Over the past four years, thousands of young women and girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, a violent Islamist militant group active in Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. Hundreds are still captives. Some were never found. And even those who are free still carry the shame and trauma of having lived as sex slaves.
Two of them — Ya Kaka, 19, and Hauwa, 18 — are risking everything to ensure that their stories, and the stories of their fellow captives, are heard. They’ve spent the past two weeks meeting with U.S. and U.N. officials to recount the atrocities committed against them by Boko Haram.
Ya Kaka was kidnapped at 16, along with her two sisters. Hauwa was 15 when Boko Haram fighters stormed her family’s thatched-roof home. Her parents were killed. She was taken. This public advocacy will make both women targets at home. Ya Kaka will have to move to a new city, where no one knows her past. She says it’s worth it.
“We hope to let people know the true situation of what is happening,” the 19-year-old said.
Boko Haram has been especially destructive in northeast Nigeria, waging a brutal campaign to take control of large parts of the country. In 2017 alone, the group killed 900 people and carried out more than 900 attacks. The lawmakers who met with the girls already know those statistics. Ya Kaka and Hauwa offered a more personal account of what happened. They talked, too, about their dreams: to finish school, then go into public service. The gathering captured the emotional dichotomies of the occasion: Washington elite and survivors of sex slavery; opportunity and profound loss.
Their stories began in September 2014, when Boko Haram decimated their city, Bama, near the Cameroonian border. The assault was gruesome. Many of Bama’s 350,000 residents fled. Men who couldn’t escape were killed and put in mass graves. Thousands of girls and women, some as young as 8, were forced to travel on foot to camps where they became sex slaves.
Hauwa and Ya Kaka were marched into the Sambisa Forest and kept in tiny huts, raped nightly by their male captors. Like many captives, Ya Kaka was married off — though that didn’t protect her from near-daily rape from multiple men. Her “husband” would force her to walk naked through the camp. Both women — still girls at the time — became pregnant.
In 2015, Ya Kaka, Hauwa and their infants managed to escape the camps along with other captives. They walked for days to find villages with food and water. Both babies died. Many other women were freed after a months-long campaign by the Nigerian military, but some were killed during the rescue operation. Even those who escaped Boko Haram still suffered.
Hundreds of “Boko Haram wives” have been shunned by their families and neighbors, who worry that they are loyal to the group and may be violent. They are forced to live in hastily constructed camps often guarded by armed men. Though they are free, the indignities have continued. Hauwa said she has been mocked while begging for food. A store owner, she said, would yell, “Don’t come into my store” because she was a Boko Haram wife. School and other educational opportunities are nonexistent. Most of the Boko Haram survivors are traumatized and have struggled to recover from the abuse. Today, Hauwa and Ya Kaka’s former home of Bama is a ghost town. But because of NGO support, the former captives who are trying to live as free women will get another chance.
After they return home, they will start classes at a boarding school. “I had no hope of going back to school,” Ya Kaka said. Now, she is enrolled at Ramat Polytechnic in Maiduguri. She hopes to study international relations, and to someday represent her home state of Borno. These opportunities, they know, are rare.
Though the Nigerian government declared victory over Boko Haram, the group regularly stages attacks around the country. Many schools — common targets of Boko Haram — are still not secure. “There are no soldiers or police at any school,” Ya Kaka says. Just last month, 110 schoolgirls were kidnapped from Dapchi, Nigeria. And the women who have been freed from Boko Haram need help and counseling. To Ya Kaka, though, those challenges are opportunities. “I want to help my society,” she says.
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