Boko Haram – One Survivor’s Story

It was one week ago today that a Major General in the Nigerian Army ordered the release of 275 individuals from Giwa military barracks, located in the northeastern state of Borno. For the past several years, Borno has been a theater of unspeakable violence exacted on communities by Boko Haram (loosely translated as Western education is a sin), an Islamist terrorist organization. These individuals had been detained on suspicion of being a Boko Haram member. One of these individuals was 14-year-old Amara.*

I met Amara earlier this week in the office of a local grassroots organization in Borno state’s capital, Maiduguri. Amara, a pretty, cherub-faced girl, was accompanied by her mother with whom she had been reunited just six weeks prior, after a one year-long separation. Their separation was not voluntary. Over a year ago, Amara had been abducted by Boko Haram when they attacked her village of Baga. 

During her time in captivity, Amara had little access to food or water. Feeding was limited to corn, wild berries, and stream water. When Amara would ask her “husband” for food or water, she was beaten. These beatings became a daily occurrence, according to Amara. She was at the mercy of this man she was forced to marry. 

When I met Amara, she shared with me her story of the attack. She recounted how when Boko Haram entered the village, she and hundreds of others were rounded up in a large home of a local official. From there, Amara and hundreds of other women and girls were taken to a Boko Haram base in the “bush” – an area she couldn’t identify, as she had never before left her village. Upon their arrival, Amara and the other girls were gathered in an area where the Boko Haram fighters would come to select their “wives.” Amara was one of the many who was forcibly married to a Boko Haram member. 

During her time in captivity, Amara had little access to food or water. Feeding was limited to corn, wild berries, and stream water. When Amara would ask her “husband” for food or water, she was beaten. These beatings became a daily occurrence, according to Amara. She was at the mercy of this man she was forced to marry. 

After more than a year in captivity, Amara and two other girls planned their escape. Against all odds they trekked for two weeks, until they arrived in Maiduguri. They lived on a diet of tamarind fruit from the trees along the way, and arrived exhausted in Maiduguri with swollen feet and legs. Amara was soon reunited with her grandmother in one of the many camps for the displaced. Her first action upon reuniting with her grandmother was to burn the black hijab that Boko Haram had forced her to wear.  

Sadly, her arrival in Maiduguri did not mark the end of Amara’s troubles. Her newfound freedom was short-lived. Three days after her arrival at the camp, she was taken away to the Giwa military barracks so the military could determine whether or not she was a Boko Haram member or sympathizer. According to reports from military officials, she and the rest of the detainees underwent thorough interrogations. 

It is an outrage that Amara, given her experience, never received any referrals for specialized health and psychological care.

In detention, Amara was reunited with her mother, who had been imprisoned there for the last eight months on the suspicion that she might be a terrorist sympathizer simply because she had lost her daughter to Boko Haram.

I asked Amara about what services she had received both in the prison and in the camp since she was returned there last Friday. To my dismay, she told me there was none. It is an outrage that Amara, given her experience, never received any referrals for specialized health and psychological care. Although Amara was screened for her potential affiliation with Boko Haram, she told me that she did not receive any testing for pregnancy or sexually-transmitted infections. 

It is not too late for Nigerian authorities to ensure that Amara’s reintegration into life – albeit in displacement – be facilitated by professionalized psychological assistance and access to other services that she needs, including but not limited to health, education, and income-generating activities. Should Nigeria not live up to these responsibilities, the international community can and should work with its Nigerian partners to do so. Not only is this a moral imperative, but also a path to recovery and sustained peace in northeast Nigeria. 

*Name has been changed to protect identity. 

Top photo: A poster of wanted Boko Haram suspects by the Nigerian army.