A Human Rights Watch report has revealed the horrific reality of life inside a Boko Haram camp for women and girls, interviewing those who have been released or managed to escape.
Boko Haram has kidnapped at least 500 women and girls from northern Nigeria in the last five years. Hundreds are thought to be living in a camp run by the Islamist insurgency – including 219 schoolgirls who were abducted back in April.
Little has been known about the conditions the girls are being kept in.
Human Rights Watch has spoken to 30 people who were abducted by Boko Haram in the last year and 16 who witnessed abductions. The victims either escaped, or were released by the Islamist group. A dozen were students at the Chibok School and managed to flee, while their classmates still remain in custody.
The resulting report, Those Terrible Weeks In Their Camp: Boko Haram Violence Against Women and Girls in North-east Nigeria, gives an insight into the brutal terrors of life inside in a Boko Haram camp.
Rape and sexual violence
The report uncovered eight cases of sexual violence among those interviewed. Most rapes happened after the victims were forced to marry. In some cases, Boko Haram insurgents took advantage of the absence of commanders. But in most instances the sexual assaults occurred once the victims had been forced to ‘marry’.
A 15-year-old girl who was abducted in 2013 and spent four weeks in captivity under Boko Haram said she was raped by a man she was forced to wed.
“After we were declared married I was ordered to live in his cave, but I always managed to avoid him,” she said.
“He soon began to threaten me with a knife to have sex with him, and when I still refused he brought out his gun, warning that he would kill me if I shouted. Then he began to rape me every night. He was a huge man in his mid-30s and I had never had sex before. It was very painful and I cried bitterly because I was bleeding afterwards.”
Another woman told of her experience, where a female member of Boko Haram encouraged the commander to rape her. She was “lying down in the cave pretending to be ill” at the time and hoping to avoid a forced marriage.
But an insurgent paid her ‘dowry’ and came into the cave to force himself on her. “The commander’s wife blocked the cave entrance and watched as the man raped me,” she said.
The victims didn’t just suffer at the hands of their rapists – they had to endure more distress when they returned to their communities.
The report explains there is a “culture of silence, stigma, and shame around sexual abuse in Nigeria’s conservative North” meaning that most of these women and girls kept their abuse hidden.
A still from a video released by Boko Haram claiming to show the missing Nigerian schoolgirls
The 15-year-old who was raped said: “I could not tell anyone what happened, not even my husband [back home]. I still feel so ashamed and cheated.
“[Another] woman told me she was also raped, but vowed never to speak of it again as she was single and believes that news of her rape would foreclose her chances of marriage.”
Religion and conversion
The report found that around 90 per cent of Boko Haram’s victims are Christian. When they abduct their victims, the insurgents typically ask Christians and Muslims to line up separately. The Christians are shot, attacked or abducted.
At the camps, conversion to Islam is forced upon the women. One said: “I was dragged to the camp leader who told me the reason I was brought to the camp was because we Christians worship three gods.
“When I objected to his claim, he tied a rope around my neck and beat me with a plastic cable until I almost passed out. An insurgent who I recognized from my village convinced me to accept Islam lest I should be killed. So I agreed.”
Another victim, a 15-year-old girl, said that a commander threatened to whip two her and another girl unless they agreed to renounce Christianity. “The daily pressure became unbearable, so we agreed [to convert] after five days,” she said.
“On that day, the leader handed us green colored hi-jabs, gave us new Muslim names, and instructed the other women in the camp to daily teach us Arabic words. A week later, he performed a ceremony, reading out words in Arabic language, and then announced that we were now wedded: my companions to two insurgents in the camp, while I became his [the leader’s] wife.”
Often, conversion to Islam is seen as a way out of the camp. Christian women who convert to Islam have sometimes been released on the condition they keep their religion and spread it in their village.
Others are simply forced into marriage upon conversion. When one of the victims, aged 15, complained to a Boko Haram commander that she and the other abducted girls were too young for marriage, he pointed at his 5-year-old daughter, and said: “If she got married last year, and is just waiting till puberty for its consummation, how can you at your age be too young to marry?”
The report found that the women were often forced to do household chores, such as cooking and cleaning. Some served as porters, carrying the loot stolen by the insurgents from villages and towns they had attacked.
One was forced to carry heavy bundles on her head for so long that she was grateful when more girls were abducted so that she could share the weight with them.
Some of the Chibok schoolgirls were forced to cook and clean for other women and girls whom the insurgents had chosen for “special treatment because of their beauty.”
But they weren’t just made to do cooking and cleaning – they were also forced to assist with military operations and murder.
One woman said she was made to help lure some men to the camp. “Once we got back to the camp, they tied the legs and hands of the captives and slit the throats of four of them as they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’,” she said. “Then I was handed a knife to kill the last man. I was shaking with horror and couldn’t do it. The camp leader’s wife took the knife and killed him.”
Another woman was forced to wash the bloodied clothes of insurgents killed in violence a year before she was abducted. And one 19-year-old, who was held in several camps in the Gwoza hills for three months in 2013, was forced to participate in attacks and to carry ammunition for her captors.
She said: “At first, my job in the camp was to cook for the 14-man group, until a month later when I was taken along for an operation. I was told to hold the bullets and lie in the grass while they fought. They came to me for extra bullets as the fight continued during the day. When security forces arrived at the scene and began to shoot at us, I fell down in fright. The insurgents dragged me along on the ground as they fled back to camp.”
‘I can’t shut out the memories’
Many of the victims interviewed showed signs of post-traumatic stress and anguish. But only the Chibok schoolgirls were offered counselling – many of the rest were unaware they could even be entitled to medical and mental health help.
One 19-year-old girl, who was raped, said: “It is just the memories. I can’t shut them out. Even in sleep, it is like I’m back there and everything is still happening. My father has tried to talk to me but it doesn’t help.”
The Human Rights Watch is now urging the Nigerian government to “step up their efforts to put an end to these brutal abductions and provide for the medical, psychological and social needs of the women and girls who have managed to escape.”
Ten days ago, Nigeria said that Boko Haram had agreed to a ceasefire and to return the schoolgirls, but so far, that hasn’t happened.
It means hundreds of women and girls are still living in these conditions.