Abducted and enslaved by Boko Haram. Coerced into an abortion by soldiers. Two children dead. The ordeal of Aisha shows how women's lives have become a battlefield in the 13-year war between Islamist insurgents and the Nigerian military.
In Nigeria's insurgency, she was brutalized by both sides
Aisha vividly recalls her family’s last time together. It was a pleasant evening in the summer of 2014, in her Nigerian village near the Cameroon border. The rainy season had nourished her father’s grain, pushing the stalks knee-high. Her father, mother, two brothers and a younger sister were all at home.
The village had been repeatedly attacked over months by armed Islamist insurgents seeking to expand their territory, she told Reuters. Aisha’s father had ordered the sons not to leave their house, lest they be caught up in the violence. That evening, their mother stepped outside to cook.
Gunfire erupted about 5 p.m. and continued for hours, Aisha said. Amid the shooting, her mother collapsed, struck in the chest by a stray round. Aisha, then 18, and her 14-year-old sister made frantic efforts to bandage the wound, but their mother bled out and died.
“My mother’s death is the first thing that pains me,” said Aisha, now 26, weeping quietly. By her account, that night marked the end of a secure childhood in a loving family – and the beginning of a hellish ordeal at the hands of both the Islamist militants and the Nigerian military, who have been locked in a 13-year war over control of the country’s northeast.
That war is being carried out, in part, upon the bodies of women and children. Thousands of women and girls have been kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by Boko Haram and its Islamic State offshoot. The Nigerian military has responded to insurgents’ brutality with brutal tactics of its own, as revealed in two recent Reuters investigations.
Citing witness accounts and documents, the news agency reported on Dec. 7 that the army has run a secret abortion programme in the northeast, ending the pregnancies of thousands of women and girls freed from insurgent captivity. On Dec. 12, again citing dozens of witnesses, Reuters reported the army has intentionally killed children in the war, under a presumption they were, or would become, terrorists.
Nigerian military leaders told Reuters the abortion programme did not exist and said children were never targeted for killing in the war. They said the Reuters reporting is part of a foreign effort to undermine the country’s fight against the insurgents.
Aisha was forced to marry a Boko Haram fighter who repeatedly beat and raped her. Whenever he went off to war, she said, “I would pray to God that he’d be killed.”
Aisha’s ordeal encompasses some of the most extreme hardships the war has inflicted upon civilians: enslavement by Boko Haram, forced abortion by the military, the loss of one child in a military bombing and another, she suspects, to poisoning by soldiers. The war also took the life of a brother, in addition to her mother, and all but destroyed one of her arms, Aisha said.
Dozens of women in northeast Nigeria told Reuters of similarly wrenching experiences during the ongoing strife, which has claimed more than 300,000 lives, including those of civilians killed by violence, starvation and disease. Like Aisha, they said they chose no sides in the war but were targeted by both.
Reuters could not reach representatives of Boko Haram or its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, for comment.
Major General Christopher Musa, who leads the Nigerian counterinsurgency forces, said Aisha’s story, as described to him by Reuters, could not have happened. “No,” he said, “not by us, not by Nigerian Army troops, who don't have any reason to do that.”
Aisha spoke to Reuters on condition that only her Muslim name be used, citing fear for her safety. Reuters is not naming her village, as well, to protect her identity. Her story was corroborated in part by her sister; a friend and fellow captive; one of her brothers; and a neighbour. Each said they witnessed some of the events or heard about them afterward from Aisha. These people spoke on condition they not be fully named.
Aisha related her experiences in interviews over the course of more than a year, often speaking in a numbed monotone, occasionally breaking down.
“I saw it, exactly, with my own eyes, and I heard,” she said. “That’s why I don’t have any hesitation to share with you my account.”
‘A good life’
Aisha smiled as she recalled her younger days, when she would pound, roll and fry “kuli kuli,” a peanut treat she sold with her mother at the market near their farm. Her family was sustained both by her mother’s work and her father’s cultivation of maize, guinea corn and millet.
“They showed me the way to look after myself, to seek out knowledge, how to be in and to live in the world,” she said of her parents. “We had everything we needed, really.”
