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‘I still see my friends in my dreams’ - Stories from Boko Haram survivors

In 2014, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram gained international prominence when its members kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Borno, Nigeria.  

A survivor of Boko Haram violence speaks with The Pillar. Credit: Pillar Media.

The kidnapping – and what was perceived as the Nigerian government’s lackluster response to it – sparked the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign, with celebrities including female education advocate Malala Yousafzai, performer Chris Brown, and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama drawing attention to the plight of the girls.

While media coverage of Boko Haram died down in the wake of the kidnapping, the organization is not gone. At various times, the group has formed alliances with ISIS and Al-Qaida. The U.S. State Department has designated it as a terrorist organization since 2013.

The U.S. Director of National Intelligence estimates that Boko Haram has killed some 50,000 people and displaced 2.5 million more since its inception 20 years ago. The organization, which is intent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria, is known for its guerrilla tactics, abductions, attacks on police and military bases, forceful recruitment and use of suicide bombers.

The Pillar spoke with several Nigerians who have survived attacks by Boko Haram in recent years.

They recounted stories of violence, including the kidnapping and executions of children.

In many cases, the victims have been unable to receive psychological treatment following their traumatic experiences.

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Ta'Allah Saidu, a 47-year-old widow and mother of eight children, has survived two different Boko Haram attacks in the past three years.

She told The Pillar that she and her late husband were originally from Niger. Her husband died 10 years ago amid the insurgency.

Saidu left her home community and relocated to Borno state in Nigeria, which has become the epicenter of violence against Christians in the country.

“We were leaving in peace until the terrorists started wreaking havoc,” she told The Pillar.

“I survived Boko Haram’s attacks twice. The first one was three years ago in Muna [region in the northern state of Jigawa], where they stormed the community, armed to the teeth, and killed nine, as others escaped. They were chanting Islamic slogans. We ran for our dear lives into neighboring villages.”

“The second attack was two years ago in the Kabawa community [in the Adamawa state],” Saidu said.

“They appeared from nowhere around 12 a.m. and started firing their AK47 rifles in the air. Women were running with babies on their backs. The insurgents - who were about 30 in number - cleared the community, killing five people and carting away livelihoods.”

Saidu expressed appreciation to Catholic Relief Services and the Justice Development and Peace Commission of the Maiduguri Diocese for providing supplies and relief materials.

A devout Muslim, she said she believes Boko Haram is “motivated by ignorance and lack of knowledge” and prayed that “God enlightens them to abandon their ways towards a restoration of peace.”

She also believes that the government should work to counter the insurgency across the region by “rebranding messages through radio programs, beefing up security in affected communities and using roadblocks.”

Internally displaced persons at a camp in Nigeria. Credit: Pillar Media.

Twenty seven-year-old Goni Abba is another Boko Haram victim.

Last month, the father of seven, including one adopted daughter, was working with his friend Ali Kasim Bulabulin to collect firewood, which he sells to support his family.

The friends were in the Zaragajiri region, located in Borno, the epicenter of Boko Haram activity.

“As soon as we arrived in the bush…around 9 a.m., we parked our wheelbarrows under the tree to start the business of the day,” Abba told The Pillar. “As soon as my friend took out his machete to cut a tree, we heard noises.”

“When we turned, we saw 10 Boko Haram members. All of them were carrying AK47 rifles, except one. Five wore military fatigues, while the others were dressed in black. The armed gang tore our clothes and used them to tie our hands behind our backs. They then pushed us under the tree.”

“After a while, they untied and freed me, with the instruction that I go and return with a ransom of 400,000 naira [about $500] for the two of us,” Abba said.

“They also demanded five batteries and two cases of mobile phones. They gave me a phone number to call and complete the transaction. This was around 5 p.m.”

“They gave a stern warning that if anyone accompanied me to pay the ransom, they will kill all of us,” he continued. “When I arrived at the community, we mobilized funds and I took the money – 400 thousand; 200 for me and 200 for my friend.”

