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Knifar: Women Facing Forced Family Separation By Soldiers Cry Out

Thousands of women in Borno have had to raise their children alone because their husbands, arbitrarily accused of being members of Boko Haram, are jailed by the Nigerian Army. But they are not planning to give up hope.

Hauwa has not heard from her husband in many years. In 2015, her town, Bama, Borno State, was overrun by Boko Haram jihadist insurgents. Shortly afterwards, the Nigerian Army swooped on the town to retake it. Under the ensuing panic and confusion, she fled with some members of her family. They settled in Godiya for seven months by which time they envisaged it was safe to return to Bama.

At Nguro Soye, on the road to Bama, they were stopped by soldiers. They must stay a distance away, came the first instruction from the soldiers. Next thing, their belongings were literally searched with a fine-tooth comb for suspicious items. They separated the men from the women. The men were then blindfolded and taken to a prison facility in Bama. Other accounts have it that the officers beat them up before they were whisked away.

For four days, the locals were interrogated about their whereabouts, and why it took them so long to return, Hauwa recalled. They explained that they feared for their lives and only went back after hearing on the radio that the area had become occupied by state forces.

“They said the men would be taken to government camps where they would be taken care of. We, the women, were taken to Bama Hospital camp,” she said solemnly. 

“ㅡIt’s been five years now.”

An encounter with death

While the men were moved from one military detention centre to the other, their wives, mothers, and daughters battled starvation, sickness, and hardship. At Bama, the women were first kept in desolate, abandoned houses. They were later transferred to the community’s hospital, ostensibly to protect them from possible terrorist attacks. 

“They ordered us to renovate where we would sleep using the remains of burnt and abandoned houses,” Hauwa said. 

“We were given food in cups until they created a kitchen for us. The food was terrible, but we had no choice. Approximately 20 people died every day. Luckily for us, elites from Bama had the roads reopened. They came and saw our living condition. That was when they insisted we be moved to Yerwa, Maiduguri, due to hunger.”

Officials of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) took a headcount of the women and moved them to Yerwa. Here, for the first time, the sick among them were given access to healthcare. The group had found that nearly 20 per cent of the children suffered from severe malnutrition. About 78 of them who were on the verge of death were moved to a therapeutic feeding centre in Maiduguri.

Like Hauwa, Yakura Hajja Babagana fled from her home in Andara, a community in Borno State, in 2016. Following the invasion of her town by members of Boko Haram, she fled in the middle of the night with her family to Banki. Soldiers who met them in their distress demanded that they pay to be ferried in a military truck to an IDP camp. She said the soldiers later collected most of their valuables and in return gave them some garri and sorghum.

“We had to go and fetch firewood to make fire to cook. At night, they gave directives on where we must sleep. That we must not make any noise or use flashlights. Then they would lock us inside the room,” Yakura recalled.

“The next morning, they unlocked the doors so we could fetch water. We then asked about our men who were separated from us. They told us they were making preparations to take them to Maiduguri camp.”

Soon, a car arrived and picked up only the men with the assurance that they were headed for an IDP camp in Maiduguri. Four days later, the women were taken to Darajimal in Bama Local Government Area. The next morning, the military personnel transferred them to the general hospital in the town instead of the IDP camp as promised. They spent seven months at this location without their husbands and sons and with no signs they would soon be taken to the state capital.

A few weeks into their stay, the living conditions increasingly became worse. More people were brought to the shelter as each day passed until there was hardly any space left.

“We had no place to sleep, so we lived under trees. At times when it rained, we would be soaked, and we would wait for our clothes to dry on their own,” Yakura said. “Feeding was another struggle. Each family was given one ladle no matter its size. Garri was left for so long; worms started to appear on it.”

She added that the soldiers responded by spraying a local insecticide, Ota Piapia, on the sacks of garri, hoping to kill the worms but this only made it more unfit for consumption. The women started getting sick, mostly from diarrhoea. Many died, children and the elderly alike. Yakura herself lost some of her family members to the food poisoning incident and starvation.

