Ask any bereaved parent and they will tell you there is nothing as dreadful as losing a child. Yet 21-year-old Dooma not only lost a child, but had to abandon another in order to escape Boko Haram captivity and be free.
Her story, heartbreaking as it is, is living testament to the horrors that survivors, and communities all across northeast Nigeria, are experiencing as a result of the atrocities committed by Boko Haram.
As a young girl, Dooma’s fate was sealed when Boko Haram attacked her village. They had come with heavy weapons and swept through her village with ease.
"Unfortunately, I was among the girls they took with them. They did not kill anyone that day. They ordered us to go with them, saying we were not safe," says Dooma.
Dooma and several other girls were taken to a large house in the village where she says they were kept for a few days before being relocated to Sambisa Forest. She describes the journey to Sambisa as rough and unpleasant.
We lacked basic necessities like food, water and clothing. Worse still, I lacked peace within myself because of their exploitation.
The abducted girls were shared amongst Boko Haram fighters and were forcefully married. For three years, Dooma lived in Sambisa Forest – a place she describes as horrendous – with little food to feed herself or her children.
"I lost my fifteen-month old son to acute malnutrition," she says tearfully, "and a number of captives, including some Boko Haram insurgents, died of starvation. It was so bad, we used to dig up anthills just to get something to eat," Dooma added.
As the situation became more desperate, Dooma and the other abductees started looking for a way out. She was keenly aware that she would not be allowed to leave with her other son. She was also aware that if she had to make a run for it, she would be better off alone than with a child strapped to her back.
One afternoon, Dooma told her ‘husband’ that she was going to visit a relative in a nearby village. To avoid raising any suspicions, she left her other son behind and started running.
"There isn’t a day that passes without me thinking about my child, but that was my only route to freedom," she says.
Free at last, Dooma was handed to camp officials in Barma after being screened by the Nigeria military. At the camp a community leader encouraged her to participate in International Alert’s intra-community dialogue sessions. Dooma says she was surprised at how survivors like herself and other returnees were accepted and reunited within the community. "I used to feel despondent and guilty," she said.
However, since attending the sessions, I have regained my self-esteem which I had lost because of my experience. I also feel accepted by community members who have participated in the sessions.
The sessions have helped Dooma to grow and settle in her new home, and have given her the confidence to become an integral part of the community. "I feel at ease at Alert’s sessions. When I came earlier, I didn’t have the esteem and courage to mingle with my peers. Today, I am an example to others and I try to use my experience to enlighten those who discriminate against survivors and returnees like me,"she added.
Dooma has also been chosen to benefit from a small-scale initiative organised by International Alert to support her ability to become economically independent. She has opted for a spaghetti making machine which she is set to receive in November 2018. The initiative will allow Dooma to earn a living but crucially further support her interactions with her family and community and help her integrate back into the community.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy