Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived.


"They said to me, ‘Are you going to sleep with us, or do you want to go on a mission?’”AISHA, 15

“I didn’t want a situation where I’m the reason anyone dies.”FATIMA M., 16

“I really didn’t expect to survive. I thought I had only minutes to live.”MARYAM, 16

“They brought out a belt and tied it to my waist and showed me a button to press.”NANA, 13

The girls didn’t want to kill anyone. They walked in silence for a while, the weight of the explosives around their waists pulling down on them as they fingered the detonators and tried to think of a way out.

“I don’t know how to get this thing off me,” Hadiza, 16, recalled saying as she headed out on her mission.

“What are you going to do with yours?” she asked the 12-year-old girl next to her, who was also wearing a bomb.

“I’m going to go off by myself and blow myself up,” the girl responded hopelessly.

It was all happening so fast. After being kidnapped by Boko Haram this year, Hadiza was confronted by a fighter in the camp where she was being held hostage. He wanted to “marry” her. She rejected him.

“You’ll regret this,” the fighter told her.

A few days later, she was brought before a Boko Haram leader. He told her she would be going to the happiest place she could imagine. Hadiza thought she was going home. He was talking about heaven.

They came for her at night, she said, grabbing a suicide belt and attaching it to her waist. The fighters then sent her and the 12-year-old girl out on foot, alone, telling them to detonate the bombs at a camp for Nigerian civilians who have fled the violence Boko Haram has inflicted on the region.

“I knew I would die and kill other people, too,” Hadiza recalled. “I didn’t want that.”

Northeastern Nigeria, now in its eighth year of war with Boko Haram, has become a place afraid of its own girls.

So far this year, militants have carried out more than twice as many suicide bombings than they did in all of 2016, and the attacks keep coming.

According to Unicef, more than 110 children have been used as suicide bombers since the start of the year – at least 76 of them girls. Most were under 15 years old. One girl blew herself up along with a baby strapped to her back.

Bombers here at the center of the battle against Boko Haram have struck mosques, marketplaces, checkpoints, camps for displaced civilians and anywhere else people gather, including a single polo field attacked multiple times. Trenches have been dug around the University of Maiduguri, a frequent bombing target, in hopes of slowing down attackers.

The deployment of children has become so frighteningly common that officials in the areas where Boko Haram operates are warning citizens to be on the lookout for girl bombers. A huge billboard here in Maiduguri – the Nigerian city where Boko Haram was born – proclaims “Stop Terrorism” with the image of a scowling, wild-eyed girl with explosives on her chest, clutching a detonator.

Officials are publicly urging parents not to hand over their children to Boko Haram for use as bombers, while the military is circulating a video telling bombers they can surrender. It features an 11-year-old girl.

“Do not allow them to tie explosives on you,” says the girl in the video. “It is dangerous.”