LAGOS, Nigeria — Asabe Aliyu is a 23-year-old mother of four children from Delsak, a village near Chibok town. She was among 275 girls, women and young children, who made it to safety, brought out by Nigeria’s military.
Although none of them, as far as we know, were among the almost 200 young women whose abduction from a school in Chibok a year ago provoked global outrage and the campaign #BringBackOurGirls, the suffering they’ve endured is no doubt similar, and so is the possibility that some have psyches so damaged that they identify with their captors.
They were found in the Sambisa Forest, the last stronghold of Boko Haram extremists, where the Nigerian military said it has rescued more than 677 girls and women and destroyed more than a dozen insurgent camps in the past week.
Asabe was weak and vomiting blood, an indication of internal injuries, as she told her story to a reporter from Daily Times, a national newspaper. She said that beatings were the order of the day in the Boko Haram camp. She said terrorists took turns having sex with her on a daily basis and ended up getting her pregnant. Then they forced her into an unwanted marriage.
“I was abducted six months ago in Delsak when our village was overrun by Boko Haram,” Asabe told the reporter at the refugee camp in Yola, the capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa State. “First I had traveled from my village to a forest close to Cameroon. They turned me into a sex machine. They took turns to sleep with me. Now, I am pregnant and I cannot identify the father.”
Despite the fact she was pregnant, the militants showed her no mercy. Among her duties: Making sure they were not left hungry. “With my condition as a pregnant woman, I did the cooking of their food,” she said.
As local reporters went from one traumatized person to another, the 275 women in the camp told different tales of woe in the hands of Boko Haram.
Some said that they trekked for three days before they were rescued and finally arrived in Yola. Their faces were gaunt, their hair light and tinted brown, their stomachs distended, all signs of malnutrition suffered over a long period. They looked shattered and sick.
Some of the women and children had to be assisted because they could not walk on their own. Others could not manage to alight from the vehicles that brought them from Sambisa, so spent were they by exhaustion and hunger.
Lami Musa was in the first group of rescued women and girls taken to the Malkohi refugee camp in Yola. She had a three-day-old baby girl, and looked visibly sick and unable to walk without support.
Her husband was murdered by Boko Haram, she told Daily Times: “They abducted the whole of my family and killed my husband at Kilkasa forest when I was four months pregnant. They took us to Sambisa forest, we were sleeping in an open field. For days, we went without water or food.”
“Three days ago,” she said, “I gave birth to this baby girl. As I am talking to you, I cannot learn the status of her health. I have not had a bath since I was delivered of the baby. The baby is yet to be bathed, too.”
Maryamu Adamu, a young woman from Minchika in Adamawa State, was captured nine months ago and taken to Sambisa forest. Despite not being sure if her husband and two children are still alive, she is full of thanks to God that she survived the horror.
“I know I was dead, my existing now is just a mere shadow of life as nothing moves me. But now that I am here, I confirm that I am a living being. I thank God that I am alive. I thank God,” Maryamu said.
But security officials, despite successfully transporting the women and children from the deadly forest to safety, and despite their accounts of horror, believe it would be a fatal mistake to think that none of them has sympathy for Boko Haram, or at least for the men they knew in it.
While it is certain that few or none of these women and girls volunteered to join up with the insurgents, it is likely that the experience of captivity and of marriage, forced or not, and then of motherhood, will have had a profound effect on the psyches of some of them. “Brainwashing” and “the Stockholm syndrome” are pale concepts compared to what they have been through.
And recent events suggest that some women in Boko Haram custody may feel a fierce commitment to the insurgents.
During the battle at Sambisa, some women shot at their rescuers and were killed. Boko Haram used them as armed human shields for its main fighting force.
Soldiers who spoke with The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity said they were shocked when women opened fire on troops who had come to rescue them last week. The women killed seven soldiers and 12 of the women were killed, they said.
“It is possible that some of the rescued women might have sentimental attachment to these militants,” said Yusuf Mohammed, who works with children affected by trauma in Maidaguri, one of the larger cities in the northeast. “In the course of my work I have met former wives of militants who still talk about their husbands, and former child soldiers who say they so much miss the militia life.”