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Marriage or slavery? For girls abducted by Boko Haram, suicide bombing an escape

Hajja tells of her experiences with Boko Haram using women and children in suicide bombing attacks in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on March 22, 2018. (Mainichi)
(Mainichi)

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria -- Cases of the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram using abducted girls as "human bombs" has been increasing here in the country's northeast corner. Walking into crowded areas with explosives strapped to their bodies, the inhumane tactics have a heavy toll on residents.

"Which are you interested in? Marrying the commander or becoming a slave?"

That was the question asked of a girl, Hajja (not her real name), who was taken from her village along with six other girls to a Boko Haram camp in a forest along the Nigerian border with Cameroon in 2014 when she was 16 years old. The choice was given to her by a soldier, and there were no other options.

Thinking that it was better than being a slave, Hajja went with marriage, becoming the fourth wife of the commander. It was then she began her forced married life with the man.

Besides Hajja who had chosen marriage, the remaining kidnapped girls from all around the region all became slaves. They were barely fed and raped by the soldiers. If they did not comply with orders from the men, they were whipped.

A civilian security group is on guard for suicide bombers sent by Boko Haram on March 21, 2018, in northeastern Nigeria. (Mainichi)

After two months at the camp, the commander was killed in a Nigerian military airstrike. Hajja was pushed to marry again, but this time she refused. Believing it to be her only chance to escape, she asked to become a suicide bomber. The bombers gathered in a house and listened to lectures about the group's ideals over and over again. When a soldier asked them if they were ready to work for Allah, the girls would fight to be the first to raise their hands. Hajja said it was like the other girls were brainwashed by the words of the soldiers into believing that if they laid down their lives for Allah, then they most certainly could go to heaven.

At the end of December 2015, Hajja and some 15 other girls headed for the city of Maiduguri, a central city in northeastern Nigeria, which was under the control of the government, with a heavy belt of explosives strapped around her hips. Right before the girls were about to carry out the terrorist attack, Hajja thought, "It's now or never!" and ran. She asked for help from a local civilian patrol officer. However, while Hajja was rescued, over 30 people died as a result of the other girls' bombs that day. The 10 girls who had been with Hajja right up until her escape were shot dead by soldiers.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, suicide bombing attacks by Boko Haram in 2017 were five times that of the previous year. Over 135 children were used as human bombs, 70 percent of them young girls. The majority of them were aged 15 or younger, and some detonated their explosives with babies on their backs.

"Boko Haram is brainwashing innocent girls," said Hajja, covering her face with her hands. "They are forcing innocent girls to explode their body and destroying their lives. The girls are not suicide bombers -- not perpetrators. The girls are purely victims."

In addition to their brainwashing tactics, suspicion is growing that Boko Haram is also administering drugs to the girls and others to turn them into suicide bombers. According to Aisha (pseudonym), a 23-year-old girl rescued by government forces three years ago, a ritual is carried out for those chosen to be suicide bombers. During this ceremony, girls were forced to eat a date fruit pickled in some kind of "cloudy water." After eating it, Aisha said, "They had changed. They were euphoric and began to do whatever the militants said."

This time, the Mainichi Shimbun was able to interview eight women and girls who had been abducted by Boko Haram, and many provided testimony that many victims were groomed to become suicide bombers after refusing to marry a Boko Haram soldier.

Unable to handle the sexual violence and living in fear as prisoners, some of the girls said that if they could leave the camps, they would do anything -- even blowing themselves up was a better option. The militants would order these women and girls to "find the places where there are as many people as possible. If you can't, shout for help. Then press the button," before sending them out on their mission.

There were four suicide bombings carried out by girls on Sept. 20, 2015, in the outskirts of Maiduguri alone, killing over 60 people and wounding 100. City resident Dauda Bukar, 68, was in the middle of his after-sunset prayer at a local mosque. He suddenly heard a loud bang and felt searing pain and lost consciousness for two days. Bukar lost several fingers, and his son and younger brother who had been with him died in the explosion.

"They forced the innocent girls to approach a religious place where people offer prayers to Allah and detonated bombs. I can't believe how cruel and inhumane that is," he lamented. Even now, he still feels fear whenever he spots a woman or girl he doesn't know in a crowded area.

There are also cases where unrelated women and girls are mistaken for terrorists and fatally shot by public security personnel. According to the U.N., from October to December 2016, 13 girls between the ages of 11 and 17 were shot under the mistaken assumption that they were about to carry out an attack.

A report released by researchers at the United States Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center in August 2017 said that 434 terrorist attacks carried out by suicide bombers had occurred between April 2011 and June 2017 in places including Nigeria. Out of the 338 cases where the sex of the bomber could be identified, 244 of them were women or girls. It also pointed out, "In addition to the sheer number of women used as suicide bombers, Boko Haram has also used a greater number of women as a percentage of its total suicide bombers than any other groups in history."

Additionally, of the 134 bombers whose age could be confirmed, 60 percent were in their teens or younger, with the youngest child being only 7 years old.

Civilian patrol officers keep a keen eye on the people coming and going in front of a market in Maiduguri. Their 52-year-old leader Abba Aji Kalli says, "The last resort is to hug (the bomber)." Last year during Ramadan, one member of his group spotted a suspicious girl search for something around her hips. It was a belt of explosives on which her hands landed. The second the officer began running toward her and hugged her, she set off the bomb, killing them both in the blast.

"If you allow the suicide bombers to enter the market, hundreds of people might be killed and injured. You have to sacrifice yourself in order to save lives," he explained. Since the civilian watch group was formed in 2013, 772 members have died in combat with Boko Haram or in suicide bombings. "We are ready if there is no other means to stop them."

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