Fatima was 14. Her life in Geidam, Yobe state was peaceful. Until one Sunday afternoon four years ago.
“I had gone to the market when I saw people running around everywhere. A person next to me said, ‘Boko Haram has come to attack Geidam.’”
That was the last time Fatima saw her home town. She spent the next four years living as the wife of a member of the terrorist group Boko Haram, right in Sambisa, the group’s stronghold.
Four years later, she’s managed a daring escape to arrive at a camp for displaced people in Pulka this May. Her journey is still on, to find the family she was ripped from. Her story is revealing what life is Sambisa forest is like for women.
“I just want to start a new life”
Fatima lived a life she considered normal. A small house made of clay. Just the one room. The family cooked in open air. She remembers it all in the past tense.
“Geidam town was a nice place and I had some very good friends, like Zarha. Our family was large,” she recalls.
Her father had two wives. Her mother had nine children. Her stepmother had seven. But several of her siblings died of diseases before Fatima was born.
Fatima helped on her family’s farm, cultivating grain. She also sold vegetables in the market. But she wanted to go to school; she dreamed of becoming a doctor. Her aspiration was to help others. A death in the family changed that.
“After my father died my mum asked me to help. I had no other choice but to quit school. Being with my family gave me joy. I have very fond memories of my childhood.”
It all changed in one afternoon.
“Boko Haram has come”
It was on a Sunday, four years. Fatima was at the market, selling vegetables.
She saw people “running around everywhere,” she recalls. Someone told her Boko Haram had come into town. She raced back home.
“Many young people dressed in jumpers, shirts and military gear took over the town for two days, requesting others to join them. They went house to house, looking for young girls,” she says.
“They were carrying weapons and my mum was scared.”
Fatima was 14. She was picked and married off to one of the men. He was 30 years old, 16 years her senior. The brideprice was N25,000. She wasn’t the only girl.
“I can’t remember how many of us were taken, but I think there were more than 50 girls aged between 12 and 20. They put us into pick-up vans and we were brought to the forest,” she remembers.
The journey from her hometown of Geidam to Sambisa forest lasted three days through the desert. They only stopped to sleep at night.
A new home in the forest
The first two years, Fatima lived deep inside Sambisa, the famous Boko Haram stronghold.
It was a tightly-run ship. The community had women “in a house” who cooked for the new arrivals.
Life seemed ordinary. Her husband traded in the bush. He ran a shop, selling cooking oil and vegetables.
For a long time, Boko Haram remained content in Sambisa while its reign of terror spread from Borno to Yobe and Adamawa. No military attacks bothered the group.
Some members moved around armed. Others didn’t carry weapons.
The base even had a clinic that provided basic services.
The 14-year-old fell pregnant and gave birth to her first child, Mustafa, “at home,” she says, despite the clinic nearby.
“In the clinic there were drugs and they even admitted patients. I visited the clinic when I was sick during my pregnancy.
“One day, after two years, my husband decided that we should leave and we went to a village outside of the forest. It took us 24 hours to reach from the bush. The village was bigger, with a market and a hospital. But things got more difficult as we didn’t have food, unlike when we were in the forest.” And it wasn’t under government control.