Aisha could hardly tell right from left. Sambisa, the bush land that sprawled across northeastern Nigeria, confused her sense of direction. She couldn’t trace the route the men took when dragging her through Sambisa’s dry paths of shrubs and sand. Either the elephants’ feet were breaking the earth nearby or she was going mad. When soldiers dropped balls of fire from the sky, her captors made her run with them to hide. She was sure she was going to die.
I am sitting on a wooden stool next to Aisha, in the entryway of her home. She lives in Moranty, a compact neighborhood of tiny tin-roofed homes and pebbled streets on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in the upper right corner of Nigeria. Rainy season is on its way. I can smell it. They say the rain brings new beginnings, so the air is hot and heavy with expectations. The day’s heat was brutal, but night is coming fast, so I need to wrap things up with Aisha. I continue with my questions. Aisha is patient with me, as I am with her.
I am on assignment to gather stories of women who have lived in close proximity to people who use a particular Arabic phrase to identity themselves and their mission: Jamāʿat Ahl al-Sunnah li-l-Daʿawah wa al-Jihād. It means “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.” The Nigerian media first tagged the armed rebel group Boko Haram. The name stuck.
I first met Aisha at the end of 2017. I am back to see her again. I want more details about what it was like for her in the forest, where she lived as one of Boko Haram’s captives for almost two years after her 2014 kidnapping.
“We were always running helter-skelter in the forest because soldiers would make us change routes. So it is hard to tell what is what,” Aisha tells me.
I hear the urgency in her voice, the plea to make me understand the chaos in the militants’ camp. She pauses, then slowly enters the past again. I try my best to keep up.
Aisha watched the girls walking out of the forest, their hijabs hiding the sacks that hung from belts around their waists. They were supposed to press a button or pull a string, and they were supposed to die and go to paradise. It was supposed to be God’s work, what these girls would do with their small bodies, and they were supposed to be the real Muslims because everyone else was fake Muslims: kafirai, “infidels.”
“There was one woman from Askira Uba. She agreed to wear a vest with the suicide bomb. She had completely agreed with Boko Haram and decided if her family didn’t follow Boko Haram, she would kill them.”
In the forest, there was a group of young women Boko Haram said they’d taken from a school in a town called Chibok. They were separated from Aisha, but she noticed they looked young, like teenagers, or maybe even younger.
“Those girls from Chibok were fighting jihad. They believed Boko Haram’s cause.”
The soldiers came for Hajia Gana’s son at al-fajr prayer, one morning in 2011, when the sky was still waiting for the sun to rise. A crisp pre-dawn breeze carried the voices of praying men down the alleys of Bolori, a neighborhood in Maiduguri. The twenty-five-year-old Mustapha Abdulkareem, Hajia Gana’s son, was among the men praying in the mosque, all different shades and sizes, prostrated together, bringing their faces towards earth and Mecca.
Everything stopped when the soldiers burst in, stomping through the sacred mosque, desecrating prayer mats with their combat boots. Staining them with filth. Nearly everyone was arrested that morning, including Mustapha. The sun was rising.
Soldiers escorted Mustapha to his house. They searched but found nothing incriminating—no guns, no explosives, no sign that he was “affiliated” with Boko Haram. They took him down the road to a cell in the Giwa military barracks anyway. About ten hours later, Mustapha’s wife, six months pregnant, went to her mother-in-law and told her what had happened. Hajia was not going to sit around. Enough was enough. All over the neighborhood, people’s sons and husbands were disappearing.
2011 was a time of fear. Boko Haram had emerged from underground.
Ten years earlier, the group that would become known as Boko Haram was first emerging. People flocked to the movement’s founder, Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf. The young preacher was winning the hearts and minds of thousands across the social strata of northern Nigeria, and neighboring Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. His message hinged on three central tenets: take care of the poor, serve Allah only, and beware of boko—Western-styled secular classroom education, through which Western cultural and sociopolitical ideas are spread—because it’s haram, or “sinful.”
In 2009, Yusuf’s agenda became much more explicitly violent. To the list he added: take up arms against Nigeria’s “infidel” government. Democracy was un-Islamic, he said, and Muslim politicians ought to be ashamed to be a part of it. Yusuf’s followers gathered weapons. The group’s angst exploded in the last week of July. Boko Haram attacked a police station. Nigerian military personnel arrested Yusuf in his home and handed him over to the police. He was killed in a gory show of extrajudicial force. People all over Maiduguri scurried to the police compound to get a glimpse of his bullet-ridden corpse. Pictures of it, splayed in the local television news broadcast that evening, went viral.