Unlike some fathers in the region, she said, hers had made a priority of securing an education for his girls, and he never beat them. In high school, Aisha had a boyfriend in a neighbouring village whom she hoped to marry. She said she dreamt of becoming a soldier, an accountant or even a doctor – a secure livelihood in the economically depressed region. She hoped one day to have children.
But after the 2014 attack, school was out of the question: She was trapped in Boko Haram’s then-spreading caliphate.
At first, she said, the insurgents didn’t show “any signs that they were going to kill people.”
But after the attack that killed her mother, they started to kill the adult men in the village, she said. One brother vanished; she heard later that he died. Another brother fled elsewhere in Nigeria and survived. A third brother had already sought safety in Cameroon before their mother was killed.
Aisha and her younger sister stayed with their father, who told them not to leave. At first, Boko Haram did not disturb villagers in their homes.
But by October 2014, the militants were enforcing extreme sharia law in her village, Aisha said. The fighters interrogated a well-known local midwife and herbalist, whom they accused of witchcraft. The insurgents took the woman, in her 50s, to the village square and, in front of as many people as they could gather, beheaded her with an axe. Aisha said she can’t forget the woman’s head and body dangling as blood spurted from her. She began to feel terrified.
Her father, who was in his 70s, fell ill, she said, and he died by the end of the year. Now the two young, unmarried sisters were living alone. Boko Haram men often came looking for them, knocking on their door and forcing them to hide.
For months, Aisha and her sister survived on the beans, maize and guinea corn that their father had stored. Then the food began to run out, and Aisha decided they should make a run for it.
Plotting her escape
They left their house in the middle of the day in search of any town nearby that was not controlled by insurgents. They hadn’t gone far when they ran into Islamist fighters.
The men forced Aisha and her sister into different open-bedded trucks, each filled with other women, she said. When the sisters were separated, “we both cried and pleaded to God,” she said, weeping.
The trucks arrived nearly a week later in Sambisa Forest, a massive woodland near the Cameroon border that served as a Boko Haram stronghold. Then her captors lined Aisha up alongside other women for militants to select as wives. One man, named Musa, pointed at Aisha.
“Suddenly you have a husband, you’ve become husband and wife, by force, without ever having seen each other,” she said.
Compelled to live with Musa inside the forest encampment, she tried to resist his advances, but her new husband repeatedly beat and raped her, and he threatened to kill her, she said. When he went off to fight in the war, she said, “I would pray to God that he’d be killed.”
Almost immediately, she was pregnant and sick nearly every day. Yet when her son, Bana, arrived, she could not help but love the boy. She longed to escape the brutality, hunger and fear that marked virtually every day of her captivity. But she did not believe she could do so with Bana, as boys were particularly valued in the Boko Haram community. She said she also feared a boy associated with the insurgents would face stigma outside Islamist-held territory, where he would be seen as a potential enemy.
“I just prayed, constantly, looking for a way to get out, to leave Sambisa behind,” she said.
As soon as she stopped breastfeeding Bana, she was pregnant again – and asked God for a daughter. The arrival of Fatima, a happy and amenable baby girl, steeled her determination to escape.
“For Bana…I didn’t let myself have hope for him,” she said. But Fatima, she said, “was a gift from God. I thought, if God allows for it, that girl will go to school.”
In the end, the Nigerian military decided Bana’s fate. One morning about four years ago, when he was roughly 3, the military launched an airstrike on the camp. They blew up the hut where the boy slept. Aisha, who was nearby, ran to save him but was too late.
“He cried out once, then again, and then he died,” she said.
The explosion also hit Aisha, burning her severely and leaving one arm nearly useless, she said. She showed a reporter the arm, which she typically keeps hidden under her flowing hijab. She cannot use it, even to hold a drink.
Aisha took months to recover after the bombing attack. Lying in the insurgent camp’s infirmary, she plotted her escape, intent on saving Fatima from a future of hunger and rape under the militants. By then, she had been in captivity for more than three years.
In 2019, with 1-year-old Fatima tied to her back, Aisha slipped from the camp in the middle of the night along with six other women and two young children besides her daughter. They zig-zagged through the wilderness for four days, trying to avoid detection.
On the fifth day, they found a group of Nigerian soldiers, identifying them by their boots. At long last, she thought, she and her daughter were safe.
