How I escaped marrying a Boko Haram fighter

‘Wherever you go, even if you run all the way to Yola, we will run after you and kill you,’ leader told Ladi Apagu, 16

Father Gideon of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church shows Ladi Apagu a picture of Dorcas Aiden, whom Apagu remembers from the house where they were held captive, who took refuge at the church earlier.
Chika Oduah

This story was told by Ladi Apagu to Chika Oduah in January, and translated from Hausa, at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Yola. It has been edited for length. This is the second in a two-part series on women who escaped Boko Haram captivity. In the first part, three women, including Apagu, describe their imprisonment at and escapes from a house in Gulak.

YOLA, Nigeria — Boko Haram entered Sabon Gari village about 7 p.m. We heard gunshots. The shots sounded like thunder, so the children were jumping and smiling and singing, “Let the rain come, let the rain come.” But I realized it was not thunder.

Boko Haram fighters were everywhere. We saw them on the motorbikes shooting and burning houses. All night, the sound of guns shooting was in the air. They left in the morning. I was so scared, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so I stayed.

After the fourth attack, I decided to leave Sabon Gari because I know Boko Haram likes to kidnap girls. I went to Gulak to live with my great-aunt. Later I learned that Boko Haram attacked Sabon Gari a fifth time.

Then in September, Boko Haram came to Gulak. As soon as I heard the gunshots, I told my great aunt that I am leaving Gulak. The old woman became sad, and she asked me to stay with her because she is old and did not want to be left by herself. I told her that I cannot stay because Boko Haram kidnaps girls my age. She understood, so I fled. I ran, joined by a Muslim woman who was a distant relative. As we were running, we saw a soldier behind us. At first, we were alarmed. We thought it was a Boko Haram member wearing a soldier uniform. But the soldier told us not to worry, that he is also running away from Boko Haram.

The woman and I fled into the bush and spent about a week sleeping and eating there. It was uncomfortable, and I suffered.

I hated staying in the bush, especially when it rained. I decided it was better to leave the bush, even if Boko Haram killed me. So the woman and I ran to a mountain. At night, it was cold. And after a few days living there, Boko Haram came very close to where we were staying. We escaped and went to a house we saw in another village.  

We stayed with a Muslim family there for some days, but then we heard Boko Haram fighters. They were coming fast, so we all ran away. The family told us they were going to Gulak. They told me to join them there, but I told them that Boko Haram fighters are inside Gulak. They told me that they would protect me because they are Muslims with good knowledge of the Quran, so Boko Haram will not harm them. I decided to follow them, but Boko Haram was still shooting in the street, and I somehow lost the Muslim family. I kept running, looking for them, but I could not find them. So I joined some women on the street who were also running toward Gulak.

In Gulak I found the Muslim family who had taken care of me. They told me I need to leave because Boko Haram is going around, killing people who are not Muslims.

So I left. I didn’t know where to go, but I knew I just had to run. In my confusion, I bumped into some young Christian girls. We went to hide in the mountains and heard many gunshots. We could not detect where the gunshots were coming from because the mountains made the sound of gunshots echo. I was so confused. We ran down the mountain, and we got lost. And that’s how we ended back up in Gulak. Right away, a Boko Haram member saw me and told me to stop running. He threatened to shoot my legs, but the other Boko Haram member with him said it is not good to shoot women.

I asked them where are they taking me to. They told me they are taking me to a place where I will worship Allah. In Gulak they drove to a big house that was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. When I entered the house, I saw many other girls who were close to my age. They, too, had been abducted. I saw some of the Christian girls I met in the mountains.

Boko Haram members asked if we will convert to Islam, and we said no. There were some girls who did agree to convert, so the insurgents separated those who agreed to convert and those who did not. They held a big knife up to my neck and asked me, “You do not want to convert to Islam? We will kill you along with this retired soldier we captured over there who also refuses to convert.” So I finally said, “Yes, I will convert.” I begged them not to kill me.

They brought out one man who they said they had captured from a neighboring village. They put him on the ground. The man begged for his life. Then the insurgents set their flag behind the man and slaughtered him right in front of us girls.

