At a ‘safe house’ in Nigeria, the wives of Boko Haram fighters share their stories A few dozen women sit on mats in the shadow of a neem tree. Their giggles rise with the hot dusty air as they sketch elaborate designs on their hands with henna. Some of the women wear abayas; others wear short-sleeved blouses with long skirts and hijabs.
They talk about their children, their hair, what they will cook that evening after breaking their Ramadan fast. After a while, the conversation turns to their husbands.
“Oh, my husband, I love him so much,” says Aisha the Amira. The flamboyant 25-year-old flings her head back as she laughs. In a flowing gown and a tall, majestic head wrap, she radiates the nobility of her title, Amira, or princess. A reddish-orange stone sparkles on her left hand. “My husband gave me this ring,” she says, wiggling her shoulders. “My husband, he’s an Arab. So handsome and he always gave me money.” The women look at her in silent admiration.
Then Hauwa speaks up. “He loved me and I loved him. We loved each other.” The blushing 14-year-old smiles and twists the hem of her skirt. She has been married for a year and a half. 15-year-old Iyeza-Kawu looks at the ground as she talks. She’s wearing a navy hijab with the logo of the United Nations Population Fund stitched on it. She describes her two-year marriage as a happy one and explains how her husband gave her a dowry of 25,000 naira (about $80).
There is another Aisha, a 27-year-old from Cameroon, who loved her married boyfriend so much that she agreed to elope with him. Her sister and brother didn’t approve, so Aisha married him in secret, crossing the border into Nigeria. Her printed blouse hugs her pregnant belly.
Tall and with a chiselled face, Zainab describes her husband as good-looking, quiet and of medium height. “He treated me very well and I loved him very much,” she says. Little Umi, Zainab’s 11-year-old daughter, chimes in.
“My husband was kind. He would always give my parents money.” Umi’s cheeks are framed in a dark purple hijab. Her black eyeliner is smudged. When she looks up, the sun lights up her eyes in dazzling shades of brown.
She was her husband’s third wife. Esther, 19, knew her husband well before they married. The professional nail cutter used to walk around the neighbourhood reciting verses from the Quran, she says. All of the women speak in a flurry of Hausa and Kanuri, pausing to gaze at the henna on their hands, swatting flies from their sleeping children and turning around to check on their other children as they swing on a tyre that hangs from a tree. But there is a sense of sadness and uncertainty to this otherwise typical scene.
These women have not seen their husbands in weeks. Aisha the Amira, Hauwa, Iyeza-Kawu, Aisha, Zainab, Umi, Esther and the others gathered here were all married to members of Boko Haram, the armed group that has been engaged in a seven-year uprising against the Nigerian government that has left more than 20,000 people dead and forced millions to flee their homes.
The women had lived with their husbands in Walasa, a town near the Nigeria-Cameroon border. But in May, Nigerian soldiers reclaimed the area. Most of the Boko Haram fighters fled, leaving their wives and children behind. Iyeza- Kawu’s husband was killed in the skirmish.
“My husband was not a terrorist,” she says. “The soldiers killed him.”She and 33 other women were rounded up with their children, packed into vehicles and taken to a ‘safe house’ in Maiduguri where they are now receiving psychosocial treatment designed to rehabilitate them back into society, away from their husbands. “We will eventually reunite the women with their families and relations here in Maiduguri,” explains the state’s governor, Kashim Shettima.
But the pregnant ones among them say they fear that their children will never meet their fathers. And some say they have fond memories of their husbands.
Memories The Amira says she met her husband one day as she was running away from a battle between Boko Haram fighters and government soldiers. As she was running, a man stopped her, she says. “He asked me, ‘You get married?’” She says she intrigued him because she was bold and intelligent. “It’s because I’m an educated girl. The other girls don’t go to school, so they are shy.”
Even though Boko Haram is opposed to boko, or Western education, she says her husband desired her because she was educated in Western schools. She is the only one in the group who can speak some English. When he eventually asked to marry her, she deliberated for a month.
When she agreed, it was because she believed he was wealthy. He paid her dowry in naira and euros, she says. “My husband is a Boko Haram commander. He’s an Amir, that’s why I’m an Amira,” she explains. “He had three wives. He divorced all of them when he married me, because he loves me very much and I’m like his baby.”
She lived a privileged life as an Amira. She joined her husband in the Sambisa forest, from which Boko Haram allegedly operates its largest camp, and lived there for almost three years. The forest stretches for nearly 40,000 square miles in the southern part of the northeastern state of Borno, which has born the brunt of Boko Haram’s insurgency. Once upon a time, elephants and leopards roamedSambisa. Now, it is Boko Haram members and their families who live among the scatterings of acacia, baobab, tamarind and neem trees.
In Sambisa, she says, she met some of the kidnapped Chibok girls, Boko Haram’s most well-known abductees, snatched two years ago from their secondary school in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Recently, Boko Haram released a video featuring about 50 of the missing girls.
She says she also met the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau. Her lips curl into a grin as she remembers her husband.
He gave her money every week, she says, and showered her with jewellery, makeup and new clothes. Life in Sambisa was pleasant, she says. If anyone was sick, there were doctors to treat them.
She was well fed with a full stock of rice, yams, coconuts, beans, juice and fruits. As the Amira, she was responsible for helping to take care of the other wives. She distributed food to them, befriended them and taught them how to be good Muslim wives, she says. All of the women attended near daily Quran classes. Amira says helped her husband “do jihad”. “My husband has a gun. If my husband is coming back from traveling, he’ll call me on my phone and say , ‘Sweety, I’m coming home.’ So I’ll go put on makeup, body spray and I’ll cook food.
When he comes home, I’ll collect his gun, magazine, bombs,” she says. He taught her how to assemble and disassemble his guns, but there were so many pieces she says she would sometimes get confused. When her husband went out on operations, she would occupy herself with her phone, she says. Many of the wives of Boko Haram members were not allowed to have one, but the Amira had one when she lived in Sambisa and she used it to browse online. “I was using Facebook. And even now, if you look for my name on Facebook, you’ll see me there at the top.
I’m the first one there,” she says. Her phone was seized when she arrived at the ‘safe house’, but she had already memorised not only her husband’s phone numbers, but the numbers of many Boko Haram members who she says will answer her call at any time. The other Aisha does not have such pleasant memories of life with the man she secretly married when she was a lovestruck 23-year-old. Before he joined Boko Haram, she says he was caring and allowed her to work.
But afterwards, he forbade her from working and withdrew emotionally. He also became secretive, disappearing for days without telling her where he had been, she says. “That’s how I knew he was with Boko Haram,” Aisha adds. She says her husband forced her to cut off contact with her family.
After the marriage, she left her parents behind in Cameroon and moved with him from village to village in northeastern Nigeria as Boko Haram took over territory there. Although her husband became wealthier after joining Boko Haram, she says he was not a high-ranking member.
So the life she lived did not resemble the Amira’s. She felt like a captive, she says, although she did find comfort in the other wives.
At 11, Umi is the youngest wife in the group. Her mother, Zainab, is with her at the safe house. Initially, her mother thought she was too young to marry, but Umi’s father insisted and gave her away to a Boko Haram member who lived in a nearby compound with his two wives.
She was married in Walasa, but the next day soldiers came and carried her away. Although she was only with him for a day, she says she is still in love with her husband.