NIGERIA – Nightmare in Boko Haram enclave: a young mother’s heartbreaking story
Rebecca had been held by the terrorists for two years. On 5 September she arrived in Maidiguri to be reunited with her husband – with a new baby fathered by a Boko Haram militant.
The family of Bitrus Zachariah and his wife Rebecca has agreed to share their sorrowful story after they came under ferocious attack by Boko Haram on 21 August 2014. This attack took place before the massive offensive and complete occupation of Baga by Boko Haram terrorists in 2015.
With a sad look and a deep feeling of depression, Rebecca narrates her ordeal to Fr. Gideon Obasogie, Communications Director of the Diocese of Maiduguri, which started when Boko Haram stormed Baga town. In great confusion she fled their lovely home with her husband and two sons: 3-year-old Zachariah, and Jonathan, who was only one year old. She was pregnant at the time but lost the baby pregnancy six months later because of the subhuman conditions she was subjected to by the militants. As they fled, her husband was the main target and, since he couldn’t run fast while carrying his son and his wife had already been overcome by severe pains, Rebecca pleaded with her husband to run for his life and leave them behind.
Bitrus heeded her appeal and ran to hide in the shrubs while Boko Haram pursued him shooting sporadically. Luckily for Bitrus, no bullet touched him. After some time, Bitrus moved on, wondering what would become of his wife as the terrorists had gone back after her. As he tells his story he looks at his wife with a feeling of deep shame for not being brave enough to defend his family at that desperate moment of their lives. Bitrus moved with a renewed hope to Mongonu, promising himself he would find his family if God would keep them alive. He waited in Mongonu for 15 days, looking with hope towards Baga in anticipation of his wife’s arrival. As he waited for days he saw a lot of people coming out of Baga. He said “I kept on asking them about the whereabouts of my wife….no one could tell me any good news. I became depressed with severe migraine and my blood pressure hit the roof. It was some soldiers who assisted me with shelter to lay my head…and some money, which I used to transport myself to Maiduguri. My uncle in Maiduguri pleaded with my not to be discouraged and took me to the hospital for medication. He tried to renew my hope but he could never dispel my nightmares and heart ache. Leaving my family and everything I ever had behind was not an easy experience.”
“When Boko Haram caught up with me, they challenged me saying ‘If only we had killed your husband we would have received Allah’s reward…but since Allah did not permit that…. you and your children will go and work for Allah.’ Then they hit me with a big gun and knocked out some of my teeth.’
When asked what happened next, Rebecca broke down in tears….gazing at me with a piercing look, as if asking what this journalist needs to hear again. I smiled at her to encourage her.
Rebecca quietly continued, saying that was when her nightmare started. Boko Haram, after killing all the men they had caught, moved her and her two sons into Lake Chad. Crossing the lake was a terrifying journey, with water coming up to her neck. They moved for six days crossing the Lake, and only gave them chin-chin snacks to eat. On the seventh day they arrived at a place called Kwalleram at the heart of a thorny bush. They stayed there for about 53 days. There, captives were forced to do the washing for the militants’ wives, prepare sweet pepper, clear the path ways for their motor cycles and cook for the soldiers. After some time they took me and my sons to Gurva in Chad, for fear that I would escape. We were in Gurva for seventy days. We farmed and cut fuel wood. In Gurva there were about 2,000 captives.”
“It was in Tilma that they put the number 69 on my back. I don’t really know its meaning and I never dared to ask. They sold me to a man called Bage Guduma, I was with him for 55 days. They gave me palm fruits, but thank God I didn’t eat any of the palm. That might have got me hypnotized and resulted in the loss of my senses. I did not give in to him – most nights when he wanted to touch me I got the faeces of my children to rub on my body…this always kept him away from me. His sons would always beat me up ruthlessly. They made me dig a hole for three weeks till I reached ground water level. They flogged me 98 strokes every day. I became ill for two weeks. Then they took my youngest son Jonathan and threw him into Lake Chad and he was drowned.” She relates this with a deep sense of sorrow as warm tears roll down her cheeks. All these terrible things happened to Rebecca because she refused to give her body to her captor.
