Boko Haram brainwashed them. Now they're getting a second chance
Not every freed woman has regrets - becoming a 'bush wife' is the closest some get to 'empowerment'
Had she not panicked at the final moment, Aisha Aminu’s last act would have been to kill herself and as many others as possible.
Kidnapped last year by Boko Haram, the 15-year-old was conscripted into its army of child suicide bombers, with orders to blow herself up in a busy marketplace. But when her handler escorted her to the target, she recognised faces in the crowd as former neighbours. She hesitated just long enough for police to arrive.
A year on, Aisha is among hundreds of ex-Boko Haram captives at a “rehabilitation” charity in Maiduguri in north-east Nigeria, where the country’s jihadist movement sprang up. Recovering from life in a group that treats women as either sex slaves or cannon fodder is not easy: Aisha was so traumatised she was mute for the first few months, while others are plagued by nightmares and thoughts of suicide.
Yet for Dr Fatima Akilu, the UK National Health Service-trained psychologist who runs the charity, what is equally disturbing is that not every former hostage has regrets. Becoming a “bush wife” is the closest some get to “empowerment”.
“It isn’t true of all cases, but some of the wives of senior Boko Haram commanders have told me that while they were with the group, they felt empowered for the first time in their lives,” said Akilu, a Nigerian Muslim who is also a children’s author.
“They’d often be in command of a harem of women ... and they’d learn how to use weapons as well. They felt a power they’d never have in their own communities, where they’d usually get married aged 12, and where husbands would then dictate their lives.”
Educated at boarding school in Tunbridge Wells, Akilu studied psychiatry in Britain and the US before working with young offenders, paedophiles and murderers, including John Hinckley jnr, the man who shot President Ronald Reagan. In 2012, Nigeria’s National Security Agency asked her to devise an equivalent to Britain’s counter-extremism project, after reading her articles.
She ran prison deradicalisation programmes for jailed Boko Haram commanders and their wives, before setting up her own charity, the Neem Foundation, in 2016 to help the tens of thousands who have spent time in camps.
The group, which has killed an estimated 20,000 people, remains a force to be reckoned with, despite losing much of its turf in the past three years. It still holds about 100 of the 276 schoolgirls snatched from the town of Chibok in 2014, and killed one of three kidnapped aid workers last month.
But as well as the military struggle, there is now also a “hearts and minds” challenge to reintegrate those once brainwashed by the group.
“There are thousands of these people now drifting back into cities and refugee camps,” Akilu said. “They need help.”
At a compound in Maiduguri, the Neem Foundation provides a school for female ex-captives – often their first experience of a classroom. Conducted in English, it is a rebuff to Boko Haram’s mantra that “Western education is sinful”, although the syllabus goes beyond the 3Rs. Diversity is a key lesson.
”A lot of our pupils are brought up to believe that their own tribe is greatest, be they Hausa, Fulani or Kanuri (the latter the tribe of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau),” said Aisha Bukar, the school’s deputy head. “We teach them that Nigeria is a place of many tribes and faiths.”
Indeed, a few are unaware that Nigeria even exists as a country, thinking it represents just the wider area around their village. Such limited horizons make them easy prey for Boko Haram’s doctrines, which include the bizarre claim that the world is flat.
“There’s a whole range of reasons why people join up,” said Akilu. “For some, it’s the chance to be in a gang and carry a gun. For others, especially adolescents, it’s a chance to be part of something, to have an adventure. Then there are some who join up because Boko Haram gave them money to start a business. It may be just cash to buy a wheelbarrow, but that means the world to people who have nothing.”
Boko Haram still has to recruit by force. Yet stigma abounds. Amina Ahmed, 17, who was impregnated by her captors and then miscarried, said even her own mother blamed her at first. “She asked me: ‘Why did you accept?’ I told her it was because I had no choice. Here I can at least meet other people who’ve had the same problems.”
The Neem Foundation has helped more than 7,000 people, some through a “counselling on wheels” service in remoter areas. How successful it will be, only time will tell, although Akilu now has an endorsement from one of the group’s jailed commanders.
“He was one of the main leaders who opposed Western education, but halfway through he changed his mind and decided he’d been misleading people,” she said. “He asked if we could get his children into school, which we did, and now that he’s been freed from prison, he’s gone back to school too.”
• Some names have been changed.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2018)