Women, Children and Razor Wire: Inside a Compound for Boko Haram Families


Former wives of Boko Haram commanders in June at a guarded compound in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

Former wives of Boko Haram commanders in June at a guarded compound in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Credit Jane Hahn for The New York Times

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Beyond the tall, concrete walls of a fortified compound, the authorities are holding a special group of detainees: the wives and children of Boko Haram commanders.

Guards stand ready at the gate. Curls of razor wire line the walls. Civilian militia members with AK-47s hanging from their shoulders meander about.

The 56 women and children held inside have been there for months, after being swept up by the Nigerian military during raids on Boko Haram strongholds. The state governor, who is operating the detention center, considers them all Boko Haram supporters.

“We can’t just release them into society,” Gov. Kashim Shettima said of the women and girls in the compound. “There’s been so much brainwashing.”

Mr. Shettima, whose Borno State is the center of the war with Boko Haram, called the compound a safe house, not a jail. All of the security not only keeps the outside world safe from the prisoners, but also protects the women inside from angry residents who hate Boko Haram, he argued.

In the war with Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group that has terrorized Nigeria for years, anyone who has lived among the militants — including children who have been kidnapped and held captive — is often demonizedas a sympathizer and considered dangerous.

After all, Boko Haram has used children as young as 8, mothers and grandmothers as suicide bombers in attacks that have killed hundreds of people. So the women and children in Mr. Shettima’s custody have attracted particular suspicion, even though some of them say they were forced to marry Boko Haram members, including one girl who was only 9 when a fighter took her for his wife.

“They would kill people or hurt people,” said one of the detainees, the wife of a Boko Haram commander, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she feared reprisals. “They’re very bad.”

The local government here in Maiduguri, the city where Boko Haram was born, is hardly the only authority keeping families in custody. To rid the region of Boko Haram, the Nigerian military has detained countless men, women and children for weeks at a time.

Often, families have been held captive by Boko Haram, only to be “liberated” and placed in detention by the Nigerian military. Others were merely fleeing their villages, afraid that Boko Haram was closing in, when Nigerian soldiers grabbed them. Innocent people, even infants, have been held for long periods while the military screens detainees for Boko Haram sympathizers.

The women and children in this detention center are part of a program to convince them that another way of thinking exists outside of the violence and horror of the group, Mr. Shettima contends.

Boko Haram has set fire to villages, beheaded men and women, kidnapped schoolchildren and forced more than 2.5 million people in four countries to flee their homes. The war has left 65,000 people, most of them here in Borno State, to live in faminelike conditions, according to Unicef.

At the walled compound, imams visit to teach the detainees moderate Islam, countering the radical preaching of Boko Haram fighters. Representatives from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and several local and international aid groups offer health screenings, give vaccinations and carry out blood and pregnancy tests. A psychologist offers counseling. The women are starting to learn English, and many of them say they would like to go to secular school.

News of the compound has spread through the numerous formal and informal camps across Maiduguri, where people from the threatened countryside have fled. At the camps, residents complain that food is sometimes scarce and sanitation is lacking. Their tents and cardboard homes do not stand up to the elements. Some are bitter that women who support Boko Haram are getting better treatment, aid workers said.

Understanding the women’s true leanings toward Boko Haram is a complicated endeavor. Researchers who have spent considerable time at the compound talking to and observing the women said several of them expressed support for the militants.

“We can’t just release them into society,” Gov. Kashim Shettima said of the women and children in the compound. “There’s been so much brainwashing.” Credit: Jane Hahn for The New York Times

“We can’t just release them into society,” Gov. Kashim Shettima said of the women and children in the compound. “There’s been so much brainwashing.” Credit: Jane Hahn for The New York Times

“While some did seem to be committed Boko Haram members, others were not, and they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Adam Higazi, a researcher at Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Yola. “But it’s quite hard to actually evaluate the level of a young girl or young woman’s commitment to the ideology.”

Among the detainees is the girl who was forced to marry a Boko Haram fighter when she was just 9. When Mr. Shettima arrived at the compound on a recent afternoon, the girl clung to him, clasping his gray robe in her hand.

When she arrived, Mr. Shettima said, he told the girl, now 11, that he wanted to adopt her, but she announced that she wanted to go back to her Boko Haram husband. Recently she had warmed to Mr. Shettima, he said, calling her his daughter.