Emmanuel Arewa / AFP / Getty Images

Women held by Boko Haram in Sambisa Forest describe abuse, crippling fear

Hundreds of women were rescued by Nigerian troops in late April; some had been held by the armed group for a year

YOLA, Nigeria – Life in Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram members held her hostage, was five months of debilitating anxiety for Umi.

The 10-year-old’s slender arms are covered in insect bite marks. The blood-sucking bugs kept her awake at night, as did the sound of nocturnal animals walking and flying through the forests, an expanse of low-lying bushes and coarse-trunked trees stretching for nearly 40,000 square miles in the Sahel region of northeastern Nigeria.

It was here that elephants from Central Africa roamed, along with other beasts. Colonialists designated the area as a wildlife reserve, which it still technically is, although it has been long neglected.

The people living near Sambisa have long nurtured a deep respect for this forest, and only the most experienced hunters ventured there. Some tell tales of huge lions living in the grasslands. 

But that reverence has morphed into fear ever since Boko Haram turned the forest into a safe haven years ago, setting up numerous camps among the thorns and poisonous bushes.

The fighters return to these forests after indiscriminate and brutal attacks on nearby towns, bringing back hundreds of female hostages. Boko Haram has abducted more than 2,000 women and girls, according to an April 2015 report by Amnesty International.

There were dozens of women and girls in the camp where Umi was held. She said many of them stayed awake with her, night after night, listening to the shrill cries of birds and the steps of four-legged creatures. Boko Haram members often played loud music at night, dancing, drinking and preaching until they fell asleep.

Hasiya Dashiru and her six children were held captive in Sambisa Forest for 11 months.
Chika Oduah

The nights were dangerous. You never knew if one of the fighters would sexually assault you, said Hasiya Dashiru, 45. She said after their attacks, the members came back to the camp at night with young men — conscripts.

Dashiru said she usually forced herself to sleep.  For 11 months, she prayed that someone would rescue her and her four sons and two daughters, who had been kidnapped and were held captive with her.

She didn’t know that, for a long time, Nigerian military officials were hesitant about forging into the forest, saying they did not want to put the lives of hostages like her in danger — that the fighters might kill them in response.

Each morning, day after day, the search for food and water began. 

Sometimes the Boko Haram members permitted the hostages to look for water. Other times they were told to stay put and shut up.

As Dashiru said, “If we get water fine. If not, fine. We just stayed like that. They stopped us from getting water. Even when we told them it is for our children.”

Dashiru doesn’t know where her husband is. He ran away from her village, Dille, last year just before Boko Haram attacked. She sits on cement outside of the classrooms that have been converted to bedrooms at Malkohi camp in northeastern Nigeria, where 275 women and children were brought by Nigerian soldiers after being rescued from Sambisa in early May. After 11 months of living in the forest, Dashiru was finally freed on April 28. The day Nigerian troops ventured deep into the part of the forest where she was, she heard loud blasts in the air. There was confusion. Boko Haram fighters thrust some of the captives forward to act as human shields. Dashiru hid behind a tree. She said some people, including captives, were killed in the exchange of fire between Boko Haram and troops, but she didn’t know how many. In the end, the troops took over.

And finally, Dashiru left Sambisa forest, riding in the bed of a truck escorted by Nigerian troops.

She arrived at Malkohi camp on a Saturday night, May 2, and was given tea and slices of bread. 

She can now move freely, and has access to health care and food.

Dashiru said her children appear healthier — but some children at Malkohi were still visibly struggling. One boy slept naked, his collarbones protruding sharply, loose skin hanging around his shoulders.

Another boy sat alone on the ground. His stomach bulged, a sign of severe malnutrition, and he coughed and wheezed incessantly.

Dashiru is trying to move on and forget about what happened to her and her family in Sambisa, but the memories are rooted deep in her mind.

She thinks often of the wet and swampy earth, and the bright blue sky she watched in the hope she would see an aircraft that could rescue her.

It is still hard for her to speak about the nights she spent in Sambisa.

For Dashiru, the verbal abuse was particularly damaging. When she was allowed to, she would walk to the well to get water. At the well, she said she sometimes met the wives of Boko Haram members.

“They would insult us,” Dashiru said. “And they call us their slaves because they said we were infidels, not Muslims.”

Children like Umi and Maryam, who does not know how old she is but appears to be about five, were often abused by the fighters because they did not have family to protect them. Their last names were not published to protect their privacy. Many children have been orphaned during Boko Haram’s six-year insurgency, which rights groups estimate has claimed the lives of more than 12,000 and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.

Forced to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam, the women and girls were beaten for not performing the daily Islamic prayers. When they were not praying, being beaten, or foraging for food, they sat on the ground, growing thinner and sicker.

“Every day we witnessed the death of one of us and waited for our turn,” 24-year-old Asabe Umaru told Reuters.

“They didn’t allow us to move an inch. If you needed the toilet, they followed you. We were kept in one place. We were under bondage.”

Landmines strewn across the forest floor also kept the women and children from fleeing. Dashiru learned how to avoid them, memorizing a safe path between baobab trees, known as the “tree of life.”

She and other women plucked the kuka leaves from this tree to make a soup.

She believes it was God and the soup cooked with leaves from the tree of life that kept her and her six children alive in Sambisa forest.

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