More bloodshed followed. Everybody facing off—Yusuf’s people against the military and police, the military and police against civilians. Dead bodies in pools of blood lay scattered in the streets. All over Maiduguri the soundtrack of gunfire played. Nigerian soldiers and police were determined to arrest and kill the last of Yusuf’s followers.
The War of Maiduguri, they called it. More than 700 people died in a span of days, humanitarians said. The “City of Peace,” as it was known, was done. In the chaos of it all, Boko Haram went into hiding, in villages and cities. Many went to the Sambisa wilderness to get organized, recruit, and plan.
About a year later they released a video declaring total war with Nigeria. Then they struck, blowing up schools, churches, and mosques, killing police and soldiers to avenge Yusuf’s death. The hospitals got crowded, the graveyards filled up. The government set a curfew: No civilian cars on the road between four p.m. and six a.m. Nigerian soldiers went on an offensive, raiding mosques and homes, arresting young men, countering what they called “terrorism.” Young men fled the city.
Nearly everyone had a story.
“Soldiers killed my brother…”
“Dem kill my baba…”
“Dem killed my husband…”
“Dem collect my baba…”
“Dem spoiled my sister…”
“Kai! Soja abuse us…”
Maiduguri, and Borno State at large, was on fire. Boko Haram spread. Kano, Jos, Damaturu, Mubi, Gwoza, Bauchi, Michika—well-known cities in northern Nigeria became hotspots. The Boko Haram fighters attacked with machetes, AKs, rocket-propelled grenades, and homemade explosives. The Nigerian soldiers carried out mass arrests.
Hajia says they were wicked, throwing people into gutters, forcing them to drink sewage water and take off their clothes. “They beat you naked like this.”
Both sides had become enemies of the public.
I meet Hajia Gana in a small room somewhere in Maiduguri in May 2018. She’s a slender woman with glassy eyes and graying hair, tight lips and cracked brown skin. She’s telling me about her son’s arrest.
“When [his] wife told me, we were all crying, crying, crying in the house. Even the neighbors came and asked what happened. I told them my son was arrested.” I hear notes of panic and anxiety in her voice. It fluctuates from shrill to hoarse. “My neighbors sympathized with us. When soldiers arrest boys, they sometimes kill them. Did they want to kill him or what?” I keep my gaze fixed on her, but do not answer the question. “Everyone was afraid,” she says.
Hajia put on her shawl and went out to look for Mustapha. The police officers and state intelligence forces told her “the boy” wasn’t with them, that it was the army that had taken him. She insisted her son wasn’t a Boko Haram member. He was just her fourth child, a husband with a baby on the way.
Mustapha had been with her the night before, eating dinner on the floor mat with his wife. Earlier, on his way home, he’d bought roasted meat and a soda to take before salat al-fajr. The next day, he was gone, snatched in prayer.
Over the course of four months, Hajia succumbed to extortion, paying for her son’s release. Twenty thousand naira here, one hundred thousand there. In the end, she’d paid about two million. She wasn’t alone. There were thousands of other angry mothers and wives mourning the arrest of their sons and husbands. In desperation, they, too, paid brides, offering their beloved gold, their life savings, their land, their pride, their tears, their humanity.
What Hajia remembers most during this period was the anger. It fed on the pain, festered, and grew. And led her to Boko Haram.
It was in the forest that, for the first time in her life, Aisha thought well of the Nigerian government. She started saying things like, “Let them come. Oh Allah, let them come and kill Boko Haram. They are useless, I swear to God.”
She had lived her life with little regard for politics. She remembered the death of her father vividly, but didn’t know who had been president then. The day she was born, there were no officials to mark the day and year. She guessed she’d been alive for about thirty-eight years, but it could just as easily have been thirty, or forty-five. Government? She’d only seen evidence of such a thing when she had money in her hands—the crumbled notes printed with the faces of stern-looking men.
All her life, her family dealt with seasons of poor harvest, longer dry seasons, outbreaks of sickness, no electricity. Help from the government was minimal, at best. “The government doesn’t take care of the poor, I swear to God.”
When her father died, her mother couldn’t pay for her school uniform. Aisha remembers her last day of school well. She had bathed, dressed, gathered her books, and headed out. She arrived to face her teacher’s ridicule, in front of the entire class.
