On the Harrowing Life of a Boko Haram Captive
Dionne Searcey Learns the Story of a Survivor
Shehu, my fixer in Nigeria, had managed to help me find 18 women who were recruited as suicide bombers by the Islamic Terrorist group Boko Haram. All of them had resisted and had surrendered to authorities. They told me their brave stories in safe houses we arranged for them across the city of Maiduguri, where the group had been founded.
On my next trip to Maiduguri several weeks later, Shehu wanted me to talk to another young woman, named Balaraba. She also had been recruited as a suicide bomber. He thought it was a good idea for me to learn more about her even though my story on the women bombers already had already appeared in The New York Times. We met her in a dark hotel room during a typical afternoon power outage, and he translated as Balaraba told us her story.
Balaraba, a round-faced young woman with a gap between her front teeth, met the man who wanted to marry her when she was just a teenager. She wanted to finish high school but he wanted to get married right away. Her mother convinced her he was a good man with a good job—a fish trader—and Balaraba shouldn’t pass up the opportunity.
About a year later, the couple had a baby girl. Balaraba took the child to her own family’s house to nurse her and care for her for a few weeks, as was customary. When Balaraba returned home, her husband told her he had a big problem—some of his friends had joined Boko Haram. He had made the mistake of telling them they were wrong. Now he was worried they were going to kill him. He was convinced he was being followed.
“You’re being paranoid,” Balaraba told him.
But other wives had told her they suspected their own husbands had joined the group. Privately, she worried.
Late one evening, Balaraba and her husband heard footsteps outside their door and then a knock. Her husband asked who it was. No answer. Balaraba peeked out and recognized the men—all friends of her husband.Balaraba was still weak when she got to the fighters’ camp, and she remained physically sick for days.
“They’ve come to kill me,” her husband said.
Terrified, he ran out the back door and climbed over the wall that ringed their home. But the men heard the thud of him dropping to the ground and ran for him. Outside, Balaraba could hear voices saying, “There he is! Go get him!”
He pleaded with them. “Please, I have a child. I have a wife. I’m the breadwinner.”
Balaraba watched through the window as the men took a machete and split open her husband’s forehead. They stabbed him in the belly. They kept beating him even after his body went limp, bending his leg until it snapped. Then they left.
Balaraba was practically paralyzed with shock. She wasn’t sure what to do. Her relatives decided it was best to let her stay in her own home to mourn. But two nights later the same group of fighters returned.
“There’s the hypocrite,” they said, pointing at Balaraba.
They knew she had been educated at a Western school and that she opposed Boko Haram. The fighters killed her husband’s brother, who was living in the house, and grabbed Balaraba. They held her tight as they discussed whether they should murder her daughter. They threw the baby hard against the floor as they dragged away Balaraba. She thought it might have killed the child.
Balaraba was still weak when she got to the fighters’ camp, and she remained physically sick for days. Militants were taking turns raping the women captives. The men who murdered her husband were there and one talked about “marrying” Balaraba. Seeing them made her want to kill herself. But she thought of her daughter. What if she had survived? Other girls around her were discussing suicide. Two talked openly about stealing guns and simultaneously shooting each other. Or maybe they should stab each other. They argued about which was best, so loudly that a fighter overheard. When he learned why they were arguing he grabbed them both and slit their throats.
Feigning illness, Balaraba soon realized, was a way to avoid the fate of other girls around her.
“Yes, yes, keep on killing them!” she would scream, making the fighters think she had gone mad. “Western education is forbidden, yes!”
The camp where Balaraba was being held doubled as a bombmaking factory. She watched fighters pack the bombs, stuffing sharp metal objects into a bag. They hauled in large packets of bullets, mixing them in some kind of oil that everyone in the camp thought was poison, to make them even more deadly. There was a special room where they stored all the bullets and the bombs.
One day, two of the fighters got into a raging argument. One ran into the bomb storage room and detonated explosives inside. The whole place lit up. So many people died—fighters as well as captives.
“There was nothing left of them but ashes,” Balaraba said.
Later, the militants decided to round up some of the girls for a suicide mission. They gathered Balaraba and five other girls. Like Balaraba, most of them were teenagers. They handed them bombs stored inside large thermoses—the kind women use to haul food they are selling to market. They told them to go to a nearby village. Find the market crowd, push the button.
Balaraba and the other girls were terrified. They didn’t want to kill anyone.
They walked along, trying to find a way out of this situation. One wanted to surrender to soldiers. But the military would never believe they were innocent, they quickly decided. Too risky. Maybe they should just kill themselves, another offered. But God opposed suicide, the others argued. They trudged in silence, not knowing what to do. They passed a well. Maybe we should throw our bombs down there, one girl suggested.
