Boko Haram, the West African jihadist group, has kidnapped thousands of young girls and women during their insurgency. Many are raped or forced into marriage by the fighters and become pregnant. If the girls manage to escape, they often face ostracism by their communities back home.
Photographer Vlad Sokhin and UNICEF captured the images of young mothers who have recently escaped Boko Haram with their babies. Their incredible resilience and strength is evident in their stories below.
Fati, 27 years old. Captured by Boko Haram when they invaded her village and killed her husband. She managed to flee with her 6-month-old son, Mohamed.
“I lived in Shea when Boko Haram invaded. We were farmers. When Boko Haram came we thought they were thieves. While they were in our town my husband died and they took many of us. After some time they forced us to marry them, saying, ‘If you don’t want to get married, you can go for amaliya (suicide mission). We escaped when there was an attack one night. I was pregnant. We met the military and were sent to Giwa barracks. I gave birth in Giwa.
“I love my son, I always like to go out with him, take him by my side. I don’t like to leave him alone. He loves playing with me, I like to throw him in the air. I want him to become a governor or a solider, he needs school, he needs to learn. I want society to be proud of him. The situation is bad though, it is stressful and I need help.”
Zanieb, 23 years old. Boko Haram murdered her husband in front of her and forced her to marry. She managed to escape while pregnant and now lives in a camp with her 14-month-old son, Abdulai.
“I was in Gwoza when they came. I had been married for one month with my lover. Boko Haram invaded, and killed [him],” said Zanieb. The militia told Zanieb she had to marry them. “I asked them how can I marry them when they killed my husband? They said I was mad, crippled, but they threatened to kill me if I didn’t marry them. I resisted so they took me and my mother and flogged us. After some time they took me to a small village where I stayed for a few months with the man they forced me to marry. I became pregnant but I managed to escape. They (the military) put us in Giwa Barracks. I was pregnant when I left. People associate us with Boko Haram but I love Abdulai. I would sacrifice my life for him. Abdulai loves to play and never cries but without enough food he is always sick. I hope and wish and pray for him to become influential in life. Maybe when I see him successful I will forget about all the suffering he has been through in life.”
Esther, 19 years old. Drugged, raped and forced to marry by Boko Haram. She escaped with her baby, Becky, 6 months old.
“When Boko Haram invaded Gwoza I was sick at home. I tried to run away but they shot at me, I fell and so they took me with some girls and small children. They took us to Goshe and gave me some drugs. We were all locked in a room, us girls. The Emir came in, the same guy that had the Chibok girls. I started screaming as he wanted to take me away. The wanted to sell me to one of their leaders. Six months after I was married, I was nearly two months pregnant. The two groups [of Boko Haram] started fighting. We were able to escape.
“I now have Becky. They always say I am having the baby of Boko Haram but I don’t care. They don’t know what they are saying, but to me it is destiny. Now I am free. Becky is troublesome, she cries a lot, when she does people say she is troublesome like her father, like Boko Haram. I like to play with her. I hope she will become a medical doctor but she needs to go to school. But she is always sick, I struggle to get medicine for her.”
Amina*, 15 years old. Escaped Boko Haram after fighters forced her to marry and raped her. She now lives with her one-and-a-half year old daughter, Husseina.
“I like to chat with Husseina, I like to play with her. I want to put her in school. She needs good food and clothing. I think it is important to show her love and make her smile. I want her to be successful in life. There is an area near here where I used to go and they call me ‘Boko Haram wife.’ Those people don’t know God. I know she is my daughter, I don’t care what they say, I love her. Since I came back from Boko Haram there has been a lot of suffering, there is not enough to eat.”
Fatima, 22 years old. Kidnapped by Boko Haram in Damasak, forced into marriage and raped. She managed to escape and find her family, and now lives with them and her two-year-old daughter, Aisha.
“Aisha was very small when we came here, just 40 days old. Boko Haram invaded our town, that day they kidnapped many of us. They had us in Damasak for 3 months and then took us to the bush. One man chose me, he was with me for 8 months. Five of us ran away one afternoon, as we were running we met a man with a pick up van. He took us to a village and we were able to find transport to Maiduguri. I managed to find my father here.
“[My father…] likes to play with Aisha, we all play together. I love my daughter. It pains me a lot to hear when people say things about me, about my time with Boko Haram. Somebody came to marry me, he met my family and did all the things to plan for marriage but then people told him my baby was from Boko Haram. He never came back. They should stop saying all this trash. They are not above being tested by God. I want Aisha to grow up, to have an education and to learn. Aisha always wants to be by my side. She needs love. We need more, we don’t have enough, I need to take care of my baby.”
Rukaiya, 18 years old. At four months pregnant, she had to leave her one-year-old daughter behind when she escaped Boko Haram. She herself was a only child when the jihadis kidnapped her, and she's lost all contact with her family.
“I don’t think of my daughter, I was taken away from my parents too. I don’t want to have the baby.”
Zara, 31 years old. Boko Haram killed her husband in front of her and abducted her and her four children. The army rescued her when she was seven months pregnant. She still doesn't know the fate of her other kids.
“I leave everything to God, this is what God has delivered for me. I lost everything, my four children. This is all I have. I am happy to have Fatima. I have no food to give her, all I can do is give her breast milk. I have nothing else. She is a very happy baby, she always plays. When we first came, people call me a Boko Haram wife, but with time, with sensitization in the community things are changing. Even the neighbors play with Fatima.
“I am still hopeful one day I will be reunited with [my other children]. I pray every day. If I saw them I would be so happy. No matter what has happened I would accept them. There is nothing else to say. Life is very hard. I need something to empower me. When I was pregnant they would tell me Fatima was a Boko Haram baby but I think maybe this is God’s replacement for my children. Fatima brings me so much joy, but sometimes I weep, I cry myself to sleep but I am beginning to overcome this by meeting other women. I am calm now, I can forge ahead with my life.”