She was standing by a stove outside her captor’s tent, holding a bowl from which she was supposed to fry well-spiced innards that had been extracted from an animal slaughtered earlier in the day. As she attempted to transfer some into the hot oil, she saw that what she had scooped was not, in fact, a spoonful of innards. She put it back in the bowl and began to look more carefully at it and realised it was one long human umbilical cord. She started to scream.
Then, she woke up. She sat there, quiet and terrified, for quite a while and then gathered herself enough to say a few prayers before going back to bed. She had another nightmare. This time, a baby was being lowered upside down into a deep well of water. Then, she woke up again.
Later that day, Na’empere Daniel went up to the mountains, where there was cellular reception and made a call to her pastor using a phone she had been hiding for over a year. Shaking, in despair, and crying, she narrated the dreams to him. He was quiet for a while. Why would a 16-year-old have such disturbing dreams about something as random as an umbilical cord and a baby, he was likely thinking. Then, as the answer dawned on him, he asked, “Na’empere, are you pregnant?”
She went quiet.
“Tell me the truth,” he said. “I know you are afraid I might tell your parents. But I promise you, I won’t,” she remembers him assuring her. She remained quiet.
“Are you pregnant?” he asked again.
“Yes, sir,” she whispered and once again began to cry. It was one thing to have been abducted from your school by terrorists. It was another to be forcefully married off to one of them and raped until a child began to grow inside you.
He urged her not to cry and then gave her some psalms to recite whenever she felt troubled or woke up from another nightmare. Na’empere begged the pastor once again not to tell her parents. The news had already spread that she and the other girls who had been abducted had been married off, and each time her father asked her over the phone, she brushed off the subject because she did not think he would have the heart to take the truth. She also assumed he would blame her for it.
When she snuck out again a few days later to call her father, she knew from his ‘hello’ that the pastor had told him.
“My father is very discerning, and I inherited this trait from him,” she told me one August afternoon in Yauri, North West Nigeria. “So I knew immediately that he knew. Still, I feigned ignorance and asked him why he sounded disturbed.”
He told her there was something serious he wished to discuss with her, but he was out then and would call her when he got back home.
She spent the rest of the afternoon on those mountains, dreading his call back and contemplating the series of events that brought her to that point. The first of those events happened on June 17, 2021, when terrorists invaded the Federal Government College (FGC), Birnin Yauri, and abducted her and over 100 others. Though the majority of them had either escaped or been released after ransoms were paid, 11 of them remained in captivity two years later, forgotten.
It was exam season, and that Thursday, students had just finished writing a paper when they started to hear gunshots from outside. Many ran in different directions. There had been disturbing events prior to that abduction, including another mass abduction of schoolchildren from an Islamic school in neighbouring Niger State, where Na’empere herself is originally from. There had also been letters delivered to the school, warning of the abduction. Though the school dismissed the letters, they took precautionary measures, such as stationing police officers around the premises. The initial gunshots the students heard were of the terrorists engaging those police officers. They killed one officer and overpowered the rest.
When they finally broke into the school premises, they gathered all students and teachers in the compound and had them on their knees, raising their hands up. Once they established they had everyone in the same place, they began the heavily coordinated task of marching them off to the gate and putting them in a large truck and on several motorcycles.
They were driven through the Makuku forest area in Kebbi State.
Na’empere kept crying even as a man wielding a gun told her to shut up. It was unclear at the time where they were being taken, but she gathered from the conversations the attackers were having that they were headed somewhere around Zamfara. They were being led by the notorious terrorist Dogo Gide, who operates mainly in northwestern and north-central Nigeria and has masterminded several similar abductions and gruesome killings. In August last year, his men notoriously shot down a jet belonging to the Nigerian Air Force.
Once the terrorists and their captives were a good distance away from the main town and presumably got a good head start on the military, Dogo stopped the movement and did something strange. He addressed the captives, particularly the girls.
“He told us that if any of his men tried to make sexual advances at us, we should report to him. He said if we did not report to him and he had to find out for himself, he would kill us.”
Then, they continued on their journey. This declaration, however, did not stop some of the men from attempting to grope the girls. Na’em remembers one of them trying to touch her friend inappropriately and how nauseating that had been to her.