There were many Boko Haram fighters in that house. They had long hair, which they brush down and pack it into three long braids. They were very dirty. Some of them wore turbans on their heads. They were speaking many languages — Kanuri, Arabic, Hausa and Fulani.

I stayed in that house from October until January. Every day, we had to pray five times and read our Quranic studies, but I would often forget to do so. Whenever they found me not praying or studying the Quran, they would beat me and the other girls, 10 lashes each. If we did not wake up early enough in the morning to pray, they poured cold water on us. One day, they dragged out one girl who refused to pray, pulling her in front of us so we could see them shout at her. They said they will take her to Madagali town, to a place that they call their prison. The girl disappeared, and for six days we never saw her. When they returned, she had changed. She did her prayers and Quranic studies without complaint.

I was suffering so much. We saw the women that the Boko Haram members use as cooks in another part of the house. Sometimes the women would pity us and sneak us extra food.

Every day, more girls arrived in the house from other towns that Boko Haram had attacked. They kept kidnapping women and girls. The number of girls I shared a bedroom with kept growing, from 10 to 20 to 30. It’s a very big house.

Ladi Apagu sits in the sanctuary of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Yola where she fled to after escaping Boko Haram fighters.
Chika Oduah

As for the prayers, I just didn’t want to do it. I would lie and tell them I am menstruating, so I cannot pray. But the Boko Haram leaders knew I was lying so they would beat me. One day, the boy who teaches us the Quran — his name was Adamu Yusuf — beat me so bad that I had bloody bruises all over my legs. I was crying. The Boko Haram leader of the house heard me crying, and he called me by the new name they had given me, Fatima. He asked, “Fatima why are you crying?” I told him that Adamu Yusuf had beat me. The leader scolded Adamu and said he should not beat women and girls. He said they are to do the work of God and beating people like this is not good.

But Adamu Yusuf liked to beat us. He even beat a pregnant woman. The Boko Haram leader was so angry, and he shouted at Adamu that pregnant women should not be maltreated. He said, “Pregnant women are our mothers. If you beat them, God will surely punish you, because we are to do the work of God.”

That’s how they kept us there in that house. I think there were about 200 women and girls there. They kept us under heavy guard, especially the younger girls like me. 

Then one day in December, they told us we will soon be getting married. We cried and pleaded. The Boko Haram fighters became angry and asked us why are we crying. They said we are still behaving like infidels who refuse to marry their strong fighters. They told us, “Who do you think you are? Are you too good to get married to us? We are doing the work of God.”

They called us into a room one afternoon and introduced us one by one to some of the Boko Haram fighters. They introduced me to a guy they call “One Arab,” because he looked like an Arab man. His hair was long, and he had light skin. My other friends Zeinab — who was born with the name Sarah — Katturah and Maryam were also led to meet some of the men there. Maryam was to be married to Maman. Katturah was supposed to marry Mallam Ramat. And Zeinab was given to Direban Sambisa. We called him Sambisa because he was always driving back and forth to the Sambisa Forest. Sambisa is where Boko Haram has their main camp.

The Boko Haram fighters asked me, “Do you see this man, ‘One Arab’?” I said yes. They said, “You will marry him in a few weeks’ time. We will marry all of you off.” We fell down and starting crying and pleaded to them. We told them we are not ready to get married. They started shouting at us. They leader came and told us it is final, we will get married, and we should stop crying because we are not better than them. He asked us, “Do you think you are better than those Chibok girls that we kidnapped?” He said the Chibok girls are enjoying their matrimonial homes. He said the Chibok girls have accepted the message of Boko Haram and have turned against their parents. He said the Chibok girls are ready to slit their parents’ throats if they ever see them again. He told us we must accept true Islam because even the Chibok girls have accepted the religion. Then he told us to stop crying or they will kill us.

He said, “Fatima, wherever you go, even if you run all the way to Yola, we will run after you and kill you.” He said I can never escape. Then he started talking about President [Goodluck] Jonathan, and he said Jonathan is an infidel and that they will slit his throat.

