By Obi Anyadike in Kaduna, Nigeria

Howa Umar isn’t crazy, but the Boko Haram militants that abducted her from her village in Gumsuri in northeastern Nigeria believed she was. And that, she says, kept her safe.

Her father was among the first people they shot when they attacked the village, disguised as soldiers, in December 2014. Some 30 other men were killed, most of them community vigilante who for many months had resisted the jihadists. Boko Haram then torched the village, 70 kilometres south of Maiduguri, the main city in Borno State.

Umar was among the roughly 180 people – nearly all women – the militants abducted as a further punishment. They were taken further south to Gwoza, where they were held for three months in appalling conditions.

Despite being an attractive young woman, Umar wasn’t forcibly “married” to any of the fighters, or abused. “They were scared of me,” she tells IRIN, “they thought I was possessed.” 

Umar encouraged that idea as best she could. She looked and acted wild, would roll in the dirt, wore layers of clothes, refused to put on a hijab – and showed no fear of the militants. It got to the point where they felt confident enough to leave their AK-47s propped up, unattended, when she was around.

BUT THE BIGGEST PROBLEM, says Umar, was the lack of food and water. “There was so many of us,” she recalls. They were fed twice a day, but the “food was terrible” and there was never enough. Some of the youngest children died “because of the hunger and starvation”, she says, even though their mothers went without to make sure they ate.

Umar and the rest of the women from Gumsuri were finally rescued as they were being taken to Sambisa Forest – at the time a secure Boko Haram hideaway. When the women heard the army was on the road heading towards them, they refused to move, and the delay allowed the soldiers to catch up.

Women and their children rescued from Boko Haram have been sheltered by the government since May (Michael Igwe-Ngerem/IRIN)

Women and their children rescued from Boko Haram have been sheltered by the government since May (Michael Igwe-Ngerem/IRIN)

A total of more than 640 women and children have been freed from the militants across northern Nigeria. The latest success was last week, when 338 – again mostly women – were rescued from camps on the outskirts of the Sambisa Forest.

Howa is part of an earlier group of 311 that have been sheltered in the Nigerian Defence Academy, in the northern city of Kaduna, since the end of May. They are provided with trauma counselling and vocational training by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), with the goal of easing them back into their communities.

“They came very fragile and malnourished, but have improved,” says Sadiq Usthman, a retired air force group captain and the camp administrator. “Some had been with Boko Haram for over a year, some for three months or a few weeks.”

THEY ARE HOUSED in neat but basic living quarters, with a separate mess hall, classrooms and play area – that seems to team with children. Once a day, an ONSA taekwondo instructor lines them up with a blast of her whistle and takes them for games, and the academy – Nigeria’s leading officer training institution – is filled with the noise of children being, ecstatically, children.

Seventeen-year-old Amina* gave birth to her daughter in the academy’s clinic in August. The father is a Boko Haram fighter – part of a small mobile group in Toyota Hiluxes and on motorbikes that attacked her home village of Shuwa, in Adamawa State.

“Can a responsible government send them back? The government has a duty and an obligation to provide security for its citizens. That has to be restored first.”
— Ferdinand Ikwang, head of ONSA's de-radicalization programme

Amina actually knew the man, and he seemed to have deliberately picked her out. Amina’s mother tried to intervene, but the jihadist threatened to kill her unless Amina agreed to go with him as his “wife”.

The next eight months “were terrible”, she says, living in his village where “everyone was scared of Boko Haram”. The only upside was that he wasn’t often around, spending time away on “operations”. She doesn’t know his whereabouts now: he wasn’t at home when the army arrived.

Amina has named her daughter after her mother. Like all the women IRIN spoke to, she is desperate to leave the Kaduna camp and restart her life. She is certain her family will accept her back, and hopes the community will too, despite the fact her baby’s father is a Boko Haram fighter.

Ferdinand Ikwang, the head of ONSA’s de-radicalization programme, says the security situation prevents any of the women and children in Kaduna from going home for the moment. They were initially told they would be staying in the camp until the end of September, and even the contracts for the counsellors and training services are winding up based on that timeline.

See: Unmaking Nigeria’s Boko Haram

But Ikwang bristles at the notion the government has no legal mandate to keep the group in Kaduna, and that they should be allowed to pack up and leave if they so wish. “Can a responsible government send them back? The government has a duty and an obligation to provide security for its citizens. That has to be restored first,” he told IRIN.

THE MILITARY TIDE appears to be turning against against Boko Haram. They no longer control territory as they did last year, but their ability to set off bombs – repeatedly even in Maiduguri – and mount surprise attacks, means “it’s far too early to say ‘mission accomplished’,” warns Ikwang.

In Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram, there is deep hostility towards the militants who have caused such destruction and misery – and frustration over the army’s inability to finally end the insurgency, which has claimed more than 25,000 lives in the past six years.

Among the people IRIN spoke to, there was sympathy towards the plight of the women in Kaduna, but also a note of caution.

“These girls were captured, abducted. Some of them were forced to marry,” says Mohammed Garima, who fled his village, 90 kilometres to the north, 14 months ago because of Boko Haram. “Since they were forced, they can come back and we will accept them. We can help to give moral guidance to their children, so they don’t inherit anything bad from their [Boko Haram] fathers.”

*Not her real name

Edited by Andrew Gully. Film by Michael Igwe-Ngerem, edited by Dimple Vijaykumar.