At some point during the journey, it started to rain, making it difficult for the movement to proceed as fast as intended. In the thick of the rain, they started to hear the whirring of helicopters in the air. The Nigerian military, particularly troops of Operation Hadarin Daji, had been attempting a rescue and finally caught up with them. There was indiscriminate shooting: the military shooting at the terrorists, and the terrorists shooting back.
“There were bullets flying everywhere,” Na’em remembers, and somehow, the memory brings her laughter in the way that time does to tragedy.
The captives were immediately instructed to lie flat on the floor so that a bullet would not hit them. The shooting was so loud and close, Na’empere says, that none of them expected to survive. And yet, somehow, only one of the girls was shot in the leg. The commotion was useful in some way because it afforded some of the students – at least 11 of them – a chance to escape.
After a while, things quietened. But this gunfire exchange meant that the terrorists started to be more careful. They turned off their headlights, for example, so that they would not be easily found by the military. This made movement so much more difficult, especially as it was raining.
The captives were also being marched off without food or water, and if they dared to slow down due to fatigue and hunger, they were met with verbal abuse and threats of being whipped.
“We got so thirsty that we had to open our mouths into the air so that the rain would fall into it,” Na’em says.
As they continued to journey into the night, at around 2 a.m., a phone somehow materialised – it must have belonged to one of the attackers – and Na’em used it to call her mother to tell her what had happened. By then, news of the abduction had already spread, but it was that phone call that sealed it for her family.
Arrival at the camp
They arrived at the camp in batches at 3 a.m., 4 a.m., and even 6 a.m.
They had been a little over 100 in total, including teachers, but several escaped during the chaos of the shooting and the rain, leaving 89. There were 25 girls, the rest were boys.
Arrival at the camp was what made reality sink. They were confronted with clusters of small shelters made of mud, in the middle of a vast, obscure forest.
The captives later learned that the military had destroyed the main operational camps of the terrorists during a previous raid, leaving them with the mud houses. Na’empere remembers the intense level of lack that they faced during those first few days. Dogo did not have the amount of food needed to feed all 89 of them, and neither did he have the manpower to cook the available raw food. In the end, the task fell to the women captives. The girls, all teenagers, with some as young as 12, spent those days crying. On some occasions, they were whipped, especially when they were seen as being ‘defiant’. Another girl, Fa’izah, 14, narrated to HumAngle that she was beaten by her captor-husband whenever he tried to rape her and she attempted to resist.
Na’empere has a brilliant smile that takes up all the space on her face when she talks and a cheerful ring to her voice. It is never too far away, even when she is narrating a tragic experience, but as she narrates the activities of those first few days, a dark cloud falls over her face. It lingers for a long time.
There were girls who were menstruating at the time and had no access to sanitary materials. Their clothes were bloodied, and everyone saw it. The day after, Dogo’s men came with fabrics and paired two girls to one bundle. This was hardly enough, but it was a welcome help.
In the months that followed, more of the captives were released in several batches following the intervention of the government, and only Na’empere and 10 others remained. And then, it was as though the world had forgotten about them.
“The world believed that all the girls had been released,” Sarah Musa, a parent, tells me. “And I kept saying, if all the girls have been released, then where is my own daughter, Bilhah? Does that mean she is dead?”
Each time a batch was to be released, there would be so much excitement and apprehension within the girls, with each hoping they would be lucky enough to be among those to be released.
For the final 11 remaining schoolgirls, the anguish and anticipation was excruciating. With time, they were separated and distributed into huts far away from each other but still in the same vicinity, perhaps to disrupt any collaborative attempts to escape.
One day, Na’empere was taken into the compound of the man Dogo declared was her husband. It is a day she will never forget; it was the first time she was raped.
“That day, I cried so much, even before I met the man. He already had two other wives. The first wife brought me water and food, but I couldn’t even taste any of it. I just kept crying.”
Na’empere’s father calls back
“So this is what you did?” she remembers her father asking when he eventually called her back on the phone.
“He asked, how could I have agreed for them to marry me off and even put a baby in me? When I told him how hard we resisted, he asked why I did not choose death over it. I started crying. I told him it was not our fault, that we had tried to resist. I was trying to explain to him, but he was not listening. He said all sorts of things to me. He then asked me not to tell anyone, especially my mom.”