“If my husband is eventually released, he has no one apart from us. His side of the family are all dead,” she said, immediately pausing as if to pay respect to the deceased.

She gave the names of some of those who died known to her: Abba Alhaji, her in-law; his wife; Falta Yawaye, his son; Kellus, his daughter; Yagana Ajiyes, a second daughter; Yankili; a third daughter; and Falta Guj. In all, she said, she knows at least 17 people who lost their lives during the period.

Falta Jiddaye, wife of Modu Fannaye, whom she has been married to for over two years, also lost her daughter, one of two children, to the incident at Bama. She sobbed as she narrated her ordeal.

She was in Bama with her mother-in-law, co-wife, children, and other relatives. The only ones who survived were some of the latter relatives, her second child, and a foster child ㅡ thanks to a timely intervention by the MSF which took them to a health facility in Maiduguri.

Amnesty International noted in 2018 that people who died at Bama Hospital camp between October 2015 and June 2016 numbered at least 879 based on witness reports. And the list has continued to grow. 

Based on interviews with 212 female IDPs and former detainees, the organisation reported that thousands of displaced persons “died from starvation and sickness in appalling conditions” across satellite camps established by the Army, including the one at Bama Hospital. 

The IDPs consistently reported up to 15 to 30 deaths a day at the hospital camp alone, it said, adding that its findings indicate that “the actions and/or inaction of the authorities, particularly the military, contributed to these deaths”.

This account is corroborated by a press statement released by the MSF following its visit to the camp in June 2016. The medical team reported counting 1,233 graves dug near the camp in the past, among which 480 were for children.

“New graves are appearing on a daily basis,” the group stated. “We were told on certain days more than 30 people were dying due to hunger and illness.” 

Of missing husbands 

All three women ㅡ Hauwa, Yakura, and Falta ㅡ are members of an association based in Borno called Knifar. Formed in 2017, it serves as both a support group for women whose husbands are victims of forced disappearance and a pressure group to secure the men’s release. The group is part of the Jire Dole network of the families of missing persons and is hosted by the Alamin Foundation for Peace and Development (AFPD).

Though they are more popularly known as Knifar, members say they prefer the name, Kinasar, which locally means ‘success’. This, they explained, is borne out of their determination to be successful in their advocacy.

They have shared their ordeal and prayers with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Assembly, and the International Criminal Court through its prosecutor. They also testified before a presidential investigative panel which, though set up in August 2017, has yet to publish its findings.

Since their displacement in 2016, Yakura has not set eyes on her spouse, Baana Wachalle, 50, who is believed to be still held at the Maximum Security Prison in Maiduguri. He was detained alongside two of his brothers. Yakura said they have been able to confirm the current whereabouts of the older brother. 

Before his incarceration, Wachalle traded in animal skin and clothing materials and used the proceeds to cater for his two wives and six children. That responsibility has now fallen on Yakura in the most inconvenient of circumstances. There are ten children under her care, including hers and those of her family members.

“We are calling on the government to be just and reunite us all,” she appealed desperately.

There are many like Yakura who have had to assume the roles of caregivers for children other than theirs as a result of arbitrary detentions and unavoidable deaths. Another woman with similar experience told HumAngle that though she has only one child of her own, she cares directly for a total of 10, including five from her uncle, three from her father, and one from her aunt. To do this, she relies on her monthly food tickets and profit from her cap-knitting business.

“The government does not provide anything for them. I use the proceeds from my cap sales to feed the children, my father, and other family members,” she stressed.

None of the about a dozen members of Knifar who spoke to HumAngle had received official information from the military about the conditions of their husbands. They only get to know that they are still alive from the accounts of former detainees in the same facilities. 

Meanwhile, international humanitarian laws have provisions specifically intended to prevent such gaps in communication. Article 5 of the Second Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions states that detained persons shall be allowed to send and receive letters and cards and “their physical and mental health and integrity shall not be endangered by any unjustified act or omission”.

