The sunlight is fading, but the children can still make out the lines they’ve drawn in the sand. With one leg hiked up, they each hop in between the lines. If you step on a line, you’re out. It’s a game called egalagala, similar to hopscotch.
The children play in the shadow of the corrugated tin roof of their home. As they play, their mother, who has asked to be called Bintu because she fears being harmed by Nigerian security agents, looks sad.
Two of the siblings are missing. The two older boys, Abuna and Dunoma, were taken in 2013, arrested by Nigerian soldiers.
"One night, soldiers came around 3 a.m., hitting our door and asking, ‘Where are the boys? Where are the boys? Bring out your sons,’" Bintu explains.
She says soldiers had gone throughout the neighborhood that night, arresting teenage boys. She and the other mothers whose sons were taken followed the soldiers’ lorry.
"They took them [the boys] to a place and they told the children to lie face down in the ground and they were beating them," she tells VOA. Abuna and Dunoma were high school students when they were arrested.
Bintu’s story is not unusual.
Amnesty International has documented thousands of cases of so-called forced disappearances, people held in secret detention facilities across the country without charge or trial.
"So many families are still searching for loved ones who have not been seen for many years. In some cases, families live with the pain of not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead," Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said.
"It’s time the government did the right thing — and either release these detainees or charge them with a recognizable criminal offense in a fair trial without recourse to death penalty," Ojigho added.
The Nigerian military has repeatedly denied cases of forced disappearance. It began mass trials last year, however, of more than 2,300 Boko Haram suspects, and even those trials have been shrouded in secrecy.
This month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) raised concerns about the integrity of the trials, describing them as flawed and undermined by legal shortcomings.
"However, to achieve justice and deter extremist attacks, the Nigerian government’s overall strategy and trial procedures need to conform with constitutional safeguards and international standards," Anietie Ewang, HRW's Nigeria researcher, said.
Hamsatu Allamin, a local activist, decided to find a way to give a voice to the mothers and wives who haven’t seen their sons and husbands in years.
She decided to create a network, Knifar Movement and Djere Dole, one for wives and the other for mothers.
"This network is to seek accountability for the whereabouts of these children," Allamin says.
She says the women are, "poor, wretched people. No voices. They don’t even know where to go to start asking … the struggle continues."
Allamin’s aim is to get the authorities to tell these women where their loved ones are so she has equipped them with tools to speak out.
Descriptions of loss
Last year, when the group was formed, Allamin helped the women to release a campaign video that was shared on social media. In the video, some of the women describe the circumstances under which their husbands or sons were arrested.
Earlier this year, they wrote an open letter to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, asking for his attention toward cases of 1,269 detained loved ones.
"Your Excellency, we know that you are very busy and have serious issues to deal with, but we don’t know who to turn to anymore. That is why we respectfully ask for your assistance to intervene, so that our relatives could be released, considering the fact that they are not Boko Haram. They are innocent and were only caught up in the process," the letter read.
But Justice Wakil Alkali Gana said the "loved ones" may not be as innocent as the women are making them out to be.
"People will always say that … they’re innocent, that they’re rights are being abused … when you go through it, you’ll see the definitely they have reason, they have reasons to be brought here," the judge told VOA.
He works at the High Court in Maiduguri where hundreds of Boko Haram-related cased have been tried.
Allamin’s network now includes more than 1,300 women. Most of them live in camps for internally displaced people. In Dalori camp, one of the largest in the Maiduguri area, they share their stories once again of how a father or son was taken and what their life is like now.
One afternoon, something surprising happened at the camp.
A young, slim man appearing to be in his early 20s walked up to a woman crouched in the entry of a tent. As soon as she saw him, she released a slow, high-pitched wail. She collapsed on the sand. When she composed herself, she and the young man, who happens to be her son, began to talk.
He told her that he had been released from the nearby Giwa military barracks. Years ago, he and his father were arrested upon suspicions of being Boko Haram members. The young man said he was released, but his father is still in detention. It was an emotional reunion. Women comforted her when she began wheezing from crying.
Back at the house the egalagala lines are still drawn, but the children have stopped playing.
Their mother, Bintu, is leafing through papers on her lap. They’re important documents, all belonging to Abuna and Dunoma. There are birth certificates, old homework assignments, report cards, health records.
A few years ago, someone told her that her sons were dead. She doesn't know whether or not to believe if they are dead but with these documents, she'll keep them alive, waiting for the Nigerian government to tell her where they are.