“He said since you can’t pay for your uniform and the fees, you have to leave school. I would see other students walking to school wearing the uniform and carrying books and I would cry.” When she was a child, she had wanted boko. Where was the government to help her continue to get it? A lot of Boko Haram members were like her: poor, abandoned, marginalized. But poverty never pushed her to pick up a gun and kill people.
“If the Boko Haram are good Muslims, they would know that jihad is not good. Boko Haram wants to turn everyone into Muslim. Boko Haram wants to change the whole world when the Prophet, peace be upon him, himself has mentioned three religions.”
She wanted the government to come to her aid for once, to march into the forest and wipe out Boko Haram, then set her free. She had prayed that the Nigerian soldiers would drop their bombs and kill them all. Allah!
She spent her time in the forest praying for all of them to die, so that she could live.
In the early 2000s, when Ustaz Mohammed Yusuf was amassing his following, Aisha was in her home in Maiduguri living with her husband, complaining about the usual things: “No light, no money, no jobs.”
Down the road, Yusuf was in the mosque complaining about the very same things. But Aisha had decided that she didn’t like Boko Haram’s way. Something about the group’s austerity put her off.
“They were telling women to wear niqab, to wear socks, and it was too much. We [were] not doing all these things [before].” Yusufiya. That’s what Mohammed Yusuf’s followers were called in the early days. Yusufiya had been all over Maiduguri, and Aisha watched them from afar with more and more worry.
Their wives scorned worldly things, like secular music, or the Indian films that were the rage in northern Nigeria. Aisha wasn’t raised that way. The Yusufiya men grew their beards out in a show of piety to Allah. She never saw her father do that. He had always been clean-shaven. Some of the Yusufiya became ustaz by wearing pants hemmed up above their ankles, because they said that long pants were not good. Her father’s pants went all the way to the floor. “Yusufiya condemned almost everything as haram. What wasn’t haram, for goodness sake?”
She, too, was Muslim. Her mother had taught her to pray five times a day in the direction of the holy city. Even before going out for a wedding, her mother would make her pray.
But Aisha grew up playing with Christians. Three of her bridesmaids were Christian. She lived the life Yusuf condemned, Muslims mixing with Christians. It was Muslims like her that Yusuf was making an appeal to, to return to Allah and denounce the kafirai. Whenever Aisha saw a picture of Yusuf, the young man looked angry. She would wonder what exactly his problem was.
“He says this and that are haram. But the clothes he was wearing when they killed him, the Pakistani clothes were the clothes he told people not to wear, because they were the white man’s clothes. Isn’t that what he said?”
Aisha and her family stayed away from them. She believed Boko Haram was a group of crazy people. She saw their madness in full during The War. She knew it wouldn’t end with the “chopping of the snake’s head,” the death of its leader.
She’d gone from poverty in her childhood to poverty in her marriage to living with Boko Haram.
“Did I do anything to offend Allah? I am a woman of faith. I pray. I wear my hijab.”
In the forest, at least there was plenty of food. She watched Boko Haram unload piles of it, along with medicines, after they returned from attacking a village. She wonder how many people they’d killed for the goods. The women would stash everything in the storehouse.
“We had good food. There was rice, maize, everything, pumpkin and groundnuts. There was even cassava flour.” It was more food than Aisha, or most of the other women there, had ever had before. The food was one reason some of them didn’t want to leave the forest.
Boko Haram took better care of them than their husbands or the government had back in their villages and towns. The Boko Haram men allowed them to attend Islamic classes, and didn’t make them toil on a farm. It was un-Islamic for women to do such hard work—that’s what the Boko Haram men told Aisha. Like the other women, she had farmed since childhood.
Her husband had rarely given her enough money for meals. She knew he would be wondering if she were still alive. By then, her brother would have told him what happened: that earlier in the year, while she was visiting her hometown of Michika, Boko Haram had come and kidnapped her.
“They had come [to Michika] on a Sunday to disturb the Christians,” Aisha said. Sundays brought the largest church crowds. There were lots of Christians in Michika, a town more than a hundred miles southeast of Maiduguri. The day the insurgents came, her brother was around, but he ran with the other men. Boko Haram fighters dished out their worst brutality to the men who stayed and refused to join their ranks.
But that was all months ago. Now that she was in their captivity, she was plotting an escape from the forest, though she was terrified to even try. Her body was weak, pudgy, and slow. To get away one needed to be slim, swift, and agile. And what if she stepped on a bomb buried in the earth? Was crushed by an elephant? And what of the balls of fire that kept falling from the sky?
