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Story Publication logo April 12, 2024

‘We Left the Girls Too Long in That Place’


Ikoyi, Lagos/ Nigeria - December 14th, 2019 : An event organised by non governmental organisations on the missing chibok girls yet to be brought back home. Image by Alucardion/Shutterstock.

Some of the victims say they are happy. Their parents are heartbroken.


It’s been 10 years since 276 girls were dragged into the forest by Boko Haram.

When I first interviewed Yama Bullum and his wife, Falmata, in 2015, they were desperate for the safe return of their daughter Jinkai, who was one of the 276 girls abducted from their school in Chibok, in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

In the years following the 2014 kidnapping, I spoke with many of the teenagers’ parents. The raid was part of an extended campaign of violence by Boko Haram—whose name roughly translates to “Western education is sin”—to create an Islamic state in Nigeria. The kidnapped girls, most of whom were Christian, were taken to Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest, where they endured harsh conditions and were subjected to Islamic instruction sessions lasting up to 11 hours a day.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign rallied celebrities and activists around the world, yet rescue attempts were largely unsuccessful. With few other options, the Nigerian government turned its focus to negotiating with the militants. Mediators helped broker a deal, and in 2016 and 2017, Boko Haram agreed to hand over a total of 103 of the abductees. Controversial amnesty programs began allowing Boko Haram members to reenter society after serving time at rehabilitation camps. The Chibok girls faded from the headlines.

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One reason is many of the women who remained with Boko Haram had married into the group. Although the women now say they were not forced, they faced intense pressure. Those who complied were granted privileges such as access to more and better food, and even possession of slaves. At times, those slaves were chosen from among their own classmates. Married women were usually moved away from the other Chibok captives, deeper into the forest. They were hard to locate, and even if they were found, it wasn’t always clear that they wanted to leave.

In the past couple of years, some of those missing women have finally emerged, but they are not the same girls who were taken into the forest a decade ago. Twenty have been rescued since 2021, and they have brought with them 31 children. (Almost 100 of the Chibok captives are still missing; about 20 may have died during childbirth, from illness or snakebites, or in joint Nigerian and American military air raids targeted at Boko Haram.) Most of the freed women are widows, but seven—including Jinkai—came out with their husbands or partners. They all moved into a large house in Maiduguri, where the government provides for them. In other words—in a decision that has angered the women’s families and baffled many Nigerians—taxpayers are supporting these former militants to live with the very women they kidnapped.

IT IS DIFFICULT to overstate how famous the “Chibok Girls” are in Nigeria. When the military finds one, it usually summons the media, positions the woman in front of the cameras, and marks her name off the list circulated by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Occasionally, the freed captives recount their experiences—describing the hardships of captivity and lavishing gratitude on the armed forces for liberating them.

So I was not surprised, when I first met Jinkai and the other recently freed women on a Sunday afternoon in January, to find them somewhat bored to be going through the routine once more. Sitting in their hijabs under a tree outside their house in Maiduguri, they told me the usual things about being thankful for their freedom. But when I tried to probe them about their feelings on the transformations they had undergone, the narrative got more complicated.

In 2022, Jinkai and her three children left the forest and surrendered to the Nigerian military. She told reporters that her husband, Usman, had given her permission to go, and planned to follow: “I just hope Usman surrenders as soon as possible. I can’t wait to reunite with him,” she said. She was transferred to a rehabilitation camp in Bulumkutu, along with the other recently freed women. After several weeks, they were released and granted permission to return home to visit their families in Chibok.

“The day she returned, we were all so happy and rushed to hug her,” Jinkai’s father, Bullum, told me. They celebrated with a thanksgiving service at church. She’d brought her children, and her family allotted her a portion of their farmland where she could start growing peanuts. But soon, she left for the house in Maiduguri, where, to her family’s surprise, Usman was waiting. “She was a Christian, but when she went into the forest, they turned her into a Muslim,” her father, Bullum, told me. “I sent her to school and now she doesn’t want to go to school again. The girl is not even talking to us.”

Jinkai got married a year after she was abducted, and had her first child by the age of 22. She’s 29 now. When I spoke with her on a video call after our first meeting, she told me, “In terms of religion, I am happy with the one I am doing now, which is Islam.” When I asked her about the tensions with her family over her husband and religion, she said, “How I feel about my family is not anybody’s business,” and hung up.