“That might end up killing all of us,” Balaraba said.
But maybe it could work.
The six gathered around the well and peered inside. The outer lip was made of concrete, which might shield a blast. But it was hard to tell how deep it was. Someone suggested tying their hijabs together and lowering the smallest of the girls inside to check the water level. That was a terrible plan, Balaraba told them.
But the essence of the idea was a good one, the girls decided. Balaraba directed them to pull their hijabs from their heads and fashion a rope. They gathered the explosives in one thermos and tied it to the end.
Carefully, they lowered the hijab rope into the well and let go, sprinting away. There was no splash, but also no explosion. It worked.
But now what should they do? They couldn’t decide. If they carried on to the village, people would think they were bombers anyway and might shoot them. Or maybe they would encounter more Boko Haram members. They decided to head back to the camp and lie.
Mission accomplished, the teenagers told the fighters at the camp, they had hit their target—and had lost their hijabs as they were fleeing. The fighters rejoiced, and even threw a big celebration for the girls with a hearty meal.
“It was like they’d won the lottery,” Balaraba said.
But the militants still hadn’t heard news of any kind of bombing in the town.
They became suspicious. One of the girls offered to swear on a Koran that they had set off the bombs. That seemed to satisfy the militants. They were back to being thrilled with the girls.
“Do you know how to shoot to kill?” one fighter asked the young women, apparently thinking they now could be deployed in other ways, too.
They didn’t. Fighters brought out guns. And live human targets—other Boko Haram members who had crossed them or girls in the camp who had annoyed them. They lined them up and began firing at them, for practice. Balaraba and the other girls from the well were sickened. One of them stood up and walked straight into the line of fire, killing herself.
Boko Haram replaced her with a new captive girl and sent her, along with Balaraba and the others, on another bombing mission, this time to a mosque in a nearby village.
The new girl immediately suggested ditching the bombs. She was from the area and knew a dam where they could stash them. But the other girls wanted to stick with their old plan. Again, they found a well, made a hijab rope and lowered the bombs down into it.
The group returned to camp expecting another happy reception. But the fighters were suspicious.
How did they get there and back so quickly? The new girl said it was because she grew up in the area and knew the terrain well.When help arrived, body parts were strewn across the camp. The shacks where the girls had lived were burning.
Before they could question the girls further, the camp’s leaders heard some news: there had been a bombing in a nearby village. The militants cheered. The girls couldn’t believe their luck. What timing! They were so relieved.
But as more details came out, the fighters realized the village that was struck was different from the one they ordered Balaraba and the girls to bomb. They called the new girl over and scolded her for bombing the wrong town. Then they shot her to death.
Balaraba was more terrified than ever. Days later, fighters told her she was going to wear a suicide belt. She faked a stomachache and got out of it. Another day, fighters shoved Balaraba into a car and drove her to the Monday Market in Maiduguri—her hometown market—where she was to detonate a bomb. This time, Balaraba really was sick and was so weak by the time they arrived at the market she couldn’t move from the vehicle. She sat in the car as bombs exploded, killing numerous people.
Fighters took Balaraba back to camp, where she begged God to let her die but in a place where her body would be found so her relatives would know what had become of her.
Then one day all the fighters started scrambling. They’re here, everyone was shouting. The camp was being invaded by a volunteer militia from Maiduguri that was dedicated to fighting Boko Haram. Before they arrived, Balaraba heard gunshots and explosion after explosion. Boko Haram was shooting up and bombing its own camp—and its own captives—so fighters could distract invading security forces while they made a getaway. It worked.
When help arrived, body parts were strewn across the camp. The shacks where the girls had lived were burning. Balaraba was lying on the ground near a blaze, her body on fire and bone poking from her leg where the skin was burned off. A young woman vigilante fighter about Balaraba’s age pulled her to safety and took her to a hospital.
Balaraba stopped telling me about her experience and began to cry.
I realized that in all the time I had spent interviewing victims of Boko Haram, I had never learned an appropriate way to comfort anyone here. Was it OK to hug her? I didn’t know. I know it’s not my job as a journalist to hug anyone. I’m supposed to be an impartial observer. But that seemed callous in this case.
I walked to Balaraba and touched her arm. She lifted her gown and showed me the checkered burn scars all over her body.
Balaraba’s situation was more extreme than other suicide bomber recruits I had met. But it essentially was the same. I didn’t know what to do with it. My story on suicide bombers already had been published. I failed her. For more than two years, Balaraba’s story went untold in the pages of my newspaper.
Excerpted from In Pursuit of Disobedient Women by Dionne Searcey. Copyright © 2020 by Dionne Searcey. Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.