A young woman, who escaped from the camp of Boko Haram in Sambisa Forest, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI and HINDI LIVINUS her encounter with Leah Sharibu in the camp and how eight infants and their mothers died in the forest while fleeing from the insurgents
She decided to eke out a living selling second-hand clothes at Mubi market, Mubi, in Adamawa State, after her quest to go to school and lead a decent life was frustrated by financial constraints. Sadly, every step she took drew her nearer to cruel experience in the hands of Boko Haram insurgents.
Born to Christian parents and Christened Ruth (not real name) in a local church situated in the northern part of Nigeria, the 25-year-old was forced to adopt new names after her captors made her convert to Islam in the Sambisa Forest where she was held for five years.
While in the forest, Ruth said she shared a ‘cell’ with Leah Sharibu, a young girl that was kidnapped alongside over 100 other young girls by the insurgents at the Government Science and Technical College in Dapchi, Yobe State. While others kidnapped with her had been released after the Federal Government negotiated with the sect, Leah is still in captivity for refusing to denounce her Christian faith.
On February 19, 2019, she clocked one year in the sect’s custody.
Ruth said she left Leah at the cell in October and that she was the prophetess in the camp, praying for others and healing through her prayers. Ruth claimed that when she had a troubled stomach, Leah placed her hands on her stomach and prayed for her and the pain was no more.
She never planned to be a mother as a young girl, but she was forced into matrimony with a Boko Haram fighter in an improvised ceremony in the forest. She was thereafter impregnated by the strange husband.
Now a mother of one and now preferring to be addressed with her new name, Ruth had come face-to-face with horror and later survived after 90 days of wandering in the dark forest of death, feeding on leaves and water from forest streams as she sought liberty after she escaped from the Boko Haram cell.
It was a voyage that consumed eight other young mothers and eight infants who started the journey with her in 2018 during a night in October. The corpses were never buried and probably, the flesh had been feasted upon by wild creatures and birds that roam and prowl the forest.
According to Ruth, she survived the ordeal with her son before being helped by soldiers who found them at the foot of a rocky mountain somewhere in Gombe State. To her, it was a nightmare she hopes will one day end.
She said, “I lost my parents long before I was abducted and the throat of my only sibling and half sister, Ngozi, was slit by the insurgents during a raid on Mubi while her two children were taken to the forest. She was an expectant mother when she was brutally murdered as a result of her refusal to dump her Christian faith.
“After crossing three bridges blown up by the insurgents in the height of their attacks on towns and villages flanking the road leading to Borno State from Adamawa State, I was found in Shuwa, a town located between Michika and Madagali, about 60 kilometres off Sambisa Forest where I was once held as Boko Haram bride,” Ruth muffled tears as she spoke while recalling the day fate redirected her path with the fall of Mubi town in Adamawa State.
The ruthless story of Ruth
On the day Ruth was to narrate her story, an early morning bomb blast rocked a neighbouring community in Shuwa. Two young girls strapped with explosive devices had stormed the town on a Sunday morning, apparently coming in through another part of the forest into the town while the results of the governorship and House of Assembly elections held a day earlier were being awaited. It was a familiar threat to life and one she had seen before.
Her fears returned and the meeting was promptly cancelled. Relatives said after the blast, Ruth packed a few of her clothes and wanted to run away but they prevailed on her to stay and not to entertain any fear because her former abductors were not coming for her. But another scar was inflicted on her family because another relative sustained injuries in the blast.
The target of the young female bombers was the St Pious’ Catholic Church, Shuwa, where worshippers had gathered for the morning mass. It is a parish under the Diocese of Maiduguri but located at the border of Borno State with Adamawa State. Luckily for the worshippers, the bombs went off a few metres from the church gate, leaving body parts at the scene.
One of fatally injured suicide bombers was later arrested at the scene of the blast by security agents. Members said the church has over 10,000 worshippers who attend mass every Sunday.
After assuring her of identity protection, Ruth began her story. “I was born in Shuwa town and I attended Demonstration Primary School, Shuwa, and Government Secondary School, Shuwa. Because of financial problem, I dropped out in SS2. I began to sell second-hand clothes at Mubi market.
“On the day Boko Haram invaded Mubi town, some boys came from Madagali and told us that Boko Haram had taken over the town and trading did not hold. Before then, Boko Haram was coming and going but Madagali had not fallen to their hands. The boys told us to flee but unknown to us, Boko Haram had been in Mubi.