“How do you deal with the issue of agency of women who were abducted as children?” Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode asked me. She organized the Bring Back Our Girls activist group and is the CEO of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, which supports the women and their families. “We left the girls too long in that place. The longer we left them, the more they changed.”

BOKO HARAM HUSBANDS were not always treated so generously. In 2016, the Nigerian military discovered one of the Chibok girls, Amina Ali, roaming the forest with her baby and a man who claimed to be her husband. She said he’d helped her escape, and yet he was swiftly taken into custody by the Nigerian military and labeled as a criminal. I conducted one of the first interviews with her, during which she said she missed her husband. “Just because we got separated, that does not mean that I don’t think about him,” she said. “I’m not comfortable with the way I’m being kept from him.”

The state government is only trying to protect the women’s welfare and mental health by supporting them as they stay with their husbands, the governor of Borno and architect of the policy, Babagana Umaru Zulum, told me. But it is also a tactic. By speaking publicly about the treatment they receive upon returning, the women can play a crucial role in persuading others to come out of hiding.

Besides, Governor Zulum said, the women were interviewed and “they said this is what they want. And even before they came out of the forest, some of them gave us conditions that for them to come out, they will come with their husbands. We want to see if we can get more.”

It’s true that the couples seemed determined to reunite. Last year, one of the freed women, Mary Dauda, was visiting her family in Chibok when a former militant arrived, seeking to discover her whereabouts. “He was arrested by vigilantes,” Yakubu Nkeki, the chair of the Chibok parents’ group, told me, and barred from seeing Mary. Nevertheless, she ran away from her family to join him. They’re now living together in Maiduguri.

Many spoke fondly of their husbands. Aisha Graema has had two children and been married to the same militant for eight years. She told me they agreed together on their escape: “I first came out of the forest and then he followed me,” she said. “There in the bush, we had no relative, no brother, no sister. That is why we decided to come out. He finished deradicalization before we were allowed to stay together. The government welcomed us well, gave us food, shelter, everything.” She added, “All my prayers are that I just want my husband to get a good thing to do in life.”

BUT THE WOMEN'S PARENTS have a very different view. Many of them think the government is sacrificing their daughters for the sake of stability, to appease Boko Haram, an accusation that Governor Zulum denied.

Dauda Yama (no relation to Mary—many of the families have similar names), whose daughter Saratu is among the recently released women, told me, “I would prefer the girl to come and live with us.” He said people in Chibok are talking; one said to him, “‘Your daughter has been rescued but she is still with Boko Haram?’ I am very pained. It’s not right.”

“I am not happy with what the governor did,” Jinkai’s father said. “The girls managed to come out of the forest and the governor married them off again.”

Over multiple conversations with the women, I struggled to know for sure how they felt. I had trouble connecting with Jinkai because every time I called, Usman answered her phone and promptly hung up. When I asked different women in the house to deliver my messages to her, they hesitated and appeared fearful, mentioning the presence of her husband.

All of the women I interviewed that first day, and in phone calls that followed, at times repeated what sounded like Boko Haram propaganda. “I am happy that I was taken. I was not happy at the beginning, but as they started teaching me Islamic religion, that is when I became happy,” said Mary, who is pregnant with her second child. Dauda Yama’s daughter Saratu told me, “When they took us from school, I was sad, but when they started teaching me about Islam, I was happy.” When Jinkai and I finally talked, she said, a bit defensively: “I have completely forgotten about the kidnapping.” They expressed few goals for the future beyond nurturing their children, the success of their husbands, and getting into paradise.

How, many people wonder, could these women want to stay with their tormentors after all they’ve been through? I asked Somiari Fubara, a Nigerian American psychologist, if she could make sense of it. She worked for two years with former captives from Chibok studying in a special program at the American University of Nigeria in Yola. She emphasized how traumatized the women had been. They did not know “if they were ever going to be released.” They bonded with these men in part because they had to in order to survive. “The girls didn’t even know that the world was looking for them. The information they were getting was solely what they were fed by Boko Haram.”