Last November, the army cleared 978 men and five women of affiliations with Boko Haram and finally released them from detention centres in Maiduguri, including the Giwa military barracks. In March, an additional 223 children were released from the maximum-security prison in Borno. But thousands are still held in these facilities.

The leadership of Knifar says it is aware of about 3,000 women whose husbands remain in detention but estimates that the actual number of men killed, held in prisons, or generally unaccounted for across the Lake Chad countries due to the insurgency could be up to 100,000.

Human rights advocate and lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, emphasised that arbitrary arrests and detention by state institutions run contrary to the country’s constitution, which stipulates under section 35 that nobody should be detained beyond 24 hours. In exceptional circumstances, such as when a person is probed under the Terrorism Prevention Act, a court order has to be given authorising such steps.

“This has to stop because at the end of the day, it is either we are a country that is governed by laws or we run the country as a Banana Republic,” Effiong said on the phone. Still quoting section 35, he added that victims of unlawfully prolonged detention are entitled to both compensation and a public apology from the authorities involved. 

Attempts to get reactions from the Nigerian Army on the allegations were futile. Director of Nigerian Army Public Relations, Col. Sagir Musa, asked to be called back when HumAngle reached out to him on Thursday, September 17. He, however, did not answer calls since placed to his number on separate days. He also did not reply to texts sent within the period.

A group of younger Knifar women at Gubio IDP camp, Maiduguri
A group of younger Knifar women at Gubio IDP camp, Maiduguri

Bailing terrorists; jailing civilians

In July, over 600 “former members of Boko Haram” were released by the Nigerian government after participating in a controversial defectors’ programme known as Operation Safe Corridor (OSC). The programme, which was launched in 2016, aims at deradicalising, rehabilitating, and reintegrating repentant insurgents. About 1,400 former Boko Haram fighters had previously been released, according to OSC’s spokesperson, Bamidele Shafa.

Major-General John Enenche, the spokesperson of the Defence Headquarters, recently described the beneficiaries as “low risk and not low-risk repentants, who were ascertained to be innocent and forcefully conscripted to join the sects and are categorised as victims.”

Borno State’s Commissioner for Information, Babakura Jato, said in February that some of those released were later confirmed not to be terrorists after initial suspicion, some were children of terrorists, and others were actual Boko Haram members. The state government has promised to provide the released people with psychosocial support as well as “starter packs to help them practice the skills that had been acquired in the camp.”

That confirmed members of Boko Haram are not only receiving vocational and psychological support from the government. Still, they are released back into society is a development that is tough to come to terms with for many members of Knifar.

“We are all baffled by how things have turned out. Those who were found guilty with guns have been arrested and released, while our men have been held for about five years till date,” lamented Zara. Her husband, she said, has “never attended any sermon of Boko Haram” but is today treated like a terrorist.

At a stakeholders’ dialogue held in 2016 by the Centre for Democracy and Development, participants had advised that the OSC programme should not be implemented at the detriment of victims of the conflict and without first addressing local grievances. The continued detention of innocent civilians is, however, stoking those same grievances that should have been resolved.

‘Our husbands are not terrorists’

The women insist their husbands had nothing to do with the terrorist group that has ravaged the region since 2009. They said as soon as they returned to Bama in 2015, the soldiers and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force wrongfully, and without evidence, accused their men of being Boko Haram members 

“They were told to accept that they were Boko Haram members and would only spend four to five months in detention. When they refused, they said, ‘As you were the first to come to this prison, you will be the last to leave’,” one member of Knifar said.

“The men said they were not going to admit to something they did not do. We do not know why they want us to lie before we can live in peace. Soldiers have betrayed us, and they continue to betray us.”

Another member, Bintu Lawan, said she had never seen her husband pick a fight with another person though they had been married for ten years. Thirty-five-year-old Lawan Fadariye was a farmer, she said, and he had a cattle cart which he used mostly for transporting sand and gravel.

