After about five years in the hands of Boko Haram insurgents in Borno State, Northeast Nigeria, Ummi Ali thought she could save the life of her only surviving younger brother in a daring escape she had carefully planned. Unfortunately, she later watched him strapped with a suicide vest by their captors, an incident that dampened the enthusiasm for what could have been a more triumphant escape.
Their botched escape
After sneaking out of a Boko Haram camp at night, Ummi and her brother had sighted Bama from afar. Freedom at last! But then they ran out of luck.
They ran into a number of Boko Haram gunmen as they approached the outskirts of Bama, their ancestral home. At that point, her younger sibling was too weak to flee.
Hiding behind a thick shrub, Ummi watched the men strap her beloved brother with a suicide vest as they primed him for an attack.
“That was the last I saw of my only surviving brother, as the men dragged him away saying he should not worry, that Allah will place him in paradise where he will meet me,” she said.
Ummi, who is most likely in her mid-teens, took to her heels when one of the commanders ordered some of the men to search for her.
“I had to continue the escape journey alone,” she said. “How I wish I could help my brother. I knew he was going to die because that was how many children were dressed in suicide vests and told to go and attack some communities. So, I had to run as fast as I could until I arrived in Bama town.”
Ummi has been in Bama for about a month now, but she is not a happy girl. Her sorrow increased when she arrived home to be told that her mother, a widow, died a few months after they were abducted in 2018.
Sadly, Ummi met her family home in rubbles and all members were untraceable. There was no one to welcome her except neighbours who recognised her.
Five years ago, Ummi and her siblings were abducted by Boko Haram while they were in the bush helping their parents fetch firewood in Bama’s outskirts.
“We were five in number and two of my siblings were my seniors,” she said.
“They came with guns and ordered us to follow them, and they took us to a very distant location where there were many people, including women and children. From time to time they come to select boys who are old enough to go for Jihad. But many of them, including my brothers, never returned to the camp or we never saw them again.”
Ummi, who spoke through an interpreter because she can only communicate in Kanuri, said they did several chores for Boko Haram and their wives while in the terrorist camp.
“Girls who are grown, or those whom their women had inspected their breasts and considered to be big enough, are given out in marriage to the Boko Haram men.
“I became afraid when I heard one of the women telling her Boko Haram husband that I would soon be ready to be married off. It was then that I decided to escape. I called my younger brother and informed him that we had to run for our lives,” she said in tears.
An orphan’s trauma
Ummi’s hope of meeting her dear mother someday kept her strong and alive while in captivity.
“I thought I would reach home to be received by our mother,” she said. “That was why I took my younger brother with me during the escape. He too was excited that we were going home to meet our mother. How I wish he were alive and with me now.
“When I got to Bama, some security people asked me some questions and I told them where our home used to be. But when we got there, I could not see anyone at home. It was deserted. So, I was taken to the camp and a woman who used to be our neighbour recognised me and rushed to embrace me. She was the one who informed me that my mother died due to illness caused by the news of our abduction.”
Zarah Mohammed, a young girl whose story of multiple abductions by Boko Haram and her daring escapes was serially reported by HumAngle, confirmed Ummi’s story.
Zarah, who currently runs voluntary lesson classes for children of poor IDPs in Bama, said she came in contact with Ummi when she [Ummi] decided to join the evening classes.
“We enrolled her into the class with other children, even though she is a bit older than others,” Zarah said.
“But we noticed that she used to have frequent mood swings – she would sometimes withdraw and begin to shed tears. Each time we tried to console her, she would say she was missing her siblings and her mother.
“She said she wanted to go to school and become a soldier so that she could fight and kill Boko Haram.”
Ummi seemed to be struggling with depression. “She needs medical care to help her regain her sanity. I feel sad for her because she is not only an orphan but one who has no relatives of her own. She is not sure if her brothers, who were forced to join the Boko Haram soldiers, are still alive or not.”
Ummi exemplifies one in hundreds of children who have lost contact with their parents and siblings due to attacks, abductions or displacement caused by Boko Haram.
This report was produced in partnership with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) under the Missing Persons Register’s Population and Amplification Project.
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