No traces of her
The troops took the women and children to a nearby encampment in the town of Madagali – a cluster of five army tents and a thatched hut, she said. There, they underwent interrogation and medical check-ups. The soldiers took samples of their blood and urine.
The following day, they told Aisha she had a vaginal infection. They injected two vials of medicine into her buttocks, without telling her what it was, and gave her an assortment of pills, she said. An hour later, she said, she was in wrenching pain and began bleeding heavily from her vagina.
Eventually, she said, she saw blood and a lump of what looked like flesh pass from her body. She had not known she was pregnant.
She realised she had been tricked into an abortion, but was too afraid to confront the soldiers. They told her later that they had done her a favour, she recalled, because a child of Boko Haram would be ostracised and a burden on her and her community.
Aisha had not wanted another child from a Boko Haram father, she said, but abortion was against her Islamic faith.
Several days later, soldiers said Fatima needed medicine to keep her strong after being so long in the wilderness. They gave her and other children injections. Afterward, the mothers and children were piled into cars and returned to their villages.
After their arrival at the family’s former home, within hours of the injections, Fatima started acting strangely, Aisha said. She would not breastfeed, her eyes became distant and glassy, and she developed a fever. A local pharmacist told her the child must have been bitten by a bug and gave her a syrup to lower her temperature.
Before dawn, Fatima went cold. She died in the same room where Aisha watched her mother bleed out years earlier. Aisha believes that the girl was poisoned by the soldiers.
Later in the morning, neighbours who heard Aisha’s sobs came to help her bury the tiny body in the local cemetery. One neighbour, Musa, confirmed Aisha’s account of that episode, saying he saw the girl before she died, and saw Aisha grieving afterward.
After Fatima’s burial, Aisha had no traces left of her daughter. Phones were forbidden for women in the militant camp, so she had no pictures or videos. They had escaped only with the clothes they were wearing.
Some joy, many sorrows
With Fatima gone, Aisha was alone. She made her way to a displaced persons camp in the city of Yola, a crowded and chaotic place populated with many other women as traumatised as she was. There was little food, and no money.
In the camp, Aisha found a new friend, Felerin, who held her as she cried over her losses. Felerin had suffered, too, telling Reuters she’d had a forced abortion and lost two young sons after soldiers injected them with poison at Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri. She confirmed to Reuters that Aisha had confided in her about her ordeal.
Weeks later, Aisha’s sister found her at the camp. She had escaped from another part of Sambisa Forest. The young women screamed with joy, drawing a crowd of curious spectators.
She was so emaciated, “I barely recognized her,” Aisha’s sister told Reuters. “I didn’t think it was her.”
The sister, who said she’d been a servant to the wife of a high-ranking Boko Haram leader during her captivity, had not seen Aisha since their arrival in Sambisa Forest. After they reunited, she said, Aisha shared the details of her life during their time apart – including her escape, the abortion and the suspected poisoning of Fatima.
After leaving the camp, Aisha and her sister stayed for a short time with an aunt in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, but she treated them as a burden, saying they had “the attitudes” of Boko Haram, Aisha said. The sisters have since settled in their former village together at their old house.
Aisha says her sister is a comfort and a link to her tranquil early years. Her sister has a daughter, now 2, who entertains them both.
But with her damaged right arm, Aisha cannot pound and mix kuli kuli to sell. She and her sister now sell fried groundnuts on the side of the road, earning barely enough to live.
Aisha mostly keeps her story to herself, and has avoided most old friends. She fears being called a “Boko Haram bride,” a slur thrown at many of the women who escaped captivity.
Still, Aisha feels compelled to pray for forgiveness – for failing to save her two children, for the sinful abortion and for the anger that won’t leave her. Until September, she used to fast twice a week in supplication to God, but she became too weak to continue.
She does not know if her life will improve.
“Who can truly know, if not God?” she asked. “But we pray to see things change, for the world to become better again, like it was before.”
Additional reporting by David Lewis.
Nightmare in Nigeria
By Libby George and Paul Carsten
Photo editing: Simon Newman
Video production: Lucy Ha and Matthew Larotonda
Art direction and illustrations: Catherine Tai
Edited by Julie Marquis and Alexandra Zavis