More than 270 women and children who were held captiveÂ by BokoÂ Haram have been rescued and are recovering in Nigeria, but treatment and taboos are tricky to navigate.
YOLA —Â These women, whose eyes were shadowed by sorrow and resignation when they arrived in YolaÂ in early May, are little by little smiling again. It was toÂ this eastern Nigeria town, near the Cameroon border, that the Nigerian army brought them after rescuing them from the Sambisa Forest,Â 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 pathÂ in DecemberÂ 2014. She was takenÂ prisoner with her 18-month-old daughter. "We went through several towns before arriving in the forest,"Â 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.Â 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 ofÂ 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,"Â 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.Â They thought they would be killed. We didn't think we'd get out of there."
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The view from Yola — Photo: Leigh Bowden
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 theÂ women,Â a sort of conversion to Boko Haram's Islam, even for those who were already Muslim. It was aÂ way for these men to justify forcing sex on the women,Â 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 learnedÂ that my husband was alive.Â I hope he'll see me on television or in pictures and that he'll come and get me,"Â 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,"Â saysÂ Christian Macauley Sabum, who coordinates psychological care forÂ the United Nations Population Fund. "She told her,Â "You know your husband could hear this, and it could have consequences on your marriage.""
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 theseÂ basic necessities, these mothers lighten up.Â Not only do they finally possess something, but they will be able to provide for their children.
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Woman selling yogurt inÂ 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 womenÂ try to conceal theirÂ 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 kilometersÂ further northÂ that Boko HaramÂ occupied for weeksÂ at the end of 2014, before it was retaken by the army. About three-quarters of its residentsÂ 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 undergoÂ 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,"Â says a man namedÂ 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 underÂ observation for now."Â