“When I came back, my father couldn’t even look at me. This is someone who cared for me since I was a baby. For him to reject me... it shattered me.”
Kulu* spent three years imprisoned by Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgents still operating in north-eastern Nigeria, known as one of the continent’s most brutal armed groups. Last year she was successfully rescued, and longed to be reunited with her family. But Kulu, like thousands of other young women, soon discovered her ordeal was far from over, and the happy ending she dreamed of was still far off.
Kulu and her younger sister were two of the 276 girls abducted from the town of Chibok, and whose story became worldwide news in April 2014. Celebrities and politicians rallied around and huge pressure was put on the Nigerian government to #bringbackourgirls: a movement that partly resurfaced in February when 110 students were taken from their school in Dapchi.
Despite international calls for action, as the whereabouts of the captives often remains unknown for months or even years, media attention dwindles. And the uncertain future the women then face if they ever make it home, is largely ignored.
Instead of receiving a welcome party, many are rejected and subjected to serious abuse – which in some cases makes their captivity seem favourable. “It is so bad that some have willingly gone back to Boko Haram,” Cindy Chungong, Nigeria country manager for International Alert, explains over the phone from her office in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. “The women are basically on their own. They have nothing.”
When survivors are located by military forces, often after long periods spent searching, they have to go through a formal process of interrogation and vetting, a process meant to ensure they haven’t adopted the radicalised views of their captors.
But Chungong says many of the freed women are still viewed as symbols of violence and as potential Boko Haram sympathisers, regardless of passing the government checks. They are not seen as victims. “People are terrified that when these women come back, they’ll want to kill them.”
Placed in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, as most of the survivors are from areas still deemed too unsafe to return to, women and girls describe the intense loneliness and persecution they then face daily. Chungong says daily tasks like queuing for food are made impossible. “If they come to line up they will get beaten, slapped and insulted. And their children too.”
Kingimi*, who was captured for three years before being placed in the Maiduguri camp, where she is referred to as a “Boko Haram wife” or “annoba” (epidemic) says: “People avoided me like a plague, so I felt alone and dejected. I don’t blame them, sometimes I am scared of me too.”
Kubili*, who is just 14, keeps herself in isolation: “We try to hide the fact that I escaped from Boko Haram so people don’t find out and treat me differently,” she says.
Whenever I did not cooperate, he would tie me with a rope and beat me mercilessly...'Kodoma*
It’s just not strangers who isolate the women in this way – their own families and husbands do too. Kodoma* was abducted from Mayinti, a week after giving birth to her fourth child. “I spent seven months in captivity, being humiliated by a Boko Haram member who had married me. Whenever I did not cooperate, he would tie me with a rope and beat me mercilessly. I was lucky to escape in the night with my children.”
When she found her way to a camp, she was fortunate enough to be reunited with her husband. Or so she thought. Three weeks later, when he noticed she was pregnant (as a result of her rape), he made her homeless. “Now he never comes to visit or send any resources for our livelihood.” She was also rejected by her brother.
And she is not the only one. Bunu, a man who lost nearly his entire family to Boko Haram, with the exception of his sister, explains his reason for rejecting his last living family member: “I couldn’t bring myself to accept her. I see her around the camp, and it hurts not to talk. But I think I’m afraid of what people will say.”
For the majority of the women raped during their time in captivity, where there is no access to contraception, the result is inevitable. They then end up marked by a double stigma: tainted by their association with Boko Haram, and for carrying the child of an extremist.
Chungong says: “Community members believe the ‘bad blood’ of the fighters is in the child and it is inevitable they will grow up to be violent too, therefore no one should care for the child or play with them.”
Jummai, 25, discovered she was pregnant shortly after arriving at the camp. “I cried daily, it gave me severe headaches. I wasn’t eating or sleeping, I was deeply depressed.”
“There is a lot of victim blaming. If a woman is raped it becomes her fault and her value is downgraded. It’s not the man who did the terrible thing,” says Chungong.
Habiba, and her 18-year-old daughter Ladi*, who were both victims of the sexual violence, says: ”They have no knowledge of the magnitude of suffering we went through. Now we have turned into an object of mockery.”
For some women, the return home was so traumatic they chose to return to their captors. “Some of them found it so difficult they found their way back. They say: ‘At least there I was someone’s wife, I had servants, I commanded some respect. No one was calling me names every day’,” says Chungong.
But Chungong believes that 2018 is about to see the situation become more complex. “The situation in the region is still dire, and the upcoming elections [both nationally and locally] will see candidates wanting to prove they have the situation under control.”
Humanitarian agencies fear this means official bodies are increasingly likely to pay ransoms and cooperate with Boko Haram in an attempt to appear to restore peace.
But order is far from restored. Chungong says abductions in isolated rural areas are a weekly occurrence: “No one has any idea how many people have actually been abducted.”
“Because these things happen in areas with no phone lines, you only hear of them weeks or even years later when family members turn up in urban areas and report the disappearance.”
In the country’s ninth year of war with Boko Haram, what does the future look like for the Chibok girls and others like them? Organisations like International Alert are currently working in camps, host communities and villages on programmes to dismantle the stigma and build new social networks for the women who have lost their families.
And while such programmes are transforming lives, it is not the end of the story. “It’s not like if these women are reintegrated, suddenly life is good,” says Chungong. “It’s not the only thing that needs to be done in this part of Nigeria. We’re still talking about one of the most deprived areas in the world.”