The Complicated Recovery Of Former Boko Haram Hostages

More than 270 women and children who were held captive by Boko Haram have been rescued and are recovering in Nigeria, but treatment and taboos are tricky to navigate.

Screenshot of a Boko Haram video showing the "Chibok girls" kidnapped in April 2014
Screenshot of a Boko Haram video showing the "Chibok girls" kidnapped in April 2014
Maureen Grisot

YOLA â€" These women, whose eyes were shadowed by sorrow and resignation when they arrived in Yola in early May, are little by little smiling again. It was to this eastern Nigeria town, near the Cameroon border, that the Nigerian army brought them after rescuing them from the Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram fighters held them captive for months. Seventy women and more than 200 distressed and scrawny children, their bellies swollen from malnutrition, ended up in this camp sheltering hundreds of people who fled villages attacked by Islamists.

Fatima was not able to leave her house near Maiduguri in time, before the men with the black flags started shooting and burning everything in their path in December 2014. She was taken prisoner with her 18-month-old daughter. "We went through several towns before arriving in the forest," she says. "In addition to my daughter, I had to take care of seven children from my neighborhood, who were separated from their parents when we were kidnapped. It wasn't easy because we didn't have enough food. I often didn't eat. The children were my priority."

Separated into small groups, the captives tried to organize their survival, all the while attempting to keep enough strength to resist the assaults of Boko Haram fighters. "We were often flogged if we walked in the wrong direction, or if we took too much time putting our veils on," she explains. "We prayed constantly because we didn't know if we would be freed one day. Some of those who refused to get married with them had given up. They thought they would be killed. We didn't think we'd get out of there."

The view from Yola â€" Photo: Leigh Bowden

Sexual abuse

It's hard to talk about the sexual abuse so many of these women suffered. Fatima says she resisted the union the fighters wanted to impose on several of the women, a sort of conversion to Boko Haram's Islam, even for those who were already Muslim. It was a way for these men to justify forcing sex on the women, pretending to forget the abuse, the humiliation, the threats they issued.

Fatima, who always wears her huge red-and-blue-checkered veil, is one of the few who is wholly open to questions from journalists. "I learned that my husband was alive. I hope he'll see me on television or in pictures and that he'll come and get me," the 27-year-old woman says with a suddenly cheerful voice.

But the way back will be long for a large number of them, still traumatized. They are following group therapies to start rebuilding themselves, even if taboos are still strong. "A woman wanted to talk about the sexual abuse of which she was the victim, but suddenly, a woman next to her told her to keep quiet," says Christian Macauley Sabum, who coordinates psychological care for the United Nations Population Fund. "She told her, "You know your husband could hear this, and it could have consequences on your marriage.""

Slow re-entry

These women who were cut off from everything, some for more than a year, must also learn how to live again. The Nigerian authorities took time to understand this. It took them a week to prepare cloths for them and provide the essentials: soap, powdered milk, diapers and feeding bottles. When they receive these basic necessities, these mothers lighten up. Not only do they finally possess something, but they will be able to provide for their children.

Woman selling yogurt in Yola, Nigeria â€" Photo: Suleiman213

About 30 of these women are pregnant, according to a social worker who wishes to remain anonymous. Terribly ill at ease, these women try to conceal their pregnancies under their large veils. Some could have already been pregnant before they were kidnapped, but they will never be able to escape speculation otherwise.

Many of these captives come from Mubi, a city 200 kilometers further north that Boko Haram occupied for weeks at the end of 2014, before it was retaken by the army. About three-quarters of its residents returned, but it will be complicated for these women to join their families.

On May 21, the Nigerian army announced that the women and their children were moved to an unknown destination to undergo medical and psychological treatment.

"We know they've been through very distressful things, but it scares us, because their children could become bad eggs for the nation," says a man named Petrus, who is conversing with other Mubi men in the shadow of a mango tree. "We don't know what's in their heads, so we prefer it if the government keeps them under observation for now."Â

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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