‘Why I returned to Boko Haram and how I escaped’

In our series of letters from African writers, journalist and novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani speaks to a woman about her time living with Islamist Boko Haram militants in their forest hideout in north-eastern Nigeria.

In 2017, Aisha Yerima shocked her family when she willingly returned to Boko Haram captivity after she had been freed by the military.

Four years on and the 30-year-old has now escaped and returned to her parents' home in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.

She was kidnapped by Boko Haram at the age of 21 from a town south-east of Maiduguri and went on to marry one of the group's commanders, whom she said won her heart with romance and gifts.

He had gone off to battle when the military attacked their camp in the Sambisa Forest, rescuing Aisha and dozens of other wives.

The women were all put through a one-year de-radicalisation programme, but barely four months afterwards, Aisha decided that life with Boko Haram was better.

Some of those rescued from Boko Haram captivity are put through de-radicalisation programmes

"It was hard for me to make a living," she told me. "Things were tough and I had to depend on my parents."

She also found it difficult to feed her two-year-old, rescued along with her, the son from her marriage to the commander.

"I phoned my husband and he was very happy to hear from me," said Aisha.

"He told me when next he would be coming to Maiduguri to purchase some fuel and gas, and we agreed that I would join him," she said.

On the agreed day, she left her parents' home with her little son, telling no-one and taking just a few possessions.

Gunfire celebrations

She met her husband at a secluded location and he gave her some money to shop for new clothes. She re-joined him at around 19:30 at a separate location where he was waiting with about 20 militants in a bus.

"They were all heavily armed with guns," she said.

They then began the long drive towards the Sambisa Forest, abandoned the bus at a remote garage from where it was to be picked up by a man from whom the militants had hired it, and continued the rest of the journey on foot.

"When we arrived at our camp in the forest, there was celebration. Everybody was happy to see me back and they were firing guns in the air," she said.

Aisha immediately resumed life as a commander's wife - treated with respect, with other captives assigned to her as slaves, and more than enough for herself and her son to eat.

Shortly after returning, she was glad to discover herself pregnant, but the child died at birth.

The military has had difficulty securing Borno state, which is about the same size as the country of Sierra Leone

When she was two months pregnant with another child, her husband was killed in battle.

The militants believed that her unborn child was entitled to a portion of its father's wealth and so waited until the baby was delivered before dividing the inheritance.

"They wanted to see if it was a boy or girl because a boy is entitled to double the portion of a girl," Aisha explained.

Her baby turned out to be a boy, but tragedy struck again. He died at birth. Aisha was devastated.

Forced to remarry

Her share of the inheritance allowed her to continue to live well - though this made others jealous.

"They started asking why I should be enjoying and living on my own. I didn't want to marry anyone else but they forced me to."

Her new husband was equally wealthy, a businessman responsible for supplying goods to Boko Haram, which entailed regular trips to Maiduguri. When she got pregnant with his child, Aisha was terrified of losing yet another baby in the forest.

"I begged him that we should move to Maiduguri, but he refused," she said.

Her desire to leave became more urgent when the military intensified attacks, with regular bombings that forced the militants and their families to be constantly on the move.

In addition, bitter infighting had led to Boko Haram splintering, with the two factions increasingly attacking each other. Afraid for her life and that of her unborn child, Aisha decided to escape.

At 03:00 one morning in August, she set off into the forest with her son and with two other wives who desired a different life.

But they were all captured along the way by Boko Haram, and returned to their camp. To keep her from attempting to run off again, Aisha's husband and the militants seized her six-year-old and took him away to an unknown location.

"While they were dragging my son away, he was holding on to me and screaming: 'Mama, please, don't leave me here! Please, don't leave me here!'" Aisha said.

For several days, she begged the militants to return him and tried searching for him. It eventually dawned on her that her efforts would be fruitless. She decided to escape without him when another chance came.

Escape and kindness

For a price, a militant who knew a clandestine route through the forest was willing to assist her and more than a dozen other women who wished to flee.

Aisha gave him all the money she had. A week later he led them away from the militants' base, past remote towns and left them at a point where they were able to continue on their own to a military post.

"The soldiers were very kind," Aisha said.

"They praised me for being bold enough to escape and contributed money to put me in a vehicle to take me home to my parents. They didn't think there was any need to escort me."

When they got to Maiduguri, she had to ask the driver to stop so she could call her mother and ask for directions as the city had changed so much in her absence: "There were new flyover bridges and tarred roads everywhere."

More than two million people have fled their homes during the Boko Haram insurgency, many moving to Maiduguri

The entire family was waiting when the oldest of eight siblings walked through the front gate. They rushed towards Aisha and hugged her.

Everyone had been kind and supportive since she returned, Aisha told me, with some neighbours contributing money for her upkeep. But the baby she gave birth to in early October has died.

So far, Aisha has not heard from the husband she abandoned in the forest. She learnt from some women who escaped more recently that he was apprehended by an opposing faction of Boko Haram, with his fate unknown.

Determined to create a new life for herself, Aisha hopes to raise funds to begin trading in perfume and incense.

"I pray to Allah to rescue my son, but I will never go back to Boko Haram," she said.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.