By that time, my friends and I were planning our escape. Many other girls had tried to escape, but they were always caught at the gate.

They would not let us go anywhere. We tried to ask them if we can go out into the bush to look for vegetables to cook soup, but they refused. They said girls from our tribe have long legs and we run fast so they will not be able to catch us if we escape.

One day, some of the girls made food. I was in the bedroom when I heard the Boko Haram guards ask for some. They said girls from our tribe are good cooks. So the girls gave food to the guards, and the guards fell asleep. As they slept, the girls went to get a blanket to throw over the barbed wire fence. They climbed up a ladder and jumped over the fence.

That’s how they escaped.

But the guards woke up and realized what happened. The guards were so angry. They asked us what did the girls put in the food that made them fall asleep. I said I didn’t know.

They went outside the compound looking for the girls, and they returned with the pregnant one. She told me she could not run fast enough because of her pregnancy, so she asked a woman in a village down the road to shelter her. Boko Haram went to the house and asked the woman if she is hiding anyone there. The woman said yes, and Boko Haram grabbed her. 

The Boko Haram men told her she cannot go anywhere and the child she is carrying in her womb belongs to them.

When the pregnant woman returned to the house, she became so obedient and would always follow Boko Haram’s instructions. They were very pleased with her behavior and her excellence in studying the Quran. So they gave her some money and took her out of the compound. I never saw her again.

There was one day, I was not feeling well. My body was aching, and I became ill. The Boko Haram people brought their doctor, and the doctor connected me to a drip and gave me four injections. I started to feel better. I decided it was my time to escape. It was getting nearer to the wedding day, and I wanted to leave the house.

Me, a girl named Janet, another girl named Hassana and another named Hadja went to the well to fetch water. We told the other girls in the house that we want to wash our clothes. Then we wore a full veil, the one that only exposes the eyes — the niqab. We wanted to try to look like Boko Haram’s wives, because they wear a niqab. We took our clothes and tied some of them around our bodies so we can have a change of clothes. We disguised these clothes under the niqab to make it appear as if we were carrying babies on our backs.

The guards were not around, so we quickly threw a blanket over the barbed wire, climbed up the fence and jumped. We were finally outside the compound!

We walked out and saw some Boko Haram members standing by the roadside. They greeted us with “Assalamu alaikum.” We responded with “Wa alaikum assalam.” They asked, “Who are you?” We told them, “We are the wives of the rijale” — the strong men, because that is how the Boko Haram refer to themselves. So they allowed us to pass.

As we walked along, one of the girls became worried and said we will get caught and get killed. She pleaded for us to go back to the house. We said no. We told her the Boko Haram members will not remove our veils to check our faces. So we continued trekking.

We saw an old man, and we asked him how to get to Cameroon. He showed us the way.

As we walked, we saw so many destroyed villages, burned-down houses, rotting corpses. We even saw cracked tombstones at graveyards and overturned coffins. We saw another set of old people. They asked us where are we going. We told them we are looking for the road to Cameroon. The old people pointed to the road to Cameroon, and they told us not to remove our niqab until we reach a village called Palam. They said once we reach Palam, we must take off our niqab because the villagers there will kill us because they will suspect we are from Boko Haram.

They advised us to avoid the main road and go through the guinea cornfields.

So we walked through farm fields, and the sun was burning. We were sweating in the niqab, and the prickly grasses kept getting caught on our fabric. We were too tired. Then we saw a Boko Haram man driving toward us on a motorbike. He was carrying a machete. We ran so fast but he was after us, yelling, “I will kill you. You are the type of people who will report us in Yola.”

The man’s motorbike skidded off the road, and he tumbled off but started running after us. Hassana, the oldest of us, shouted to keep running and not look back. I couldn’t keep up, so I stopped to hide under some leaves. I dropped the clothes I had placed on my back, my Christian baptismal card and my photographs. The Boko Haram man who was chasing us couldn’t find us, and we heard him stop. We were lucky he did not have a gun, or else he would have just shot us.

