Pope Francis this month marked International Women’s Day by a meeting with two Nigerian women who had both been held captive by the Boko Haram terrorist network.
Janada Marcus, 22, spent more than a year in Boko Haram captivity.
Mariya Joseph, now a teenager, was kidnapped by Boko Haram when she was 8 years old. She escaped last August, after more than eight years in captivity.
Marcus told The Pillar that meeting the pope — in a trip organized by Aid to the Church in Need — was among the most important experiences of her life.
“I felt so excited when I saw the pope. Something moved inside of me. I felt peace; it was the best day of my life. When he touched me, I felt so special, excited and loved” she said.
Marcus told The Pillar that she has endured several encounters with Boko Haram.
When she was young, her family home was set on fire, killing relatives trapped inside.
In 2020, her father was killed by terrorists in front of her, and Marcus was taken captive for six days.
But in 2014, when she was a teenager, Marcus and her mother were kidnapped from a hospital, where she had just undergone surgery to treat appendicitis.
“I was in the hospital in Askira Uba when they attacked the village and forcefully took about 21 of us to the bush, where I spent one year and six months,” Marcus told The Pillar.
“There, they wanted to Islamize us but we refused. They denied us food and a place to stay” Marcus said.
After 18 months in captivity, “when I was 15 years old, the jihadists wanted to marry me off to one of them.”
“But the night before our escape, a young man who was forced by Boko Haram to convert Islam felt sorry for our plight, and offered to assist us escape. He convinced my mother [to escape], and she consented.”
“On this fateful day, when the militants had gone out to pray, he told Mom that he would initiate our escape by signaling her so we could escape. So, when the jihadists went out to pray, the young man pretended that he was accompanying us to the stream to fetch water. When we were a bit far from the camp, he showed us the way to escape — although he didn’t go with us.”
“We kept following the bush path until we arrived at Yola [the Adamawa state capital].”
“When we got to Yola, we were subjected to some kind of military scrutiny and detained until it was certified that we were not carrying suicide vests. Then later, I was released to my father who then took me to hospital for proper medical care.”
Asked if the terrorists allowed them to pray while in captivity, Marcus said, “I pray to Our Lady in my heart.”
After the kidnapping, Marcus said she had received little help from her country’s government.
“The government didn't assist us. Only the Church helped us by treating us, offering prayers, and sponsoring my education,” she said.
Marcus told The Pillar that she has “already forgiven” the terrorists who captured her.
She told The Pillar that Catholics “should keep praying to God for other victims in detention, so that they can be reunited with their families.”
For her part, Mariya Joseph, who was held in captivity for nearly nine years, described her ordeal this way:
“Boko Haram arrived in my village [Bazza] in 2014. Suddenly they surrounded us and took us away. I was just about 8 years old.”
Two of Joseph’s siblings were kidnapped by the same militants. Her brother was killed in a Boko Haram camp, she said, while a sister remains captive to Boko Haram militants.
“They kept me in the bush along with other children. They forced us to start reciting Koranic verses. It was tough at the beginning as we were sometimes denied food. But seeing how we suffered as children; they began to give us food.”
“They did not allow us to say any Christian prayer,” she recalled. Rather, “we were all forced to recite Islamic prayers.”
Joseph has previously explained that she was locked in a small cage for nearly a year when — at 10 years old — she refused to marry a Boko Haram terrorist leader.
In an interview with The Pillar, Joseph spoke only a little about the circumstances of her years of captivity among Boko Haram groups. She preferred, instead, to talk about her life after she escaped in 2022.
“It was difficult for me to forgive my captors at the beginning because they killed my elder brother in the camp in 2019 and my sister is still with them,” Joseph explained.
But now, she said, “I have forgiven them. After all, our religion teaches us to forgive even our enemies. When I think of the pains I felt, I am tempted to say that they don’t deserve my forgiveness. However, since Jesus has forgiven us, for his sake, I have forgiven them.”
After she escaped, “the government didn’t give me any help,” Joseph said.
“When I tried to escape, I was shot on the leg. It was my family that took care of me. I suffered and was having bad dreams. It was that time that my mother took me down to Maiduguri to see Fr. Joseph Bature, the priest in charge of trauma healing. He counseled me and supported me with clothes and food.”
“When I got better, he sent me back to my family. Later, when I said I wanted to go back to school, the Church arranged to sponsor my education.”
Fr. Joseph Bature is the director of The Centre for Human Resources and Trauma Care in the Maiduguri diocese — the epicenter of violence perpetrated by Boko Haram and other terrorist groups in Nigeria.
Baure’s Maiduguri diocese is a training ground in Nigeria’s northeast for terrorist groups, which focus their efforts on kidnappings, financial fraud, and violent terror against government and police installations, the priest explained.
The priest, a clinical psychologist, works with Nigerians who have faced violence amid the instability of the region.
The meeting with the pope, he said, was aimed at “giving support and voice to victims especially women and in the light of persecution of women.”
Lamenting the plight of victims of Boko Haram attacks in northeastern Nigeria, Bature lamented that: “The girls were captured and went through harrowing experiences of torture, forced to marry at 15 years but they refused, forced to convert to Islam but one resisted.”
The priest noted that in his region of Nigeria, terrorist violence against Christians includes “violence against women, deprivation of education and victimization.”
“In general, victims of Boko Haram were and are still subjected to torture, inhuman treatment by being locked up in cages and deprived of food if they refused to convert to Islam. Some witness violent killings, as in the case of Marcus, whose father was beheaded in her presence in 2018.”
“And now even those who fled live in camps, cramped spaces, poor living conditions, children are out of school and young girls are victims of sexual and gender-based violence.”
The priest said that his diocese aims to assist the victims of terrorism with access to therapy and counseling.
"Our center provides mental health and psychosocial support, skill acquisition and occupational therapy, trauma healing and care,” he said.
The diocese offers humanitarian and spiritual aid, Bature explained.
“On the humanitarian front, we supply food, shelter, water, and healthcare for more than one thousand [people]. We offer livelihood support, skill acquisition and free education for children of victims in our Catholic schools.
Bature also mentioned a school for children impacted by violence, where more than 500 student are enrolled.
And “on the spiritual side, we provide them with trauma care, counseling and resilience building,” he said.
While violence in Nigeria is on the upswing, Bature said that a visit to Rome, in which Pope Francis heard first-hand an account of the violence, was a hopeful sign for the people he serves.
He recalled what Pope Francis told the women with whom he traveled: “Thank you for your perseverance and faith; thank you for witnessing clearly and loving Christ despite persecution.”
For her part, Mariya Joseph said that traveling to Rome has had an unforeseen impact on her life:
“This is the greatest thing that has happened to me. It shows the Church loves me. To see the Pope is like seeing God. I never dreamt this would happen in my life. I felt so happy; it remains the best day of my life.”