In January, I met Aisha Yerima, 25, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram more than four years ago. While in captivity, she got married to a commander who showered her with romance, expensive gifts and Arabic love songs. A fairytale life in the Sambisa forest she described was suddenly cut short by appearance of the Nigerian military in early 2016, at a time her husband went off to battle with other commanders. When she first interviewed Aisha, in the government custody for eight months she completed a de-radicalisation programme run by psychologist Fatima Akilu, the executive director of the Neem Foundation and founder of the Nigerian government’s de-radicalisation programme. “I now see that all the things Boko Haram told us were lies,” Aisha said. “Now, when I listen to them on the radio, I laugh.”
The pull of power?
Image copyrightEPA Image captionThe Nigerian military have been battling Boko Haram since 2009. But, in May, less than five months after being released into the care of her family in north-eastern Maiduguri city, she returned to the forest hideout of Boko Haram. The past five years, Dr Akilu worked with former Boko Haram members including some commanders, their wives and children and with hundreds of women who were rescued from captivity. “How women were treated when in Boko Haram captivity depends on which camp a woman was exposed to. It depends on the commander running the camp,” she said. “Those who were treated better were ones who willingly married Boko Haram members or who joined the group voluntarily and that’s not the majority. Most women did not have the same treatment.” Aisha had boasted about the number of slaves she had while in the Sambisa forest, the respect she received from other Boko Haram commanders, and the strong influence she had over her husband. She even accompanied him to battle once. “These were women who for the most part had never worked, had no power, no voice in the communities, and all of a sudden they were in charge of between 30 to 100 women who were now completely under their control and at their beck and call,” Dr Akilu said. “It is difficult to know what to replace it with when you return to society because most of the women are returning to societies where they are not going to be able to wield that kind of power.”
Still in shock
Apart from loss of power, other reasons Dr Akilu believes could lead women to willingly return to Boko Haram include stigmatization from a community which treats them like pariahs because of their association with militants, and tough economic conditions. Dealing with the aftermath of release is a struggle for some of those who were abducted. The “De-radicalisation is just one part of it. Reintegration is a part of it. Some have no livelihood or a support built around them, Dr Akilu said. The kind of support in de-radicalisation programmes does not follow them up when they leave. So come out successful in de-radicalisation programmes but struggle in community and it is that struggle that leads them to go back. Recently, visited Aisha’s family, still in shock at her departure, worried about her wellbeing. Image copyrightREUTERSImagecaption. Her mother, Ashe, recalls at least seven former Boko Haram “wives” she knew, all friends of her daughter, who had returned to the Sambisa forest long before her daughter did. “Each time one of them disappeared, her family came to our house to ask Aisha if she heard from their daughter,” she said. That’s how I knew. Some women kept in touch with Aisha after they returned to Boko Haram. Her younger sister, Bintu, was present during at least two phone calls. “They told her to come and join them but she refused,” Bintu said. “She told them she didn’t want to go back.”
Life on track?
Unlike some of the former Boko Haram “wives” met, who are either struggling to survive harsh economic conditions or dealing with stigma, Aisha’s life seemed to be on track. She was earning money by buying and selling fabric, regularly attending social events and then posting photos of herself all primped up on the social media, and had a string of suitors. “At least five different men wanted to marry her,” her mother said, pointing out that there could be no greater form of acceptance shown to a woman, and presenting this as evidence that her daughter faced no stigma whatsoever from the community. “One of the men lives in Lagos. She was thinking of marrying him,” she said.But, everything went awry when Aisha received yet another phone call from the women who had returned to the forest, informing her that her Boko Haram “husband” was now with a woman who had been her rival. From that day, the vivacious and gregarious Aisha became a recluse. “She stopped going out or talking or eating,” Bintu said. “She was always sad.” Two weeks later, she left home and did not return. Some of her clothes were missing. Her phones were switched off. She took the 2 year-old son fathered by commander in the Sambisa forest, but left the older one she had with husband she divorced before her abduction. “De-radicalisation is complicated by the fact that we have an active, ongoing insurgency. In cases where a group has reached settlement with the government and laid down their arms, it is easier,” Dr Akilu said. “But, when you have fathers, husbands, sons still in the movement, they want to be reunited, especially women.” Asta, another former Boko Haram “wife”, told me that she has heard of many women returning to the group, but has no plans to do so herself. However, the 19-year-old described how terribly she misses her husband, and how keen she is to hear from him and to be reunited with him. She insisted that she would not return to the forest, not even if he were to ask her. “I will tell him to come and stay here with us and live a normal life,” she said. But as with Aisha, the desire to be with the man she yearns for may turn out to be more compelling for Asta than the aversion to a group responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in north-east Nigeria, and for the displacement of millions who are struggling to survive in refugee camps.
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