By EROMO EGBEJULE
Aisha was sixteen in 2014 when her village, Gulak, 244km north of Yola in northeastern Nigeria was overrun by rampaging insurgents who abducted her; they took her to the dreaded Sambisa Forest, the enclave long believed to be headquarters of Boko Haram and the stomping grounds of Abubakar Shekau, leader of one of its factions. There, she was forcibly married off to one of the semi-skilled ward attendants the sect recruited to attend to medical emergencies within the forest.
“I watched him stitch and deliver babies with crude tools”, says the teenager. He would beat her and treat her badly, wanting nothing to do with her, except sex. Her first child born a year later, died at childbirth.
In the summer of 2016, Aisha sneaked out of the camp during prayer time at Ramadan with her foster child, a baby born to another girl in camp who was her age. “She died bleeding during childbirth but my stepsister was her co-wife so they gave me the baby to raise as my own.”
She and six-month old Fatima trekked for four months, surviving on wild fruits given to them by women hiding in the hills and bushes while travelling in circles and straying into Chad. But her maternal instincts were already activated. “While we were going everywhere, we ran into those vaccine people and I immunized the baby for free. And I sold my wrappers in one of the towns to get transport fare to come home.”
Aisha is one of more than thirty girls, by her estimate, who were captured by Boko Haram to become child brides, in an episode similar to that of 276 schoolgirls taken from their school in Chibok, in the neighbouring Borno State.
Since 2009 when Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf was killed in police custody, the terrorist group Boko Haram has masterminded the killing of thousands and rendered another 2.3 million people displaced across Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Thousands more have been abducted in the same period, especially women and girl children, including Aisha.
However, the media focus has been on the 276 schoolgirls taken from the village of Chibok in Borno State, hotbed of the crisis, largely because of the unrelenting advocacy of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign supported by influential personalities such as former US First Lady Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai.
Abductions of schoolchildren from Buni Yadi, Mamudo, Gwoza and other towns within northeastern Nigeria by Boko Haram have gone unreported as mainstream media has focused on the killings during the insurgency and the potential hunger affecting those who managed to survive.
Kidnappings aren’t the only events that have escaped mainstream attention. Electricity installations have been destroyed and telecom network signals fluctuate daily across many towns including Michika, Madagali and Mubbi. There have been Suicide bombings and the occasional bomb blasts in both Yobe and Adamawa, also in the northeast, have gone unreported in the media.
“Five of our people died in the famlands in May after an attack as the insurgents were seeking for food supplies”, Alhaji Bello Gulak, the village’s district head said.
In the mountains near the neighbouring town of Michika, there was an attack mid-June. “They came from the forest to steal food and clothes but the local vigilante stopped them and there was a gunfire”, says Gulak. “Eventually, they abandoned the things and ran away. I went there at 5am to inspect things.” Their commander, a man he describes as ‘very fresh’ was handed over to the army after he surrendered. “He is commander of 260 people in his unit.”
Back home in Gulak, Aisha remains out of school like many other returnees. This is because the schools have been razed down and the people are still afraid, says Gulak. “We lost family members, properties, livelihoods and there is shortage of food, water, medicine and schools. If you go to some of the schools around, you see children sitting on stones outside to learn.” “Our people know that their ruler is in his palace so that will give them courage to return. This is why you see that we are renovating this place. My immediate family is not back yet but I am here with my people; they are my family. We are united, despite religion or tribal background. The insurgents looted our cultural artefacts but our faith and tradition are still with us.”
Strange objects have also turned up, a reminder to the occupation of the area by Boko Haram between 2014 and early 2015. At a government school in Jigalambu, Michika, an undetonated set of booby-trapped explosives was found about 60 metres away from the classroom where schoolchildren sat writing their senior school certificate exams. “The rains washed them up and some people going to the farms informed us”, explains Pius Dzofo, the principal. “We informed the army and other security agencies about a week ago but nothing has been done yet. There was an explosion about a month ago in the farmlands close by.”
There is the feeling of neglect by government that Dzofo and his wards have to deal with, one that echoes down to girls like Aisha on whom media spotlight has not been beamed on. In Maiduguri, girls like Aisha who have been rescued or escaped from the stronghold of Boko haram were put in a rehabilitation programme being run by Neem Foundation in collaboration with the government, for the course of a year. In Yola, there is no such programme to prepare the former abductees for reintegration into a society that stigmatizes them.
Attention to these traumatized ones will inspire relief in them, admits Sola Tayo, associate fellow at London-based Chatham House. “Although Borno has borne the brunt of the insurgency, the rest of the region has been affected; Yobe and Adamawa were also put under emergency rule”, she says. “This is a real opportunity to focus on a holistic approach to rebuilding beyond bricks and mortar… as well as rebuilding infrastructure there should be a focus on rebuilding communities.”
Is the government listening?
This story was made possible by 2017 BudgIT Civic Media Fellowship