“We saw three helicopters dropping bombs on the Boko Haram fighters; so, we fled to the mountains but many of us were captured. I and seven others were heading to Cameroon border to escape the insurgents when we were captured. I was 20 years old then. They brought us together with others that were also captured. There was a Christian girl with us. They told her to remove her skirt because it was too short but she refused. She was then shot dead. A pastor said she was willing to convert and they made him repeat some Quran verses after them. They asked him to go into the town and meet any Islamic cleric to complete the conversion.
“By then, the military barracks had fallen into the hands of the insurgents; so, we were taken there for shelter. We spent three days at the barracks. From Mubi, we were driven in trucks to Sambisa Forest but some of the vehicles broke down seven times during the journey. When we got to Gwazza (a community after Madagali town), we were mixed with the Chibok girls.”
Ruth explained that the insurgents moved with the Chibok girls wherever they went to at the time because the girls were considered prized assets in their negotiations with the Nigerian government.
She added, “In the forest where we were camped, we were told that Christians are our enemies and that Muslims are our brothers and sisters with Abubakar Shekau (leader of Boko Haran sect) our supreme father. We were converted to Islam and taken through Quranic teaching and Islamic doctrine twice a week.”
Asked to describe where she was kept with others in the forest, Ruth said it was a building taken over by the sect.
“It was like a resort taken over by Boko Haram. The place, according to what I learnt, was where Nigerian government kept arms before it was taken,” she said.
After three years in captivity, Ruth said she and other female captives’ clothes were worn out by years of constant use without a replacement. Out of the necessity to cover up their bodies, they resorted to using sacks used in bagging rice as clothes.
She said feeding in the camp was first a mixture of cucumber and a few fruits, adding that after three years, they were given rice and cucumber with salt and ground pepper.
Marriage and elusive Shekau
One day, Ruth said she noticed blood on the cucumber brought for them to eat and she refused to eat it. Eight others also refused to eat the bloodied vegetable fruit. These were the ones that eventually summoned the courage to escape from the camp later on.
She said, “There was water in the house; so, we took our bath regularly. We had a leader called Amir who communicated with us regularly. We never saw Shekau anywhere on the premises. We were told that Shekau was in Saudi Arabia.
“Whenever the soldiers were going to war, they would ask us to go for Quranic citation and pray for their victory at war. Each time they returned, they would tell us that some of them had died and that they were with Allah in heaven. One day after five years in captivity, I told some of the girls that I would take my chance and escape. By then, I had given birth to a boy fathered by one of the Boko Haram soldiers.”
Ruth said the father of her child told her he liked her the day she was captured in Mubi.
She continued, “One day, I was told that I would be betrothed to the man but I refused. I was told that my objection was needless because once a decision had been taken by the camp authorities, we had no option but to abide by it. Seven of us were taken away from where we were kept and married off to the soldiers in a ceremony. I was married to the man who said he liked me. His name is Ahmadu.”
Ruth explained that although the Boko Haram fighters were brutal at war, they were disciplined people who wouldn’t take advantage of girls in captivity.
She said, “They did not rape us. It is a sin for them to even behold the beauty of a girl that is not their wife. Anyone found guilty of raping would be killed. I did not live with the man they married me to. The practice was that the men would only come and visit us and they would go back. When I was pregnant, only God saw me through. When I was to be delivered of the baby, I used a piece of rusty corrugated iron sheet to cut the umbilical cord. There was no midwife. I gave birth to a boy named Adamu Mohammed in the cell and in the presence of others. I felt pain in my stomach but I used hot water to cure it. My aunt took the boy from me about two weeks ago for proper care.”
According to Ruth, life in the forest camp is not all crude and brutish; somehow, a touch of modernity is introduced to solve life-threatening situations. While she was there, a doctor made routine visit to treat the sick among them. She also recounted witnessing the training of children in gun handling, preparing bombers for suicide missions while also disclosing a possible pact between Boko Haram and foreign insurgents.
She stated, “There was a doctor among them. They brought him in when someone is seriously sick. He would inject us without removing the sack clothes because it was not their culture to see women’s body.
