MALKOHI CAMP, NIGERIA - As it took over huge parts of Nigeria’s northeast last year, Boko Haram fighters were looking not just to indoctrinate female captives to their brand of radical Islam, but also to marry them. The group also used marriage to subjugate its captives.
During the five months the Boko Haram extremist group held Kolo Telba captive, the militants took away one of her sons, never to be seen again, and let another one become so sick that he died shortly after the Nigerian military rescued Telba late last month.
One thing the militants didn’t do was try to marry her. In fact, when they found out she was expecting, Telba said they left her and a group of other pregnant women alone.
Telba said the fighters would bring the women food periodically, but generally the group was left alone.
In the past weeks, Nigeria’s military has rescued hundreds of abducted women, girls and children as it advanced into the Sambisa forest, one of the extremist group’s last strongholds. VOA spoke with some of the women who were among a group of 275 former captives brought to the Malkohi displaced persons camp outside the northeastern city of Yola.
Many described Boko Haram fighters as being as preoccupied with marriage as they are with their six-year campaign to impose strict Islamic law across Nigeria’s northeast.
When the militants raided the town of Madagali last August, they murdered Hadiza Yusuf’s husband and took her away to Sambisa forest. There, the fighters gave her a choice: marry one of them or become a slave.
Yusuf refused to submit, so the militants forced her and other women to cook and do chores in the camp, while raining insults on them. If they refused to do chores, the fighters would beat them.
She isn’t quite sure why the fighters wanted to get married so badly. Perhaps evil spirits possessed them, said Yusuf.
Most of the fighters have anywhere from three to five women, and they’re not even legally married to them, but Yusuf said they just want to have the women all to themselves.
Hauwal Umar found herself in Sambisa after she was taken from the town of Damboa last December. Faced with the choice of forced marriage or slavery, she said she faked a mental illness to avoid the fighters’ advances.
Umar said she put a lot of rags on her body, donned a worn-out cap, and made herself look as rough as possible. She said the militants were scared of her and didn’t want to come close to her, saying “How can you get married to a mad woman?” They’d approach her and say, “This is a mad girl, stay away from her” and Yusuf said they’d run away.
Not all of the women taken into Sambisa were able to resist the fighters. Authorities are still trying to figure out the exact number, but a spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week that a large number of the women rescued from Sambisa were pregnant.