She needed to get out of there or else she would die, if not by the hand of Boko Haram, then maybe by her diabetes. Her family had always been too poor to keep up with the treatment, and it killed her father, a gentle-hearted man who did his best for his family.
Hajia and Boko Haram were both born and raised in the city of Maiduguri—a jewel in one of the Sahel’s greatest kingdoms, the thousand-year-old Kanem-Borno Empire of the Kanuri people.
Both Hajia and the founders of Boko Haram spoke Kanuri. They were all devout Muslims, like nearly everybody else around. They wanted to serve God, and felt the Nigerian state, the villains who’d taken her son away, had failed to serve the people.
Hajia felt the anger growing in her, draining some parts and energizing others. The anger demanded that she act, and it took her down the road to Boko Haram. She roamed Bolori’s streets asking for the area commander. She found him, and went to his house.
“I met the Boko Haram because of my pain. I said that I want to work with you. I said to the Boko Haram commander, you should teach me how to work with you. The Nigerian army is wicked. They took my son. They are too wicked.”
But the men wouldn’t let her through the front door. She wanted to join them, wanted her son back. They thought she was crazy and laughed in her face. She wanted to scream, but held herself together and explained, again, why she wanted to join.
“They said you are old, you are a lady, and we are not dealing with people like you.”
Then one of the guys brought out a sheet of paper, and sketched out the image of a gun. He gave the paper to Hajia and told her to study it carefully. Knowledge of the gun was the beginning. She folded the paper into her purse and went home. For the first time in months, she had hope. If she could learn the gun, she had a way to fight the government that took her son.
In the privacy of her home, Hajia took out the paper. In clear detail, the sketch highlighted eight parts. While the bodies of men who had died in military detention were being taken to graveyards, she was taking back her power.
Her need for revenge wasn’t uncommon. Lots of boys across Borno State joined Boko Haram, seeking retaliation against the Nigerian military that killed their loved ones, raped their sisters, and destroyed their homes. So the insurgency went on. The international relief agencies came in with foreign-aid dollars and nonperishable goods and blankets and tents and mosquito nets and medicine. The people knew them by their white vans with huge transmitters. They knew them by their acronyms: UNICEF, MSF, ICRC. They knew that they could rely on the relief agencies – not the government – to take care of them. So Hajia put her hand out like everyone else. She had a family to feed.
“Even common Paracetamol. Even if you’re in the [government hospital] and you’re going to die, no one can help you. You have to buy Paracetamol. Now the NGOs have come to help us.” The government wasn’t just violent; it left families desolate by taking away the breadwinners. They’d been wronging Nigerians for so long. Boko Haram, she believed, had every reason to fight back.
She blamed her capture on the blood.
If not for the bleeding, she would not have been in Sambisa. Was it cancer? Or related to the diabetes? The questions irritated the back of her mind, scratching away at it. One doctor had told her she had fibroids. The blood was destroying her and affecting her marriage. Her husband didn’t try to have sex with her anymore. For four years, her husband had not touched her, as if she were not a woman with desires. Then, he neglected her health needs. He divorced her, twice, refusing to pay for her healthcare. She had gone back to him both times because people told her to.
The bleeding problem wasn’t going away, and it was while trying to get medicine that Boko Haram had caught her.
“There was a woman giving out drugs and she insisted that I collect the drugs myself. The person has to see her personally. I left Maiduguri and went to my childhood home in Michika to stay with my mother. From Michika we went to Askira Uba to meet the woman with the medicine. While I was there, someone now said that Boko Haram had attacked Gwoza not far away. My husband heard about that attack from Maiduguri. He called me and told me to hurry back to Michika. We managed to finish with the medicine woman and go back to Michika. We arrived on a Sunday. That Sunday Boko Haram attacked Michika.”
While running from the attack, she was captured.
After nine months in the forest, Aisha noticed Boko Haram members trying to win her over. By then she had seen some familiar faces, young men from Michika, four of them, including one she had known as a Christian. He told her he had become a Muslim and joined Boko Haram after accepting the kalimatu shahada Islamic creed.
All the men told her she was lucky to be there, that they would protect her. They would pray for her. Aisha tried to ignore the not-so-subtle hints about marrying a member. After all, they couldn’t wed a sick, bleeding woman. She knew that. It was un-Islamic. Then the men tried to fix her, told a healer woman to come.
