It was 3:50 am and I was up already before the call to prayer. I still wasn’t used to the 5 daily prayers and all that came with being a Muslim. But there was something I liked about Fajr: the dawn prayers. Very few of the militants showed up. The ones that did, joined us halfway through the prayers. Once, I overheard one of the girls say in a conversation:
‘It is their guilty conscience that keeps them away from Allah’s presence’
No, I do not agree with that! The cloths they loosely covered themselves with at night probably did a better job of pinning them to their beds and away from their maker’s presence than the guilt of their evil deeds – that is if there was even a hint of guilt in their hearts.
The heinousness of their actions was like a pungent smell attempting to choke you to death. So I feared the dawn and all the anticipation of daylight terror that it brought. I was often either snapping out of a scary nightmare or in a limbo between sleep and consciousness, fighting gory images from the scenes I had seen the previous day and the stories I had heard told. Somewhere in between the fear of the known and the anticipation of unknown evil, I had made my bed. And that was how the dawn of every morning at Sambisa was like for me.
I remember vividly, the morning after our first night there, we were introduced to the ‘Boko Haram wives’. There were so many of them! Most of whom either had babies strapped to their backs or they carried them on one hip while slightly bending in the opposite direction. That was when I first saw her … Fatima. Fatima wore a long flowing hijab that almost touched her waist. The circle her hijab made on her face made her appear as one peeping at the whole world through a hole. Her facial skin resembled a stretched elastic material, the way it allowed pointy bones to protrude at the corners of her eyes and cheeks. Unlike the others, her countenance appeared heavy with concern and affection. Maybe we merely reminded her of herself. But you could almost feel the kindness radiating from her stare.
So when it was time for them to teach us how to wear the hijab, I walked straight to her. She told me her name was Fatima and I told her mine. We made a connection right there and then. Fatima didn’t bother teaching me how to put on the hijab … she just did it for me.
‘Stiffen your neck Ada, or else the hijab will slip off your head’. She said.
I held still and made sure my entire body was stiff. She nudged at my shoulders and upon noticing how stiff I was, she giggled. By that, what should have been a madam-servant relationship melted into a friendship. Formality dissolved into cordiality. I felt I could ask her anything. When she pressed her hand on top of my head to hold the cloth in position, I felt the weight of her palm. Not like a burdensome weight but as an act depicting ownership. I was hers from then on. The other girls were being knocked and smacked in the face for not following the exact instructions given them. But Fatima gently wrapped the cloth around my head and pinned it beneath my chin.
‘I want mine to be as long as yours’ I told her. She giggled again and said ‘Ok’.
Her friendship came in as a timely relief. Mariama and I had grown distant after we arrived at Sambisa. I often saw her emerging from one of the wooden structures close to the fence at the far end of the camp. And anytime she saw me looking at her, she’d quickly look away and feign ‘busybody’. Mariama wouldn’t maintain eye contact with me for more than 5 seconds. She sometimes worked with the rest of us but for some reason she was often excused from fetching water from the tank to the quarters of the General and his men. I couldn’t believe the rumors, but with the benefit of hindsight I can boldly say she was married off to one of the high-ranked militants in Boko Haram. According to Fatima, Boko Haram wives are forced to reduce contact with the other girls. The rest of us were just human bombs waiting to detonate at some market place or school at the command of General Abubakar. Girls like Mariama were married off to high-ranked militants. They were the hens destined to lay and brood over eggs that would hatch to reveal the much anticipated foul fowls: a new generation of Boko Haram terrorists. The rest were also sold to some human traffickers and rich herdsmen from neighboring countries. Fatima had been with the militants for 18 months and knew the ins and outs of the camp, so I believed her.