“There is a factory in the compound too where they repair guns. Boko Haram members are not just black people. I saw white-skinned people among them. Children born by women in captivity were trained to handle gun by the soldiers at the camp. As they grew up, they trained them with bigger ones. Some of the women also had training in gun handling. I attended the training once. There were girls who were given concoction to drink as part of preparation for suicide mission. I saw a young man with bombs tied to his body. We never saw him again.
“There was a day that three girls were brought into the camp. They were called infidels and bombs were strapped to their bodies. They were taken away and never brought back.”
Deaths in the forest after escape
Like a well crafted prison break, Ruth and eight other girls, who had been forced into motherhood, agreed to escape from the camp when the opportunity came. By the time the escape plan was ripe, Ruth’s son was three years old while the eight others were breastfeeding their babies. According to Ruth, three Chibok girls were among them.
She added, “Two girls kidnapped from Niger Republic also joined me in the plot. Nine of us set to flee the camp on the night we decided to go. There were more than 100 Boko Haram members guarding the house where we were kept. We sneaked out of the house and jumped over the fence into the bush and headed for the forest. It was easy for us to leave because there were many vehicles in the compound so we used them as cover and the night shielded us.
“When we escaped, we walked through the forest for three months and in most of the days, there was no food. The babies began to die one after the other. By the time we had walked for two months, the weak mothers also began to die in the bush one after the other. Two months into the journey, six of the girls had died. In fact, four died in one day. I was left with my son and a girl whose baby had also died.
“We ate leaves and water from streams and rivers. We did not come across anyone all through the journey. At nights, we would hear the roar of wild animals but we were not attacked.”
From her account, the escape was made early in October 2018 while the journey ended in January 2019. After being picked up by military men in a bush in Gombe State, they were taken to military camp where the other girl also died.
Ruth added, “We came out of the bush and we were on a highway when the soldiers, at a checkpoint, saw us. They were attracted by our sack clothes and we told them that we escaped from Boko Haram camp in the Sambisa Forest. We were taken to the barracks where we stayed for three days. We were taken to hospital where I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and stomach pain. I was given clothes and money to buy more.”
Ruth said she left the barracks to buy clothes for herself and her son but just outside the barracks gate, she found a relative who works with Federal Road Safety Corps. He told Ruth that the story that they heard was that she had died in one of the Mubi explosions and that a funeral prayer was held in her honour.
“He took me to his wife and gave me his mobile. As soon as I got to the barracks, I informed the soldiers that I had met my relatives. They took me to my house in Shuwa. My aunt welcomed me back home. I was happy and felt a new life. But every time there is a threat by the insurgents, the fear returns.”
Encounter with Leah Sharibu
According to Ruth, Leah Sharibu and a few others were brought into the camp after they were abducted at Dapchi town. After being shown the picture of the girl, Ruth identified her as Leah. From the transistor radio of the guards at the camp, Ruth said they heard in the news that the sect demanded a ransom to release the girls. She was unsure of the number of girls kidnapped as captives were kept in different cells.
She stated, “I recognise the picture, it is Leah. She refused to convert to Islam in the camp. There is a small wall separating us; so, we interacted well but when a ‘soldier’ was approaching, our interaction would be disrupted. She told us to continue praying and she led us in prayers. She told us that she and others were kidnapped from Dapchi in Yobe State.
“Since she refused to convert, the soldiers told us that she was an infidel and that she should not be allowed to cook for us. Leah never attended the Islamic lesson. I am sure she is alive because I left her there. Leah is a strong believer in her faith with strong character also. Whenever any of us was ill, she would pray for us and we would be alright.
“After I had the unpleasant child delivery, I was always having stomach pain. One day, Leah told me to have the belief that God could heal me. She laid her hand on my stomach and prayed for me. She was like a prophetess in captivity. She prays and heals people. She kept preaching and telling us that there is a supreme God that watches over us. Every day, we heard her pray.”
Asked if Leah was maltreated by the insurgents in the cell or married to a Boko Haram fighter, Ruth said the fighters wouldn’t beat or maltreat captives, noting that some of the Dapchi girls were exchanged for Boko Haram fighters. She also said Leah was not married to a fighter.
We rehabilitate returnees –District head
The District head of Duhu town, Mustapha Sanusi, who is referred to as Jarma Mubi, said those lucky to return from the claws of Boko Haram went through rehabilitatio to reintegrate them into society.
