When Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls from the remote northeastern village of Chibok earlier this year, the extremist Islamist group and its fight against the Nigerian government became a major story for the world to rally around. A hashtag spread, celebrities spoke out, andthe United States sent in a team to help the Nigerian military.
Six months later, most of the girls kidnapped in Chibok remain captive and negotiations to free them remain inconclusive and confused. Just last week, official statements that Boko Haram would enter talks to free the girls were apparently contradicted by reports that the group had kidnapped more schoolgirls.
What is life like for the women and girls held captive by Boko Haram? That's one question Human Rights Watch (HRW) attempted to answer with a new video, in which international nongovernmental organization interviewed a number of people who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and later released or escaped. In the video, girls detail how they were forced to convert and marry and, in some cases, were raped. In one particularly horrifying account, a young woman describes how she was forced to go on operations with the insurgents and carry their ammunition; she says she considered grabbing a gun and using it to kill herself.
HRW's video comes as part of a wider 63-page report, “Those Terrible Weeks in their Camp,” which examines the Boko Haram kidnappings and the Nigerian government response to it. HRW reports that the extremist group has kidnapped more than 500 women and girls since 2009.
For its report, HRW interviewed 30 individuals who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and 16 others who witnessed the abductions. One describes how Christians were especially targeted:
"I was dragged to the camp leader who told me the reason I was brought to the camp was because we Christians worship three gods. When I objected to his claim, he tied a rope around my neck and beat me with a plastic cable until I almost passed out. An insurgent who I recognized from my village convinced me to accept Islam lest I should be killed. So I agreed."
Another theme is forced marriage, even for young abductees. When one 15-year-old told a Boko Haram commander that she and other girls were too young to get married, he reportedly pointed to his daughter and said:
“If she got married last year, and is just waiting till puberty for its consummation, how can you at your age be too young to marry?”
Some of the kidnapped women and girls were even forced to be complicit in Boko Haram's attacks: HRW says girls as young as 11 may have taken part in attacks. One victim describes how she was coerced to lure anti-Boko Haram vigilantes into a trap:
"On the way back from another operation, I was told to approach a group of five men we saw in a nearby village and lure them to where the insurgents were hiding. Afraid because of the killings I had witnessed during the operation, I told the young men, mostly teenage members of the Civilian JTF, that I needed their help. When they followed me for a short distance, the insurgents swooped on them. Once we got back to the camp, they tied the legs and hands of the captives and slit the throats of four of them as they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Then I was handed a knife to kill the last man. I was shaking with horror and couldn’t do it. The camp leader’s wife took the knife and killed him."
And some suffered rape and sexual abuse. One 15-year-old told HRW:
"After we were declared married I was ordered to live in his cave but I always managed to avoid him. He soon began to threaten me with a knife to have sex with him, and when I still refused he brought out his gun, warning that he would kill me if I shouted. Then he began to rape me every night. He was a huge man in his mid-30s and I had never had sex before. It was very painful and I cried bitterly because I was bleeding afterwards."
HRW makes a number of recommendations based on the accounts, including asking the Nigerian government to ensure medical and mental health services for victims of abduction and violence. It's worth remembering, however, that these are the accounts of a small fraction of the people kidnapped by Boko Haram: Hundreds remain missing, including 219 of the Chibok schoolgirls. Right now, their stories cannot be told.