I asked the same question of Fatima Akilu, the director of a crisis-response group, Neem Foundation, and a psychologist who has worked to deradicalize wives of Boko Haram commanders and other freed captives. She said it can take a long time to undo women’s ties to the militants’ ideology; after all, “Boko Haram have taken their time to indoctrinate them.” The women may also be struggling to reintegrate into society. They don’t fit in, they are ostracized, and as a result they may say to themselves that they were better off “in the group, where I had a sense of belonging.”

Akilu said she encourages the women to think for themselves and ask questions like “If they are really working for God, why are they killing children?” She said that these women “have been told what to believe all their lives”—first by their parents and community, and then by Boko Haram. But, she said, “when you try to teach some to figure it out for themselves, they usually are quite good at understanding what they’ve been through, what it’s meant.”

Most of the women who were stolen from Chibok have gone on to live relatively normal lives, Fubara said, reunited with their families and continuing their education. But they spent far less time in the forest than the women now living in Maiduguri. Most remained unmarried, living with other captive women, with fewer chances for deep radicalization.

THE HOUSE IN MAIDUGURI is really more like a mansion—each couple has a room to themselves, and the children romp through its extensive grounds. I was given a tour by Kauna Luka, a 26-year-old widow. We settled in her room, where a photo of her before the kidnapping, unsmiling in a white dress, hung on the wall. The room was bright and airy, with blankets, clothes, cooking utensils, and suitcases piled up in one corner.

About a dozen of the women crowded into the room to talk. Some told me about their husbands who died in the forest, speaking matter-of-factly. Others mentioned that they were dating militants they’d met at Bulumkutu. Governor Zulum has promised the women that they will not lose government support if they choose to marry now—the state will also provide accommodation to their spouses. The women cheerily described how the government meets all their needs, giving them pocket money every month and bags of rice.

Every weekday, a bus ferries them to a “second-chance school,” where they learn skills such as tailoring and computer literacy. State security agents closely observe their movements, and they must obtain permission before going anywhere or receiving visitors.

None of the husbands was home when I visited (and despite repeated attempts to contact them, I found that their phones were always switched off). Some of the women told me that their spouses had traveled as far away as the southwestern city of Lagos or Cameroon, saying they were looking for work. I was struck by the fact that the former militants enjoy the freedom to move about as they please. Having completed their rehabilitation, they are treated like ordinary citizens. The women, however, are under strict monitoring.

The government says it has its reasons. “Our main objective is to protect them,” Zulum told me. “We are very much afraid that if we allow these Chibok girls to go back to Chibok, these useless people will come and abduct them again. We are also afraid that if we allow them to roam anyhow, even within Maiduguri, maybe some culprits may attack them. We receive complaints from parents and others that we don’t want to allow these Chibok girls to go back to their communities, but we also see the dangers inherent in allowing them to go anywhere they want.”

The Borno government is following a policy similar to one implemented by the federal government. The 103 girls freed in 2016 and 2017 were kept in custody in Abuja, the capital, for up to a year. Even when they were permitted to visit Chibok for Christmas, they were confined to the house of a local politician, for fear that they might be kidnapped again.

But the house in Maiduguri may be another kind of captivity. One of the women who originally lived there, Hauwa Joseph, has since left it behind to start a different life. I spoke with her mother, Esther. “My daughter tried to return to Christianity while in Maiduguri, but being with the others made it difficult,” she told me. “She refused to put on the hijab, and the other girls called her an infidel.” They told her that she would never find a man who wasn’t a militant to marry her. When the women were permitted to visit Chibok in December, Hauwa’s uncles connected with a Christian charity that took her away to a different town and is working to send her abroad to study. She’d changed her phone number, and her family asked me not to reveal her location, so no one can pressure her to return. (I tried multiple times to reach her directly.)

Yakubu Nkeki, the chair of the parents’ association, told me he was torn between the grievances of the parents and the rights of their daughters, who may have been teenagers when they were kidnapped but are now grown women. “Our culture in Chibok, even a 50-year-old woman, you are still under the control of your parents” until you marry, Nkeki said. “But by the constitution of Nigeria, when you are 18 years, you can think on your own.”

What these women really think remains a mystery, at least to me. When I left the house in Maiduguri that Sunday, a security guard was shouting at the women, warning them not to wander too close to the gates. Seeing these women who had been through so much scurrying to obey left me simmering. Was this the liberation Nigeria had promised them?


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