intercepted by the air force who dropped bombs on the insurgents, causing everyone to flee into the wild.
End to Innocence
“I’d never seen a corpse before Boko Haram came,” Fatima said. “But here we were, surrounded by them. They were littered in the forest and sometimes you would only see a chunk of a human thigh. We jumped over them and ran.”
When Fatima, her mother and siblings emerged from the forest days later, they ran into an army checkpoint.
“One of the soldiers recognised me because he knew me before. He was shocked by my condition because I was all swollen and bloated,” she said. He was sympathetic and told the family that they were now safe and they could walk all the way back to Bama without any fear as the army had retaken the town.
This was in March, 2015, seven months after her ordeal began.
Despite the change in fortunes, Bama was still unsafe and the military evacuated civilians to the Dalori Camp where Fatima, now 18, has been for over a year.
There is some kind of order to her life here among the endless rows of tent shelters, among the other faces that have witnessed death and destruction. She earns stipends from UNICEF to babysit children in the camp, and she is preparing for her School Certificate exams.
She sat on that bench, twiddling the ring on her finger. She is a strong young woman, one could tell from the way she talked. “I don’t dream about anything,” she said. “I don’t think about anything.”
And when she speaks of Boko Haram, it is with a certain irreverence and daring, one coming from someone who believes she has been through the worst and has emerged unscathed. But has she, really?
By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim | First published in Daily Trust, Oct 29 2016