Hafsat, lived with her parents in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria where she attended a public primary school up until 2014, after which she was sent to live with her uncle in Damboa Local Government Area shortly after he got married. This a longstanding tradition in northeast Nigeria where a family member lives with newlyweds to support them with household chores and provide the bride some company. As a child this excited Hafsat and she looked forward to living with an uncle who was very fond of her.
Unfortunately, Hafsat’s joy was short lived as Boko Haram attacked her uncle’s village two weeks after she went to live with them. Her uncle was killed, while she and her uncle’s wife were abducted and taken into captivity to live as slaves within Sambisa Forest, with many other women and children. The Boko Haram fighters would intimidate and threaten Hafsat and the other girls by saying that they would be forcefully married off, and constantly molested them mentally, physically and sexually.
"The fighters would beat us up whenever we didn’t finish a chore on time. Even the older women who stayed in the camps to cook, were not spared from the numerous beatings," Hafsat tells us.
One day the fighters let their guard down and Hafsat capitalised on it. Realising it may be her only chance she took the bold step to escape, despite the risk of being killed.
"The camps were usually well guarded so that no one can escape. On this particular day I noticed there were no guards around. I approached the door and realised that it was unlocked. I slowly peeped outside and noticed that there was no one. It was then that I ran as fast as my legs could carry me," she said.
Her courage helped two other girls – Mairo and Kande to follow suit and escape. Together, they wandered around the Sambisa Forest, surviving on water, wild plants and the fruits they could find. Sadly, Kande got bitten by a snake and died. Hafsat and Mairo mourned Kande, they covered her in leaves before continuing their journey.
After five days in the forest, the girls were found by Nigerian Army soldiers who were on patrol and offered them water and a meal. Hafsat was wary of the soldiers at first and refused to eat their food. She didn't believe she was safe, she had been brainwashed into believe that if she ate any food outside the camp she would die and go to hell. But after a few days of persuasion, the girls both began to eat – regaining some strength and nourishment.
"The soldiers kept asking us if we were Boko Haram spies, but they treated us very well. They gave us water to wash ourselves and a meal," says Hafsat.
Hafsat and Mairo were safely taken to Maiduguri where they were identified, screened, cleared by the military as not being affiliated to Boko Haram and placed in the care of a Bulama (community leader) who reunited them with their families.
Reunited with family members
Hafsat’s parents were very happy and excited to see her, but her father soon rejected her once he found out she had been in captivity, making her vulnerable to stigma and ridicule from her siblings, extended family and the community. Hafsat recalls,
I remember my father asking me if a terrorist had married and indoctrinated me. I told him no, but he didn’t believe me. He even stopped me from drinking the water in the house because he feared I was going to poison everyone.
She goes on to say, "like a dream, years passed by. I was still rejected and stigmatised by my father and siblings, who were just following our father’s instructions. This made it easier for neighbours and the entire community to reject and stigmatise me as well. It was only my mother who accepted me. I used to be so scared and cry a lot."
Journey to reconciliation
This continued for years, when eventually the Bulama who reunited Hafsat with her parents decided to intervene. He invited Hafsat and her father to attend a family support session – a safe space for people struggling to accept family members back into the community to come together and discuss their challenges or reasons for rejecting their wards. These sessions were facilitated by community leaders trained by International Alert through the social cohesion project, which is aimed at reinforcing the resilience and reintegration of conflict affected women and children to promote peacebuilding. Hafsat was also invited to attend the psychosocial support session for women and girl survivors.
It took the Bulama three visits to finally persuade Hafsat to attend the two different sessions, with a little help and encouragement from her mum. Through the sessions she was able to meet other women and girls who were abducted. They shared their stories of rejection and stigmatisation, which gave Hafsat a sense of belonging and some consolation that she was not alone.
"I was very scared when I was invited to the session. I thought the leader of Boko Haram wanted to take me away again, so rather than attend I ran away until the Bulama came to our house and my mum encouraged me to attend.
To my surprise the session was very helpful and therapeutic, so I started attending regularly. We would meet under a tree and everyone would call me by my name – it encouraged me to participate.
Her father who also refused to attend the session at the beginning, gave into the persistent persuasion of the Bulama too and began attending. Hafsat recalls that after the first session her father attended, he bought her clothes on their way back home. That marked the beginning of change, from rejection to acceptance. Her siblings soon began attending the family support sessions and the community dialogue sessions, which helped to change their perceptions of her too.
Community change agent
Now Hafsat supports other young women and girls in the community, giving them hope and inspiration from her own experience. She has become a youth leader in the community and undergone training in peacebuilding methods and facilitation skills. She now co-facilitates the peer-to-peer support sessions, where she shares her story to other participants to encourage and help them to rebuild their lives.
Hafsats is seen as source of hope and inspiration to other young women and girls. She in very active in the community and is often referenced by community members. She encourages other young women with similar experience to try hard to forget the past (though difficult) and move forward. She also encourages them to enroll into school and get an education, so that more opportunities are available to them and that they too can play a part in rebuilding the community and peace.
I just want to forget about the past, think about my future and let God be the judge. For the first time in a long while, I feel appreciated.
Hafsat has since completed her secondary education and is currently enrolled into Ramat Polytechnic Maiduguri pursuing a diploma certificate in education. At most occasions and communal gatherings, she shares her success story and then encourages other survivors to follow suit – to start the healing process and help improve social cohesion in communities.
Alert works on this project with the following local partners, Centre for Social Cohesion, Peace and Empowerment (CENSCOPE) and Gender Equality, Peace and Development Centre (GEPaDC).