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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.

Boko Haram has become notorious for its forced marriages of young girls and women, who are raped and sometimes give birth to fighters’ children. In many cases, their so-called wives come from extreme poverty with little hope for a future even in times of peace.

Boko Haram offered them food. Some of the women even fetched a higher dowry from Boko Haram fighters than they would have had they married men in their home villages.

“These women often joined up with Boko Haram to make the best of their circumstances,” said Hilary Matfess, a research associate with the Institute for Defense Analyses, who visited the compound this summer. “It’s tough to tease out agency and consent.”

At the compound, the wife of the Boko Haram commander has emerged as a leader among the women because she was married off to the highest-ranking militant.

Repeatedly throughout the three years that Boko Haram controlled her village, she was asked by the commander to marry him. Time and again, she said no. But she was tired of eating only rice and being holed up in her tiny house. The commander lured her with dates and other fruit, and the chance to wander in the area seized by Boko Haram. He offered her a cash dowry that was three times above market rate, she said.

Finally, she gave in, becoming his fourth wife in a large wedding ceremony. She cooked for the fighters and washed their clothes, and her husband showed her how to use a gun. But she said her support for the group was a matter of circumstance, not ideology.

“I figured forgive and forget, and was just staying with Boko Haram,” she said.

When the Nigerian military invaded, soldiers burned down her house. She lost everything, including the cash from her dowry.

Mr. Shettima said the woman was an important part of the de-radicalization process. As a high-ranking commander’s wife, she is looked up to by the others in the camp. He hopes they will follow her lead in denouncing Boko Haram.

Mr. Shettima said he was raising a herd of goats that he planned to give the women for financial security when they were deemed to be deprogrammed and ready to return home. He said he was trying to make it safe so they could go home to areas that have been cleared of militants. Recently, he temporarily moved his office to Bama, a town destroyed by Boko Haram, to oversee its reconstruction.

On a recent afternoon, the women and children sat on the ground to listen to Mr. Shettima as members of a civilian anti-Boko Haram militia towered over them with guns slung across their shoulders.

“Are you getting enough food?” Mr. Shettima shouted. “What are you eating?”

“Spaghetti,” the women called out.

“Are you getting fruit?”


“Bring them bananas!” Mr. Shettima shouted to cheers. “Bring them Coca-Cola!”

“How about sweet potatoes?” another woman shouted.

“Bring them sweet potatoes!” he answered to more cheers.

He handed one woman an envelope full of cash, got in his pickup and drove away.

© The New York Times 2016

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