Women's harrowing tale of escape from Boko Haram
- 24 March 2014
- From the section Africa
Two women who were abducted by Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria have given a rare account of life as captives of the Islamist militants.
"They asked me if I am Christian or Muslim. I said I am Christian," said 23-year-old Liatu, as she recalled her ordeal in the hands of Boko Haram.
"On the 11th day [in captivity], they brought a man to me and said that he liked me and I should convert to Islam so that he can marry me."
She was stopped at a roadblock set up last year by the Islamist militant group. She said any Muslims employed by the government were killed on the spot, as Boko Haram had earlier warned them to leave their work.
She was taken to the insurgents' base in Borno state's Sambisa forest, where the bloodshed continued.
"They were slitting people's throats with knives. Both women and men were killed - especially the men who didn't agree to fight for them," she said.
"Those that tried to escape were shot but they hardly ever used their guns to kill. They usually used knives. About 50 people were killed right in front of me."
Liatu says the insurgents were usually tipped off about any imminent attack by the Nigerian army. This allowed them to hide in caves and forests close to the Cameroonian border. The Nigerian army says it is currently hunting down the Boko Haram fighters in this extremely challenging terrain.
Liatu spent 15 days in captivity and refused to eat anything. Then, after being told about the proposed marriage, she made an extremely risky escape.
"One of the captives stood up and said: 'You only die once. Who is ready to make a run for it?' Six of us jumped into one of the Boko Haram vehicles in the camp - a Volkswagen Golf."
"They chased us on motorbikes, shooting at the car until we got close to Bama town. Then they left and we got out of the car to continue on foot as there was a curfew in place. It was only then that I realised the three people on the backseat had all been shot dead."
'Slit their throats'
Nineteen-year-old Janet was held for three months. She says that Boko Haram tried to turn her into a killer.
"They went to Gwoza and brought five people to the camp. They started slaughtering them in front of me. Then they ordered me to slit one of their throats. I refused. I told them I couldn't do it. Then the wife of the leader of the group killed him instead."
She says she recognised the faces of the men who held her captive.
"I knew almost all the people in the group I was with. I knew them from my home area," Janet says.
"I was really angry and when I couldn't keep quiet any longer, I said to one of them, 'When we were at home you would even visit me and I respected you. So why are you doing this to me?'"
Janet says her life was spared as a result of this outburst.
One of the great fears people have today stems from not knowing exactly where Boko Haram has a presence in the country and whom you can trust.
A businessman from Borno state told me he had helped the Nigerian police arrest 11 Boko Haram members in the capital, Abuja.
Some working on market stalls, he believes, are sent to be the eyes and ears of the group. It is a worrying indication of Boko Haram's desire to maintain a presence way beyond the north-east of the country.
I met a teacher who survived last month's attack on a boarding school in Yobe state, in which 29 boys were killed.
He was so scared he wanted his identity hidden, even though he now lives far from Yobe. He did not even want me to reveal where he now lived. He described the moment the gunfire erupted.
Boko Haram at a glance
- Founded in 2002
- Initially focused on opposing Western education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
- Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
- Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
- Some three million people affected
- Declared terrorist group by US in 2013
"I peeped through the window and saw the gunshots coming in... and there was a lot of shouting," he says.
"I came back silently and said, 'Let us lock our doors and pray. If they come in, that is maybe the end of our lives.' We kept on praying and praying and praying."
He hid for over three hours as the gunfire and explosions rang out. The insurgents were going from house to house, killing, looting and burning. At times their actions suggested they had specific targets.
"In one house, they even met two children that had been left behind by their parents who had fled to the bush. After coming in, the insurgents saw the children sleeping on their mattress," he says.
"They woke them up asked them to go outside. They put the mattress outside and asked them to sleep. Then they set the house ablaze."
He told me that at the time, he had no idea that the student area of the school was under attack. Then, in the morning, the teachers saw the horrific scene at the boys' dormitory.
"We cried. Some of them were slaughtered like goats. Others were shot," he says.
"Most of them had high hopes that they would be future leaders. Some of them in class were telling us they would be lawyers and doctors. They were full of ambition."
Schools shut down
Since the Buni Yadi attack last month, close to 100 more schools have been shut down in north-east Nigeria because of fears over insecurity.
It is exactly what the Islamist militants want - they say they are fighting to stop secular education.
On the streets of Maiduguri are many who instead of getting an education are now becoming embroiled in the bloodshed.
Minutes after the gunfire had died down outside Maiduguri's Giwa barracks following the latest Boko Haram attack there, crowds of young men gathered outside the gates of the base, along with members of the local vigilante force.
Young teenagers were among those holding crude weapons including machetes, clubs and even swords.
They were standing over a heap of butchered bodies of suspected Boko Haram members - some shot by the army, others cut down by the vigilantes.
People snapped photos on their mobile phones. The gruesome scenes are no longer shocking.
The names of the women escapees in this piece have been changed for their safety.