They had ex­plo­sives strapped to their bod­ies and were sent on a sui­cide mis­sion by Boko Haram, but one of the teenage girls was not ready to die


‘Some peo­ple see me as part of Boko Haram. But oth­ers see me as a hero’

MAIMUMA shuf­fled down the road, try­ing hard to walk nor­mally, try­ing not to let on some­thing was hor­ri­bly wrong. Sweat­ing and ter­ri­fied, the teenager be­gan to sob while the det­o­na­tor box strapped to her waist un­der her clothes ra­di­ated heat.

The ex­plo­sives at­tached to her body were heavy too.

The 14-year-old didn’t want to hurt any­one, much less kill strangers who had the mis­for­tune of be­ing around her, but her body was no longer her own.

Her slen­der frame had been taken from her, trans­form­ing her from a young girl into a crude weapon – an un­will­ing sui­cide bomber ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out unimag­in­able hor­ror.

She was pow­er­less to re­move the bomb, know­ing it would ex­plode if she tried.

Her sob­bing grew louder, at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of passers-by – but once she told them about the bomb they fled as fast as they could.

Even­tu­ally soldiers ar­rived – men like the ones Maimuma had been or­dered to kill along with her­self.

They ap­proached her cau­tiously, shout­ing at her to keep her hands up. One of the soldiers be­gan to re­move the ex­plo­sives and the red-hot det­o­na­tor. Af­ter what seemed like an eter­nity she was free – and the bomb was car­ried away to be det­o­nated out of harm’s way.

This shock­ing story is one of sev­eral told to the New York Times by girls who have fallen into the clutches of the Nige­ria-based ter­ror or­gan­i­sa­tion Boko Haram.

Since 2011 the group has used nearly 250 girls and women as sui­cide bombers.

The youngest of these was a pair of girls just seven years old – and they were killed along with sev­eral oth­ers in an at­tack on a mar­ket­place in De­cem­ber 2016.

SINCE the start of this year, more than 110 chil­dren have been used as sui­cide bombers – at least 76 of them girls un­der the age of 15 years. One girl blew her­self up along with a baby strapped to her back, ac­cord­ing to United Na­tions re­ports.

Maimuma, who was kid­napped by Boko Haram, is one of the girls who re­fused to be forced into mar­riage by the ter­ror­ists – and so were used as sui­cide bombers in­stead.

An­other girl, Hadiza ( 16), was kid­napped by the group ear­lier this year. When she re­jected a mar­riage “pro­posal” from one of the fight­ers she was told, “You’ll re­gret this”.

She was then brought be­fore one of the group’s lead­ers and told she would be go­ing to “the hap­pi­est place imag­in­able”.

Hadiza hoped she would be freed so she could re­turn home but they were talk­ing about heaven.

Many of the sur­viv­ing girls have sim­i­lar sto­ries of be­ing promised par­adise for ful­fill­ing their deadly mis­sions, which al­most al­ways saw them be­ing dropped off along the side of a road while Boko Haram fight­ers watched from a safe dis­tance as they walked,

laden with ex­plo­sives, to their tar­gets.

Hadiza didn’t want to kill any­one. Her 12-year-old com­pan­ion, she says, ap­peared to have given up hope of sur­viv­ing the or­deal.

When Hadiza asked her what she thought they should do as they walked along the road, the girl sim­ply said, “I’m go­ing to go off by my­self and blow my­self up”.

As they ap­proached the refugee camp, which was guarded by soldiers, Hadiza made the girl wait a dis­tance away while she ap­proached them and ex­plained what they’d been forced to do.

The soldiers re­moved the bombs from the girls and Hadiza was even­tu­ally re­united with her fa­ther.

FOR these girls, be­ing res­cued from be­ing a weapon doesn’t al­ways guar­an­tee a happy end­ing. Maimuma and oth­ers like her have been re­luc­tant to tell any­one, even close fam­ily or friends, that they were forced to be sui­cide bombers, fear­ing they could be ar­rested for work­ing with the ter­ror­ists.

Chil­dren – es­pe­cially girls – are now used so fre­quently in ter­ror at­tacks by Boko Haram that au­thor­i­ties are reg­u­larly warn­ing peo­ple to be on the look­out for girl bombers in the re­gions where the group op­er­ates.

In Maiduguri, the city where Boko Haram was founded, there are bill­boards with the words “Stop Ter­ror­ism” and a pic­ture of an an­gry-look­ing girl with ex­plo­sives strapped to her chest.

Au­thor­i­ties have be­gun cam­paigns telling par­ents not to give their chil­dren to Boko Haram for use as bombers, as well as cir­cu­lat­ing videos telling bombers they can sur­ren­der.

These cam­paigns, the New York Times says, show the bombers and their fam­i­lies as Boko Haram col­lab­o­ra­tors who either sup­port the ter­ror­ists or who were brain­washed or drugged into do­ing so.

“I thought to my­self, ‘Why should I be ar­rested for be­ing forced to carry a bo­mb?’” Maimuma said. “I de­cided I was go­ing tell ev­ery­one.”

Now Maimuma and other sur­vivors are try­ing to re­turn to their nor­mal teenage lives in Maiduguri. They’re keen to re­turn to school and dream of be­com­ing doc­tors or teach­ers or lawyers.

Maimuma knows there are peo­ple who think she’s a ter­ror­ist col­lab­o­ra­tor but she knows she isn’t one. “Some peo­ple see me as part of Boko Haram. But oth­ers see me as a hero.”

ABOVE: Nige­rian soldiers visit a camp af­ter forc­ing out Boko Haram ter­ror­ists. The group, which kid­nap­ped 276 Nige­rian school­girls three years ago, has left death and de­struc­tion in their wake not only in Nige­ria, but also in Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

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