“They have a look in their eyes—they look like they are possessed,” says Amira, a Nigerian woman held captive by Boko Haram fighters for several years. “They would even drink the blood of the people they killed,” she adds, using her hands to tip an imaginary bowl of blood to her mouth.
Amira is in her mid-50s, and the signs of a life of hard agricultural labor show across her face and hands. (She asked Newsweek to identify her only by the pseudonym Amira because she fears reprisals.) She is dressed in clean but worn clothes, a long skirt and a head wrap. Leaning forward in her plastic lawn chair in the modest administrative office of a camp for internally displaced people, she describes how the young fighters of Boko Haram, some not even in their teens, ransack communities, rape young women and kill on a scale unseen in Nigeria since the country’s civil war in the 1960s.
Around three years ago, Amira fled from Michika, a town in northern Adamawa State, attempting to escape from Boko Haram. The area is one of the hardest hit by the Islamist insurgency, which has killed more than 30,000 people and displaced an estimated 2.2 million in just over six years. Because Amira and her neighbors were forced to flee at night, families were scattered, separated from one another as they ran for their lives. Amira lost track of her three children, and she fears at least one of them was killed that night. She had already lost her husband to Boko Haram.
When she came across a group of young men in khaki uniforms in the forest, she assumed they were the Nigerian military. “I trusted them when they told me to follow them.” That night, Amira was abducted by Boko Haram.
Shortly after she realized the men in uniform were not soldiers, they tried to rob her. “They tried to take my things, and I refused,” Amira says. “One man hit me, so I struck him across his face. He hit me on my head—look, you can still see the scar a bit,” she says, pulling off her head wrap and spreading her braids with her fingers to show the faded scar on her scalp. Haphazardly retying her headscarf, she continues her story: “ One of the lookouts saw them hit me and came down from his post to tell them to stop. He even applied ointment to my hair to help the bleeding. The men who tried to rob me then took him away and killed him. They made me watch them kill him.”
Amira also watched helplessly as her younger brother, who refused to join Boko Haram when he was captured, “was hacked to death." She spent the next few years as a captive, forced to run errands for the insurgents and maintain their camps, while being shuttled across the country as the fighters fled the military and terrorized communities in northeast Nigeria. She saw hundreds of people hacked to death as Boko Haram raided villages across northeast Nigeria.
Amira is one of the thousands of women who have been abducted by Boko Haram. She says she was “too old to be a wife,” but most of the other abducted women were handed over to fighters as so-called wives and raped repeatedly. The group has also used girls and women as suicide bombers in more than 90 instances. No other insurgency in history has relied upon women and girls in such an abusive and predatory manner, so systematically, as Mia Bloom and I report in a forthcoming paper for the Center for Complex Operations online journal Prism. Although Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared in late December that Boko Haram had been “technically” defeated, violence continues, and it will take many years for survivors like Amira to return to any kind of normal life.
For some men in Boko Haram, participation in the insurgency is “mostly about power and access to women," says Kyari Mohammed, the head of the Peace and Security Center at Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola. "You can take anyone’s woman, and she is yours,” he says, adding that in a region with few economic opportunities that would allow a young man to court and maintain a wife, access to women has particularly strong appeal.