We saw some women sitting by the roadside in Palam, and we asked them to show us how to get to Cameroon. They asked us where were we coming from. We lied and told them we were living in the mountains and ran out of food. We asked the women if we can remove our niqab. They told us not to remove it because some Muslims living in the area will notice and will alert Boko Haram.

We left the women, and after some time, I removed the niqab, but my friends kept theirs on. We saw a Christian woman roasting groundnuts, and she asked, “Who are you?” We told her that we had escaped from those people. She pointed at the road to Cameroon, and we continued. The niqab became too heavy for my friends, so they took off their niqab and handed it over to some old women we saw standing by a tree. It was nighttime.

We reached a village called Palam B and saw so many burned houses and a burned church.

My friends and I decided to sleep in Palam B. We entered a compound and saw a Muslim family praying. We decided not to stay with a Muslim family, so we left. We saw a Christian woman, and we asked if we can stay with her. She refused. We asked her if there is anyone around from Gulak. She told us to go farther down the road and we will see a woman from Gulak.

We soon saw a woman from Gulak, and she gave us a room to sleep in. She said villagers in Palam B have been anxious because new Boko Haram recruits in the village had delivered a letter from Boko Haram threatening to kill them.

We stayed with her for two days, until she told us we had to leave because she learned that Boko Haram knew we were in the town because of the niqab that we had given to the women on the street.

She told us to run straight to Cameroon and not to pass through a village called Sina, because villagers there will kill us once they realize we had lived with Boko Haram.

We left, and on our way, we met a man who asked us if we had cellphones. I was the only one. But Boko Haram had deleted everything that had been in my phone, including all the Christian songs I had saved. They put in their own war chants and messages.

The man advised me to throw away the phone. He warned us that farther down the road, we might meet some people who will strip us naked and search us. If they find anything on us that looks like it came from Boko Haram, they will kill us.

Moving toward the Cameroonian border, we did not see a single person. We were all alone, surrounded by more burned houses and churches.

Then we saw a Muslim woman resting under a tree with her children. She told us that she fled from Michika and is on her way to Cameroon but will return to Nigeria to join her husband in the city of Jos. My friends and I accompanied the woman and her children to Cameroon. We arrived at the border on a Tuesday, and there some teenage boys harassed us, saying we cannot enter until we give them money. We explained to them that we are running for our lives and we don’t have money. The boys blocked our way and said if we don’t give them money, they will report us to the Cameroonian soldiers. The Muslim woman gave money to the boys, and we were allowed to enter Cameroon. We slept in the street because the people were not friendly and they did not want to help.

When we woke up, we decided to leave Cameroon, but Zeinab was still suffering from a leg injury she got when we jumped over the fence from the Boko Haram house in Gulak. Her leg was swollen, and we had to leave her. We told the Muslim woman that we are leaving. She blessed us, bought food for us to eat and then gave us 500 naira. She helped us to try to get a ride to Mubi, but none of the drivers were willing to take us there. So we told her goodbye, and we walked several kilometers to Mubi. 

In the market there I met a girl I used to know from Sabon Gari. She was so happy to see me. I told her my story, and she gave me money for my friends and me to pay for transportation. Later we heard that Boko Haram is on its way to Mubi. Everyone in the town began to panic. We searched for a ride, but there was no room in anyone’s car. So we gathered along with other people who were walking, and we walked until we reached a town called Maiha. I went to a parking lot to look for a vehicle to take us to Yola and heard someone call me by my native name.

I looked and saw a man I used to know in Sabon Gari. He asked me why I looked so dirty and tired. I told him everything that happened, and he took my friends and me to his home to meet his wife and children. They took care of us. They, too, had been displaced by Boko Haram.

He gave me money for transportation, and on Jan. 18, my friends and I were in a car on the way to Yola.

My friends and I sat on the road once we arrived in Yola. We were not used to the city, and we were confused. I saw a girl who I know from home, and she was excited to see me. She told me that I have an uncle who is staying at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church. I went to the church, and now I am safe.

Apagu has since relocated out of the northeast out of fear that Boko Haram members will come after her.

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