Jarma Mubi, whose domain falls under the Mubi Emirate Council, said Ruth was still in the process of reintegration but still idle, adding that the community was still trying to restore her to normal life by providing financial assistance for her to start a trade.
According to him, a Non-Governmental Organisation has also volunteered to help the returnee.
He said, “We have a tradition under the Kabara Committee for all Sambisa Forest returnees, especially girls and repentant Boko Haram members. We reintegrate them into their communities so that they can lead a normal life. There are girls and women under the scheme. We have some women and men who had lived with the Boko Haram fighters for a long time and they had been brought into the insurgents’ practice.
“We made them swear to an oath with the Quran, Bible or traditional means that they will not participate in any act of insurgency. Some repentant members were given punishment to sweep the town. The society has forgiven them and they are now part of us. To substantiate their loyalty, the Kabara committee is monitoring them. I am the chairman of the committee. Religious and opinion leaders are members. There are six village heads under me. We meet thrice a week. We also have Decision Impact Analysis Committee which reviews decisions taken.
“I have a sister abducted by Boko Haram and we have not seen her till date. When Ruth returned, I interrogated her. From her story, she had seen my sister at the camp and she described her well. She said my sister refused to convert but was later forced to do it. She now has a child there and pregnant with another, according to Ruth. She left her there. She also mentioned and described others in the camp. That was why I believed her story.
“I know her mother, she died before the insurgency. Her daughter, Ngozi, who was a Christian, married my younger brother who is a Muslim without any religious controversy. The family is peaceful. The father is also dead.
“There are 40 returnees on what we call wallet, a monthly stipend paid to assist returnees courtesy of NGOs who also monitor their progress.”
Sambisa not just a forest
Mubi explained that Sambisa was not an evil forest inhabited only by Boko Haram as widely believed. According to him, it is a large expanse of land with traditional dwellers living in various communities in it.
“What baffles us now is that some of the returnees are drug addicts, even the women. Sambisa Forest is a big drug market even before the insurgency. In 1974, there was the problem of river blindness caused by tsetse flies along Gwazza and up to Madagali,” the district head stated.
He noted that the government and Emir of Gwazza then decided that the Gamargu tribes should be encouraged to inhabit Sambisa Forest so that they could clear the land and farm there.
Mubi said, “By doing so, tsetse flies would be conquered. This was done without a police station in the community or any form of leadership.
“Sambisa is not just a forest; there are about 200 communities there. Boko Haram took advantage of that and colonised the people, forcing them to embrace its practice. It is difficult for government to penetrate the forest and clear the place because thousands of innocent citizens will be killed.
“From Yola, there are a few houses that have Boko Haram members living in them. As you move northward towards Maiduguri, up to Kauri, there are about 85 per cent of houses giving shelter to Boko Haram members. Sixty per cent of the insurgents are not in Sambisa; they live in Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, Imo, Umahia, Owerri, Badagry up to Benin Republic, Ibadan and places where you find people selling cows.
Sambisa starts from Kirchinga and Shuare which is about 12 kilometres from here (Shuwa). We live within Sambisa.”
Leah makes me proud –Father
Leah’s father, Nathan Sharibu, said he hadn’t heard from her daughter after her kidnap except when she pleaded with the Federal Government to secure her release from the Boko Haram.
He stated that after the plea, President Muhammadu Buhari called his wife and assured her that his administration would do its best to ensure Leah’s release.
Nathan stated, “He also sent three ministers, led by the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, to my house in Dapchi to encourage my family not to lose hope about my daughter’s release.”
He noted that Ruth’s claim that she saw Leah at the camp brought joy to them, noting that it was indicative that the Federal Government was working to secure her release.
He said, “For the past three weeks, my wife has suffered from low blood pressure because of the situation of our daughter. It is unfortunate that such a young girl is subjected this kind of hardship and trauma.
“I work in Yola but the family lives in Dapchi. We worship at ECWA Church and Leah was a member of the church choir and active in all church activities. I have no doubt about her belief and her faith. It is encouraging news that she is still strong despite the trauma.
“I will advise her to keep the faith. The world is temporary, heaven is home. Everyone die one day. In heaven, there is joy for those who have faith in God. I want her to be strong. I am also pleading with the government to save my daughter the way other girls were saved. Leah has made me proud. I have two children. Leah’s brother is Donald and he is equally sad about her sister’s continued incarceration.”