Like others, Lawan has spent about five years at the Maximum Security Prison without evidence that he was complicit in the activities of Boko Haram.

Khar Bulama narrated an incident before the detention of her husband, Bula Gorima. She had gone to give water to their children working at the farmland but was accosted by Boko Haram members who flogged her for not wearing the hijab (a head covering worn by Muslim women especially in public).

“I came back and told my husband, and we went there to confront them,” she said, but Bula ended up getting beaten as well. “That was why we ran away because he was severely injured. His wounds had not even healed when he was taken to the maximum-security prison.” 

She wonders how such a person could be accused of fighting on the side of the insurgents. All she demands now are answers from the government, especially on when it plans to release her beloved spouse.

Former inmates have told Bintu and Khar that their husbands were well and doing fine, but past reports suggest this to be highly unlikely. Amnesty International reported in 2016 that, by the second quarter of that year, 149 detainees at the Giwa barracks had died as a result of starvation, dehydration, and disease mostly caused by overcrowding. 

“In all cells, detainees were subjected to conditions which amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Witnesses describe cells too crowded to lie down properly and that they were provided with insufficient amounts of food and water, particularly in the men’s cells,” the organisation stated.

“Cells were infrequently cleaned, and detainees were rarely allowed to wash. In these conditions, many detainees fell ill. Access to medical assistance was scant. According to a witness’ testimony, the majority of detainees were men and conditions were worse in their cells.”

These treatments violate Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, which provides that, for people who are under detention, the wounded and sick shall be treated, they shall be allowed to receive individual and collective relief, and shall likewise “be provided with food and drinking water and be afforded safeguards as regards health and hygiene”.

Asked if she would like to speak to her husband on the phone, Khar could not be more emphatic. “Of course,” she replied. “This is what I’ve been expecting at least.”

Yakura Kumshe, Fatima Bukar, with other members of Knifar
Yakura Kumshe, Fatima Bukar, with other members of Knifar

Life without a husband, father

Having to raise their children alone has not only opened up members of Knifar to contempt from the public, but they are also always faced with thorny questions from the young ones who miss their fathers.

“Every day, my five-year-old boy comes to ask me where his father is,” Yakura told HumAngle.

Her son often wonders why his father does not come to visit him like those of other children. Yakura spoke of a boy in the community who has been told his father travelled, even though he is known to be missing, to keep him from worry.

“What will I tell people if I am asked,” Yakura’s son once asked her. So she suggested that he should say his father went to the market.

“But that can’t be true,” the young boy replied. “There is no way baba went to the market, and I have not seen him in years.”

In many communities in the Northeast, single mothers, like divorcees, are often discriminated against. They are exposed to significantly higher levels of abuse, scorn, and exploitation compared to IDPs who live with their husbands.

Yakura also explained that women in her shoes did not have total custody over their children. Relatives from the husband’s side of the family have often seized their children, especially boys, for selfish interests such as the need for domestic servants or manual labour.  

Amnesty International (AI) observed in 2018 that the detention of their husbands not only harmed the women psychologically but also “left them struggling to care for their families alone, and at greater risk of violence, rape and sexual exploitation”. In an earlier report, HumAngle drew attention to how young female IDPs were raped by camp and security officials as a condition for receiving food supplies and financial assistance.

According to AI, the biggest hope of the vast majority of women it interviewed was that their husbands or other male family members would be set free by the military. “The pain of not knowing what has happened to our husbands, sons, uncles, and cousins is immense,” the Knifar Movement wrote to the NHRC in September 2018.

“We are struggling as female-headed households without men to provide for us or protect us, and not knowing what our future will bring. If you could change one thing for us, we beg you to ensure our husbands are released.”

Reporting by Ahmad Salkida

This investigative report is a partnership between the African Transitional Justice Legacy Fund and HumAngle Media under the ‘Mediating Transitional Justice Efforts in North-East’ project.

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Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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