“I also brought the 5 batteries and 2 cases of mobile phone they demanded, and we were set free.”

Abba was kidnapped again last week.

“Seven of us, ages 8-40 years old, decided to go for firewood,” he said. “While we were felling the trees, they overran us.”

“In their usual fashion, they tied us and took us under the tree. I told them that 40 days ago, two of us were abducted and we paid ransom and were then set free. The leader of the terror group decided to untie me,” he said.

Abba said the leader sent him back to the community with a demand for a 5 million naira ransom [about $6,300].

The community was able to raise 60,000 naira for each hostage, except the 8-year-old child and one of the other individuals.

After much pleading, the militants accepted the money that was offered - despite the fact that it was less than the amount demanded - and released all of the hostages.

A survivor of Boko Haram violence speaks with The Pillar at a camp for internally displaced persons. Credit: Pillar Media.

Abba said he is now dealing with the trauma of the two kidnappings, and has had to pause his firewood business indefinitely.

He implored both the state and federal governments to act swiftly to empower young people in the area, in order to discourage them from being enticed by insurgent groups.

Experts have said that high levels of poverty and unemployment in Nigeria often leave young people in the country vulnerable to recruitment tactics by Boko Haram and other terrorist groups.

Creating a safe environment in this manner is the only way that Abba and his friends will be able to continue working and providing for their families, he said.

Bulabulin, Abba’s friend, was present during the kidnappings.

He noted that the kidnapping victims have not had any access to psychological support as they process the traumatic experience.

While people in the community have offered prayers, and some friends and family members have given them money, they have not been able to receive counseling or therapy, either from the government or other organizations.

Like Abba, Bulabulin has been profoundly affected by the kidnapping.

“I still undergo some disturbing experiences in my mind,” he said.

“Sometimes, I dream about what happened and when people speak to me about it, I become overwhelmed by a strange fear.”

A survivor of Boko Haram violence speaks with The Pillar. Credit: Pillar Media.

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Teenager Bako Mallam Gambo was also out cutting firewood in the bush when he and his friends were surrounded by Boko Haram insurgents.

The 16-year-old explained that “suddenly, 10 gun-wielding men appeared and asked us to remain calm. They promised that they would not harm us.”

The militants bound the hostages’ hands and feet and marched them into the thick forest.

“When we arrived at a big tree, they asked me to raise my head,” Gambo said.

“And before my eyes, they shot eight of my friends, one after the other.”

“Then they asked me to go back into the community and inform them. They released two of us and commanded us to go home and report exactly what we saw.”

Like many of the other victims, Gambo said he has not received psychological services since the kidnapping. Instead, he said, his father gave money to Islamic clerics to pray for him as he struggled with the trauma he had endured.

“I began to behave abnormally, as if I was having mental issues. I was avoiding people,” Gambo said.

“With the prayers offered on my behalf, I am getting better,” he said. “However, sometimes, I still see my friends in my dreams - exactly how it happened.”  

The father of a victim of Boko Haram violence talks with The Pillar at a camp for internally displaced persons in Nigeria. Credit: Pillar Media.

Madu Akura is the father of 20-year-old Madu Awana, a young man who was killed by Boko Haram three weeks ago.

“My child told me that he and his friends were going to cut firewood to sell, in order to have some money to buy clothes for the [upcoming Eid Kabir] celebration,” the 44-year-old told The Pillar.

“That was the last time I spoke with him.”

“He left with his friends that fateful Thursday and returned with the first trip of wood. It was when he went for the second time that he never came back.”

Later, Akura said, “I was told that Boko Haram shot eight of them, including my son, with their hands and legs tied.”

“I was really devastated,” he said, calling the news of the murders “sad and reprehensible.”

“His mother and grandmother fainted,” Akura added.

“Since the sad incident, his mom is no longer herself - she behaves abnormally. They bond between them was so strong. The boy used to take care of her,” he said.

“Honestly, it has not been easy for me at all.” 

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