Help­ing with life af­ter Boko Haram

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

Had she not pan­icked at the fi­nal mo­ment, Aisha Aminu’s last act would have been to kill her­self and as many oth­ers as pos­si­ble. Kid­napped last year by Boko Haram, the 15-year-old was con­scripted into its army of child sui­cide bombers, with orders to blow her­self up in a busy mar­ket­place. But when her han­dler es­corted her to the tar­get, she recog­nised faces in the crowd as former neigh­bours. She hes­i­tated just long enough for po­lice to ar­rive.

A year on, Aisha is among hun­dreds of ex-boko Haram cap­tives at a ‘‘re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion’’ char­ity in Maiduguri in north­east Nige­ria, where the coun­try’s ji­hadist move­ment sprang up.

Re­cov­er­ing from life in a group that treats women as ei­ther sex slaves or can­non fod­der is not easy: Aisha was so trau­ma­tised she was mute for the first few months, while oth­ers are plagued by night­mares and thoughts of sui­cide.

Yet for Fa­tima Ak­ilu, the Nh­strained psy­chol­o­gist who runs the char­ity, what is equally dis­turb­ing is not every former hostage has re­grets.

Be­com­ing a ‘‘bush wife’’ is the clos­est some get to ‘‘em­pow­er­ment’’.

‘‘It isn’t true of all cases, but some of the wives of se­nior Boko Haram com­man­ders have told me that while they were with the group, they felt em­pow­ered for the first time in their lives,’’ said Ak­ilu, a Nige­rian Mus­lim who is also a chil­dren’s au­thor.

‘‘They’d of­ten be in com­mand of a harem of women . . . and they’d learn how to use weapons as well. They felt a power they’d never have in their own com­mu­ni­ties, where they’d usu­ally get mar­ried aged 12, and where hus­bands would then dic­tate their lives.’’

Ed­u­cated at board­ing school in Tun­bridge Wells, Ak­ilu stud­ied psy­chi­a­try in Bri­tain and the US be­fore work­ing with young of­fend­ers, pae­dophiles and mur­der­ers, in­clud­ing John Hinck­ley jnr, the man who shot Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan. In 2012, Nige­ria’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency asked her to de­vise an equiv­a­lent to Bri­tain’s coun­terex­trem­ism pro­ject, af­ter read­ing her ar­ti­cles. She ran pri­son de­rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion pro­grammes for jailed Boko Haram com­man­ders and their wives, be­fore set­ting up her own char­ity, the Neem Foun­da­tion, in 2016 to help the tens of thou­sands who have spent time in camps. The group, which has killed an es­ti­mated 20,000 peo­ple, re­mains a force to be reck­oned with, de­spite los­ing much of its turf in the past three years.

It still holds around 100 of the 276 school­girls snatched from the town of Chi­bok in 2014, and last month killed one of three kid­napped aid work­ers.

But as well as the mil­i­tary strug­gle, there is now also a ‘‘hearts and minds’’ chal­lenge to rein­te­grate those once brain­washed by the group. ‘‘There are thou­sands of th­ese peo­ple now drift­ing back into cities and refugee camps,’’ Ak­ilu said. ‘‘They need help.’’

At a com­pound in Maiduguri, the Neem Foun­da­tion pro­vides a school for fe­male ex-cap­tives – of­ten their first ex­pe­ri­ence of a class­room. Con­ducted in English, it is a re­buff to Boko Haram’s mantra that ‘‘Western ed­u­ca­tion is sin­ful’’, al­though the syl­labus goes beyond the 3Rs. Di­ver­sity is a key les­son.

‘‘A lot of our pupils are brought up to be­lieve that their own tribe is great­est, be they Hausa, Fu­lani or Ka­nuri (the lat­ter the tribe of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau),’’ said Aisha Bukar, the school’s deputy head.

‘‘We teach them that Nige­ria is a place of many tribes and faiths.’’

In­deed, a few are un­aware that Nige­ria even ex­ists as a coun­try, think­ing it rep­re­sents just the wider area around their vil­lage. Such lim­ited hori­zons makes them easy prey for Boko Haram’s doc­trines, which in­clude the bizarre claim that the world is flat.

‘‘There’s a whole range of rea­sons why peo­ple join up,’’ said Ak­ilu. ‘‘For some, it’s the chance to be in a gang and carry a gun. For oth­ers, es­pe­cially ado­les­cents, it’s a chance to be part of some­thing, to have an ad­ven­ture. Then there are some who join up be­cause Boko Haram gave them money to start a busi­ness. It may be just cash to buy a wheel­bar­row, but that means the world to peo­ple that have noth­ing.’’

Boko Haram still has to re­cruit by force. Yet stigma abounds.

Amina Ahmed, 17, who was im­preg­nated by her cap­tors and then mis­car­ried, told how even her own mother blamed her at first.

‘‘She asked me: ’Why did you ac­cept?’, and I told her it was be­cause I had no choice,’’ she said. ‘‘Here I can at least meet other peo­ple who’ve had the same prob­lems.’’

The Neem Foun­da­tion has helped more than 7000 peo­ple, some via a ‘‘coun­selling on wheels’’ ser­vice in re­moter ar­eas. – Tele­graph Group

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