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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 — 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."

[rebelmouse-image 27089042 alt="""" original_size="2100x301" expand=1]

The view from Yola — 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.

[rebelmouse-image 27089043 alt="""" original_size="360x600" expand=1]

Woman selling yogurt in Yola, Nigeria — 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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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

After Abbas: Here Are The Three Frontrunners To Be The Next Palestinian Leader

Israel and the West have often asked: Where is the Palestinian Mandela? The divided regimes between Gaza and the West Bank continues to make it difficult to imagine the future Palestinian leader. Still, these three names are worth considering.

Photo of Mahmoud Abbas speaking into microphone

Abbas is 88, and has been the leading Palestinian political figure since 2005

Thaer Ganaim/APA Images via ZUMA
Elias Kassem

Updated Dec. 5, 2023 at 12:05 a.m.

Israel has set two goals for its Gaza war: destroying Hamas and releasing hostages.

But it has no answer to, nor is even asking the question: What comes next?

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the return of the current Palestinian Authority to govern post-war Gaza. That stance seems opposed to the U.S. Administration’s call to revitalize the Palestinian Authority (PA) to assume power in the coastal enclave.

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But neither Israel nor the U.S. put a detailed plan for a governing body in post-war Gaza, let alone offering a vision for a bonafide Palestinian state that would also encompass the West Bank.

The Palestinian Authority, which administers much of the occupied West Bank, was created in1994 as part of the Oslo Accords peace agreement. It’s now led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who succeeded Yasser Arafat in 2005. Over the past few years, the question of who would succeed Abbas, now 88 years old, has largely dominated internal Palestinian politics.

But that question has gained new urgency — and was fundamentally altered — with the war in Gaza.

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