It was a reasonable request; Na’empere did not have any intentions of telling her mother. The woman would not be able to take it. If the pastor had not betrayed her trust and informed her father, she would not have told her father either.
His reaction was still heartbreaking and disconcerting to her. The reaction was part of the implications of purity culture, the culture that demands women and girls remain ‘chaste’, and any sexual violence done to them is their fault and not that of the assaulter. The question he posed her about why she did not choose to die is a reflection of how much higher many societies place the idea of ‘honour’ above human life, especially when that life is female.
Things soured between them during the next few days, so much so that during one heated phone call, Na’empere told her father that she would never return home, and she preferred to stay there in the camp since he was so ashamed of her.
“I told him that even if I regained freedom, I would not return to his house. I hung up. He called me back about five times, but I never answered. Then, my sister called, and I answered. She was crying so much.”
Na’empere told her that she understood her pain but that she wished for her and their father to understand that it was nothing compared to her own pain.
“Because I am the one facing it every night.”
Interestingly, as upset as Na’em was with her father, she understood his pain, she says.
“To have a child abducted, and to have her married off and raped until she conceived. It sounds somehow.”
Home at last
One morning, Na’empere received word that Dogo was looking for her. She had been trying to take a nap when her captor-husband woke her up and informed her. When she showed up in his hut, he told her she was to be released and asked her to pack her bags. The memory brought laughter to her voice.
“Because I was already packed,” she explains. “I was always packed in case an opportunity presented itself. I was so happy but also sad. Happy that I was going home, and sad that I was leaving the other girls behind.”
She was paired with one of the men and asked to hop on a motorcycle. They journeyed through several forest areas until they started to approach town. At a certain point, they came across a man who had been acting as the negotiator between Dogo and the parents. He took Na’empere from the other man and then proceeded with her to inside town.
She was taken to the emir’s house to wait for her father.
As she stood there with the negotiator, waiting for her father to come, she could not help but be terrified of what his reaction would be when he saw her holding the baby. The past two years had been heartwrenching, and not in a thousand years would she have imagined that the things that happened to her would happen to her. And yet, it felt like that moment was what would attach some value or weight to all the suffering she had endured. She wanted, desperately, for her father to accept her as she was or had become.
When she saw him approaching from a distance, she noticed he was nearly sprinting towards her, almost toppling over many times with excitement. But as he came closer and closer to her, his attention shifted to the baby she was holding, and he slowed down until he stopped completely. Unable to tear his gaze away from the baby. His face fell, and he started to tremble. The man let out a deep cry of anguish. This image, which Na’empere had been dreading for months, has never left her mind since.
She knelt down to greet him, but he did not respond.
It was not that he was not already aware of the baby’s existence; it was that seeing the baby in the flesh made the violence done to her all the more real, and he could not take it. She had come home with a terrorist’s child. He started to wail.
“People had to hold him because he nearly fell. I was crying, too. And people started to hold me. I think they feared that I would turn back and perhaps run back to the bush because of Baba’s reaction,” she tells me.
While the thought did cross her mind, what preoccupied her at that time was thoughts of her mother.
“I was just thinking, if Baba had reacted like that, despite knowing about the baby before, how much more would it be for mummy, especially with her high blood pressure and the fact that she didn’t even know about the child?”
Eventually, they made the trip home to meet her mother. Her mother had, on hearing that Na’empere had arrived, wanted to journey to the emir’s house to meet her but was discouraged by those who knew what was amiss.
Before Na’em entered the living room where her mother was sitting in anticipation, she started to cry profusely in pure terror. She stepped into the living room, and there was her mother, almost leaping to her, but upon seeing the shrouded bundle she was holding, immediately recoiling.
Na’empere’s crying intensified, but her mother remained plane-faced, just staring at her and the baby she was holding, an empty, stricken look on her face.
Is it over yet?
Thanks to the Kebbi State government, Na’empere and eight other girls from the last 11 are back in school. Their tuition has been fully paid for up until graduation. The remaining two, perhaps due to the trauma of the experience, have refused to return to school.
But it isn’t completely over yet. Six of the last 11 girls had given birth before they were released, and three of those babies died after the release. The other three remain alive.
Dogo has been calling the families of the girls. He wants the babies returned to him.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
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