‘I am a widow’
She told me once. Her husband died in kano. He was one of the militants. Fatima still spoke of him with such fondness that you would imagine they had a fairy-tale kind of marriage. They didn’t. She chuckled sarcastically when she said:
‘Alidu was only there to ward off the other militants who attempted to rape and physically abuse me so he alone could do that to me’
Fatima was confident in her guts. She believed Alidu was scared that night before he went to Kano. General Abubakar summoned all the jihadists the night before they left the camp. When Alidu came back to their wooden shed, he couldn’t look at her or their son. His last words to Fatima were, ‘… take care of your son’. There was a surge of mixed feelings that ran through my heart when she spoke about how the trucks came back to the camp the following day with fewer men than they left with. At the gathering where the militants were telling their stories and various experiences at Kano, she looked everywhere for him but couldn’t find him. I imagined the scene was just like the day we came: too chaotic for anybody to care to tell her the whereabouts of Alidu. The surviving militants took turns in mentioning names of those who had passed on to paradise. That was when Fatima heard Alidu’s name mentioned. The mixed feelings that must have hit her: news of the death of her husband and abuser. From that moment on, her life changed for the worse.
She was raped almost every night since then by different men.
‘Sometimes two. Sometimes three. Sometimes I didn’t know how many, because I passed out in the middle of all the torture only to wake up in a tent full of stinking snoring men’.
When she said this I could feel the tears sting at my eyes. Then she told me she sometimes even woke up in a different tent from the one she remembered being taken to. At this point I lost the fight to my tears; warm tears came streaming down my cheeks. I was scared. In my fear I yearned to comfort her, but words failed me. What do you tell such a person? That it was going to be alright? In hell? I couldn’t lie to her even if I tried. I wish I could uplift her spirit but mine was quickly sinking into an abyss of despair and in need of urgent rescue too.
‘You have been through hell’. I finally said.
‘Yes I have.’ She heaved a long sigh.
‘It may be your turn soon. When they come for you remember to keep your legs wide apart, eh?’ She pulled at her left earlobe with her left hand while saying this. ‘And close your eyes till they are done’.
That was it? That was the drill? How was that supposed to make it any bearable? All the time I spent with Fatima revealed one thing: though she never mentioned it, she had no desire to escape. She never called Sambisa home, but she pretty much was at home there. And I felt she was walking me down that road too. I didn’t like it.
As our custom was, before we went to sleep, one of us would share her experience with the rest. Often sad stories. Often stories of rape and abuse. That was one way we bonded as fellow Boko haram slaves. One night Hawa narrated her ordeal at the hands of one of the militants to us; it was the saddest story I had heard told. Whispering to nobody in particular, she narrated her story knowing that she already had our ears without asking. Hawa’s made us all scared. Fear hanged in the room. The fear was so tangible, you could touch it. She recalled being hit from behind with the butt of a gun by one of General’s men. The heavy knock rendered her comatose for hours. The very moment her eyes were opened, she felt a sharp pain at the back of her head and the militant’s heavy arm resting on her bare back. Hawa turned around and saw the heaving hairy chest of the beast next to her. She panicked, but mastered the courage to get up. Finally she covered her nakedness with a cloth, stepped out and took slow painful steps to our tent in the dark.
Hawa had always attracted so much attention from the militants because she had a fine body. For obvious reasons, she was always sent for to run some errand or clean their wooden sheds. She couldn’t find the words to describe the torture but we perfectly understood her cries and cried with her. When she said her head still hurt, three girls drew closer to comfort her. With a soaked rug, one of them massaged her head where it hurt. As if rehearsed, she dabbed at the back of Hawa’s head after each sentence she whispered. The incident inspired more than sympathy in us – we were all petrified! I thought it was a case of paranoia at first when she said she suspected the Boko Haram wives had a hand in it. But she went on to tell us how she had always been harassed by them.
‘You want to come and steal our husbands abi? We shall see…’
One of them had said this to Hawa a day before her bitter experience.
And as she walked through the dark after the rape, a bunch of them saw her and immediately started scoffing at her.
For this reason and many more, I was always grateful for Fatima. Her love and affection kept me sane. Sometimes I felt she went through all the pain for my sake, that I wouldn’t have to taste much of it. She taught me when to feign period cramps to avoid being whisked away in the night. Her predictions were so accurate, it was as if she knew the times the libido of the militants peaked. Yet, she still assured me that a time was coming when that trick wouldn’t work anymore. A harsh reality I had to face. But who am I to complain? In the middle of a God-forsaken forest, I found a sister and for that I was very grateful to God.