MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — For months, they were kept in tiny thatched huts in the middle of the forest, waiting with dread each evening for their rapists to return. During the almost intolerable violence, the young women’s minds drifted to escape or death. The victims were as young as 8.
At the heart of Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed caliphate in northeastern Nigeria was a savage campaign of rape and sexual slavery that has only recently been uncovered. Thousands of girls and women were held against their will, subject to forced marriages and relentless indoctrination. Those who resisted were often shot.
Now, many of the women are suddenly free — rescued in a series of Nigerian military operations over the past year that dislodged the extremist Islamist group from most of the territory it controlled. But there have been few joyous family reunions for the victims.
Map: The brutal toll of Boko Haram’s attacks on civilians
Most of the surviving women no longer have homes. Their cities were burned to the ground. The military has quietly deposited them in displacement camps or abandoned buildings, where they are monitored by armed men suspicious of their loyalties. They are still labeled “Boko Haram wives.”
Few could have imagined such an outcome two years ago, when 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram and the world responded with the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. While most of those schoolgirls from Chibok are still missing, many people assumed the other kidnapped women would be warmly welcomed back.
Instead, they are shunned.
For seven months, Hamsatu, now 25, and Halima, 15, were among Boko Haram’s sex slaves, raped almost every day by the same unit of fighters in the remote Sambisa Forest. Now, they live in a narrow, white tent in a displacement camp, with empty cement bags sewn together to create a curtain. The women spoke on the condition that their full names were not used in order to freely describe their experiences.
When Halima leaves the tent to get food for the two of them, the other people living in the camp scowl at her or cautiously move away.
“You’re the one who was married to Boko Haram,” one older woman spat at her recently.
“We can’t trust any of them,” said one guard.
Nigerian women describe horrors of Boko Haram abductions
Women who escaped from forced marriage and sexual slavery at the hands of Boko Haram talk about their abductions, and the hard transition back to life in Nigeria after they found freedom. (Human Rights Watch)
Authorities say there are good reasons for their wariness. Last year, 39 of 89 Boko Haram suicide bombings were carried out by women, according to UNICEF. Twenty-one of those female attackers were under the age of 18, many of them girls apparently abducted from villages and cities and converted into assassins. Since January, female attackers have killed hundreds of people across northeastern Nigeria, in mosques, markets and even displacement camps.
No one knows exactly why some women who were captured and abused became killers. Maybe it was the indoctrination. Maybe it was the militants’ threats.
Either way, the job of reintegrating the displaced has become vastly more complicated for Nigerian authorities.
And for survivors trying to move on from a horrific chapter of their lives, there is now a new agony.
“There is no trust here,” said Hamsatu, crouching in her tent and wearing the same pink, flowery dress she had on when she was kidnapped 18 months ago. In her arms, she held the baby of her captor.
‘I don’t know if he’s alive’
It was September 2014 when Boko Haram fighters took over Hamsatu’s and Halima’s home city of Bama, near the Cameroonian border. Many of the 350,000 residents managed to flee. But the fighters immediately started killing the male civilians who couldn’t escape. Some were shot in their homes. Others were beheaded and thrown in mass graves.
With a group of about 25 other women, Hamsatu and Halima say, they were moved by the militants from home to home and then forced to travel on foot and on the backs of motorcycles to the Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram had set up camps for its sex slaves.
The women were each assigned to a sliver of a hut, barely big enough to lie down. Hamsatu said that days later, one fighter, whose name she never learned, entered the hut and said a prayer in what sounded to her like Arabic.
Now they were married, he told her. She thought of her real husband, who had been missing since the day Boko Haram stormed Bama.
“I don’t know if he’s alive,” she said.
From then on, the days were uniformly violent. Different men would come into her hut each evening, in addition to the one who called himself her “husband,” Hamsatu said. Sometimes they screamed at her for not praying enough. “Even the Chibok girls are better Muslims than you,” a man yelled at her once.
Sometimes the men said nothing at all, tearing off her headscarf and raping her on the floor of the hut, she recalled. After about two months, she became pregnant.
Publicly, Boko Haram members decry the tyranny of Nigeria’s federal government, which is mostly Christian in a nation where Muslims, nearly half of the population, have long complained about being marginalized. The militants rail against secular education and demand strict Islamic observance. The group has declared allegiance to the Islamic State.
But to their prisoners, the fighters’ campaign didn’t seem driven by ideology so much as a wild appetite for sex and violence. It would take the rest of the world some time to learn about Boko Haram’s institutionalized sexual abuse. Rape wasn’t just a byproduct of the chaos of war in Nigeria, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would say in 2015. It was a calculated “tactic of terror.”
“These people have a certain spiritual conviction that any child they father will grow to inherit their ideology,” Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state — where Bama is located — told reporters last year.
At night, Ham