“I had to see a female doctor. She confirmed that I was bleeding. Boko Haram went to some other town and brought me Ampiclox and Flagyl. Antibiotics, right? They told me to drink it and see if the pain would subside. But I knew they were just trying to stop the bleeding so that they could marry me. I would rather be sick than marry them. So I prayed for the bleeding not to stop. I prayed and prayed.”
Like her prayers, the blood didn’t stop, coming out in stringy blobs that sapped her energy. Her prayers were working, stirring the men’s impatience with her. They gave her special foods, accepted her pleas that she couldn’t eat rice, which would raise her blood sugar. Unlike her husband, they shouldered the responsibility of getting her medicinal treatment.
The healer woman, whom Aisha later learned had also been abducted, gave her natural concoctions of roots and leaves that slowed the bleeding. The Boko Haram men noticed. So Aisha began to cut back on the dosages and watched the blood flow thicken again.
“I felt woozy and the bleeding was plentiful. The smell subsided, but not the blood.”
This is how she fought, with her blood and her prayers, as one day rolled into the next. She’d been in the forest for one year and some months.
Night swoops in like a bird of prey. I listen to Aisha’s story. There are no streetlights in Moranty. We’re facing one another, sitting in the dusk. Boko Haram militants called her stubborn, she says, with the “heart of a rock.”
In the forest, whenever they brought her tea and dates, she pretended to drink and eat. But after they left, she dug a small hole in the dirt underneath her skirt and dropped the dates inside.
She never agreed to marry them, to steal food during their raids, to kill people, to clean their guns, to pray for them. Some of the other women did those things. Aisha would watch them in pity, suspecting they were under the influence of an evil, unnatural force. It was a popular notion, and I’d heard it from many people—that Boko Haram indulged in strange rituals involving blood and mind-altering substances, like codeine-based drugs laced in tea.
“If you drink the tea that they like to pour, they have taken your mind. Whatever they say, you will never say no. I swear to God. That is what is happening. Allah.”
It’s these elements of the occult surrounding Boko Haram that fascinate me. I shift on the wooden stool, leaning in. The features of Aisha’s face are darkened. I watch her eyes glow in the moonlight.
A year later, in June 2019, I called Hajia Gana to check in on her. Her greeting was like her personality, warm and refreshing. She told me that not long ago, she’d gotten a call from a man who said he had just been released from prison, where he’d met her son, Mustapha. The man didn’t give much detail, explaining that the government could have been tapping his line.
So he didn’t reveal which detention center, though she assumed it was Kainji. There’d been so much bad press about Giwa Barracks and how overcrowded it had gotten. After Amnesty International’s damning report, the military had been compelled to de-clutter, transferring inmates to other centers around the country. Many had been taken to Kainji, and Hajia believed her son was among them. As far as she knew, he’s never been tried in court.
The man’s call was a blessing from Allah. Mustapha, he said, was still alive. Pray for your son, he told her. He’s a good person. Hajia begged for more information, but he didn’t give any. When the man hung up, she pondered over everything he had said, taking note of the way that he’d said it.
She had noticed the man’s southern accent. She wondered if he was a militant in the
Niger Delta. That’s where the crude oil—the source of Nigeria’s wealth—comes from. For decades, fed-up men have protested that the money earned from oil production be channeled towards developing communities from which the oil was extracted. A different people, a different religion, a different problem. But Nigerian all the same, with grievances against the same government.
By 2019, Hajia no longer had that sketch of the gun.
Her daughters had found the paper and confronted her about it. She had other children to tend to, they reminded her, and couldn’t risk being arrested for the sake of just one. So they had set the paper on fire, and Hajia watched it turn to ash.
By 2019, Hajia no longer wanted to be part of Boko Haram. Instead, she became a leader in another movement, the Jire Dole–Knifar Movement. It brought together more than 700 women who’d lost sons and husbands, and together these women spoke as a collective anger, the kind that rises in wombs that have both birthed life and lost it.
The women were waiting for President Muhammadu Buhari to respond to a letter they had written last year: Release our men, 1,269 detainees, for they are innocent.
The last time we spoke, Hajia was low on money and assets from having paid so many bribes. She was wizened and weary, but the man’s phone call still gave her hope. The rainy season will come again, and they say the rain ushers new beginnings. Maybe it will cleanse Hajia’s pain. And when it stops, maybe her son will come home.