No Homecoming for Boko Haram Victims—One Woman’s Story of Scorn, Sorrow and Saving Faith
When Esther was rescued from an extremist group that is located primarily in Northern Nigeria captivity, she thought her living nightmare of almost a year was over.
But it had only just begun.
Though the young Nigerian woman carried a child she thought she could never love, she was at least free from the violence, the constant rape, the incessant torment from her captors that she had endured ever since the day Boko Haram guerilla fighters attacked her village, killing her father and forcing her and other young Christian girls into waiting vehicles. They were taken into the dense Sambisa Forest where the terrorist group had established their rape camps.
The Boko Haram hallmark is brutal violence: suicide bombings, mass murder, forced conscription of young men and boys, and the destruction of villages, towns, churches, markets, and schools. But Boko Haram is perhaps best known for its widespread abduction of women and girls—an estimated 3,000 since 2009.
Since last year, the group has expanded to Cameroon, Chad, and Niger and has pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
As Esther walked back into her village, she anticipated a homecoming of support and healing from those who had known her.
Instead, she was met with rejection and abuse.
In captivity, Esther resisted constant pressure to abandon her Christian faith in favor of Boko Haram’s extreme radicalized brand of Islam, and she was brutally punished for it. She was repeatedly raped multiple times by different men.
But to villagers long terrorized by the extremist group, Esther was just another one of the “Boko Haram women,” girls kidnapped by violent militants, married off to fighters, raped, beaten and enslaved.
Esther was pregnant with a child conceived by the rapes (and as a result had no idea who the father is, an infant whose only future in the villagers’ eyes was one of violence and terror. Family and friends said the child would inherit its father’s “bad blood”—the violent tendencies of an extremist.
When the child was born, Esther named her Rebekah. The villagers only called her “Boko.”
Esther is not alone.
Esther’s story is hauntingly familiar in the places where Boko Haram is active. For many women, her story is more than familiar—it is their own.
Salamatu was kidnapped at age 15 and raped in captivity. She was able to escape her kidnappers, but when she arrived at a refugee camp in northern Nigeria, all she found was more oppression.
“They say my daughter is a Boko Haram baby,” she told NPR.
Amina and her daughter, liberated wives of Boko Haram fighters, experienced more trauma in their refugee camp than they did at the hands of the extremists, one activist said.
Adrienne survived a brutal sexual attack at the hands of Boko Haram. When she returned to her hometown, vulnerable and alone, Adrienne and her newborn child were ostracized.
While many of these women have sought help—and even found some semblance of recovery—many continue to be ostracized and abused.
No Safe Haven, Only Stigma
In the town squares of impoverished villages and among the ramshackle homes of refugee camps, women freed from Boko Haram are not seen as victims of conflict, but as direct threats to the safety of others.
According to a February 2016 Unicef report, villagers and other refugees fear the freed women have been indoctrinated and radicalized by their captors. The recent increase in female suicide bombers, both women and children, throughout Nigeria has also reinforced the belief that women and girls held captive by militants are contributing to the region’s overall insecurity. Reports of kidnapped women coming home and killing family members as part of the initiation protocol for Boko Haram have made community members even more wary of women returning home from captivity.
A new report (June 2018) by the Heritage Foundation finds that Boko Haram has used significantly more female suicide-bombers than any other terrorist group in history. From June 2014 to the end of February 2018, Boko Haram “deployed 469 female suicide bombers who killed more than 1,200 people and injured nearly 3,000 others.” Children are a prime target, the report said, as they can easily be manipulated, particularly those “ripped from their families in kidnappings.”
By using women to carry out such attacks, more male militants are available for more conventional fighting. Women and children are also less likely to be stopped and searched, says Yonas Dembele, persecution analyst at World Watch Research. He adds that Christians and Western interests are Boko Haram’s prime targets.
“The militants abduct school children and Christians, rape and torture the women, and then recruit them to carry out attacks,” Dembele says, adding that since 2011, Boko Haram fighters have killed more than 20,000 people in northeastern Nigeria and neighboring countries.
The belief that babies and children born of the “Boko Haram women” have inherited “bad blood” from their parents is rampant; the “bad blood” idea is popular in Nigerian witchcraft. As a result, children conceived in Boko Haram captivity are seen as genetically tainted through the sins of their fathers, consigned to a life of violence and terror.
Husbands and fathers of victims also have mixed feelings about the women, with some completely unwilling to take them back, fearing discrimination and consequences from Boko Haram.
At the Foot of the Cross
In trauma counseling from Open Doors, Esther and other Boko Haram victims learned to place their burdens at the foot of the cross.
As the abuse from the villagers continued and Esther’s child grew, faith became the young mother’s only refuge—and it brought more healing to her than any community could.
Leaders at Esther’s church invited her to attend an Open Doors trauma care seminar, where coordinators encouraged her and other participants to seek freedom at the foot of the cross—literally. A caregiver asked Esther and others to write out their burdens on pieces of paper, then pin them to a hand-carved wooden cross.
“When I pinned that piece of paper to the cross, it felt like I was handing over all of my sorrow to God,” Esther said.
When the caregiver removed the notes from the cross and burned them, Esther says she “felt like my sorrow and shame disappeared, never to come back again.”
With the help of the seminar and continued trauma counseling, the young woman’s life has improved exponentially. One year after her return, villagers still struggled to accept Esther and her daughter, but they knew something had changed in the young woman. This teenage mother who had endured unspeakable agony at the hands of a brutal regime was surprisingly—impossibly—at peace.
“Some of those people who used to mock me now ask me my secret,” Esther says. “I tell them, ‘I forgave my enemies and now trust God to take vengeance in His time.’”
God has used Open Doors to provide for Esther and Rebecca’s physical needs, including food aid. She now lives with her grandparents, and finally feels the support and care of a family—and the child Esther thought she could never love now means the world to her.
“Rebekah has become my joy and laughter amid sadness.”
Open Doors continues to reach out to and serve Boko Haram survivors like Esther, but the need is still great as violence and kidnappings continue. Please pray with us for Esther and our brothers and sisters in West Africa where the insurgency continues.