MALLA – THE FATHER OF MY SON
“Malla was the second man they gave me to. They tried to force me to sleep with Malla, and when I resisted they threw me into their prison – a deep pit, I was in the pit for two days without food or water. When I came out, Malla raped me. When I didn’t get my period I knew I had become pregnant. I looked for Paracetamol and took ten tablets at a go, just to do away with myself but nothing happened. Then a woman, the wife of a Pastor who was abducted from Gwoza, pleaded with me not to kill myself on account of the pregnancy. She already had two children from Boko Haram. She calmed me and enabled me to carry on with the pregnancy until the delivery although I almost passed away from hunger. I delivered at home in great pain: no one came to my aid, I even had to cut the umbilical cord myself. I received no medical attention. They named my son Ibrahim. They loved him because he is a boy; they want women to give birth to male children. The Boko Haram father Malla, who had gone away, came back six weeks after the child’s birth. I had nothing to do with him, because they had agreed to sell me again to another man.”
While they were held for more than two years, the captives experienced terrible things, including seeing those who tried to escape being killed. There was Benjamin, an Igbo man who tried to run away but he was intercepted and both his legs were broken. They left him behind in severe pain. Little girls of eight and nine were raped to death. Prisoners were forced to join in Muslim prayers and recitation from 7am-10am and from 12pm-2pm and 4pm-6pm. They killed some Christians who refused to pray with them.
One fateful day, when most of the Boko Haram fighters had gone away, Rebecca asked for permission from a female Boko Haram, probably a commander’s wife, to go and see a friend at another area under Boko Haram control. When it was granted, she moved to Maitele a small community in Chad and then walked with her children for six days towards the Nigerian border. Her son was taken ill due to lack of water and food. Praise be to God, there came a heavy downpour that renewed and revived their strength for the journey towards an unknown destination. However, Rebecca kept going with much hope and faith that they would end up somewhere safe. They arrived in Diffa, where they met with some soldiers from US Army and Niger who treated her son and gave them some bread to eat. After a while they took them to some Nigerian soldiers in Damaturu. “The soldiers were so wonderful; they brought me directly to my husband in Maiduguri City.”
MY NEW SON IBRAHIM
Bitrus, Rebecca’s husband, says in a calm yet disturbed tone, “Seeing my wife with a son from a Boko Haram father frightens me a lot. I was very happy seeing my wife but the child makes my heart break, adding with bitter anger “May God make me love him… yes, a son of a snake.”
Rebecca has mixed feelings – little Ibrahim is her son, despite his wicked Father Malla. She has tried several times to give the child to the government, but the soldiers asked her to wait as little Ibrahim is just eight months old.
Rebecca, whose parents are in the Cameroons, has pleaded with her husband to take her back as she is… but if he is reluctant, she says in a hopeless mode, “I will give him his son and go to my parents.”
Bitrus and his family are now in the custody of the Catholic diocese of Maiduguri. Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme has been caring for them, since they have moved into an Uncompleted Secretariat camp, where there are over 500 IDPs. The diocese has provided Rebecca with emergency food aid and they plan to keep on helping her. Rebecca needs thorough medical attention, food, clothes, proper shelter and a bed where she can lay her troubled head. Her eldest child Zachariah, now six years old, should be going to school. Time can heal almost everything, but she needs systematic psychological counselling right now. This family is currently facing a moral dilemma. With prayer and emergency support they will hopefully forget the wickedness and pains of the past. She is really a strong woman of faith!
In 2015 the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need supported projects in Nigeria with more than one and half million Euros. Since 2014 ACN has also supported emergency aid projects for refugees who have been victims of Boko Haram in Cameroon and Nigeria, also in the diocese of Maiduguri.
Fr Gideon Obasogie