Maiduguri, Nigeria – A few dozen women sit on mats in the shadow of a neem tree. Their giggles rise with the hot dusty air as they sketch elaborate designs on their hands with henna.
Some of the women wear abayas; others wear short-sleeved blouses with long skirts and hijabs. They talk about their children, their hair, what they will cook that evening after breaking their Ramadan fast.
After a while, the conversation turns to their husbands.
“Oh, my husband, I love him so much,” says Aisha the Amira.
The flamboyant 25-year-old flings her head back as she laughs. In a flowing gown and a tall, majestic head wrap, she radiates the nobility of her title, Amira, or princess. A reddish-orange stone sparkles on her left hand.
“My husband gave me this ring,” she says, wiggling her shoulders. “My husband, he’s an Arab. So handsome and he always gave me money.”
The women look at her in silent admiration.
Then Hauwa speaks up. “He loved me and I loved him. We loved each other.” The blushing 14-year-old smiles and twists the hem of her skirt. She has been married for a year and a half.
Fifteen-year-old Iyeza-Kawu looks at the ground as she talks. She’s wearing a navy hijab with the logo of the United Nations Population Fund stitched on it. She describes her two-year marriage as a happy one and explains how her husband gave her a dowry of 25,000 naira (about $80).
There is another Aisha, a 27-year-old from Cameroon, who loved her married boyfriend so much that she agreed to elope with him. Her sister and brother didn’t approve, so Aisha married him in secret, crossing the border into Nigeria. Her printed blouse hugs her pregnant belly.
Tall and with a chiselled face, Zainab describes her husband as good-looking, quiet and of medium height. “He treated me very well and I loved him very much,” she says.
Little Umi, Zainab’s 11-year-old daughter, chimes in. “My husband was kind. He would always give my parents money.” Umi’s cheeks are framed in a dark purple hijab. Her black eyeliner is smudged. When she looks up, the sun lights up her eyes in dazzling shades of brown. She was her husband’s third wife.
Esther, 19, knew her husband well before they married. The professional nail cutter used to walk around the neighbourhood reciting verses from the Quran, she says.
All of the women speak in a flurry of Hausa and Kanuri, pausing to gaze at the henna on their hands, swatting flies from their sleeping children and turning around to check on their other children as they swing on a tyre that hangs from a tree.
But there is a sense of sadness and uncertainty to this otherwise typical scene. These women have not seen their husbands in weeks.
Aisha the Amira, Hauwa, Iyeza-Kawu, Aisha, Zainab, Umi, Esther and the others gathered here were all married to members of Boko Haram, the armed group that has been engaged in a seven-year uprising against the Nigerian government that has left more than 20,000 people dead and forced millions to flee their homes.
The women had lived with their husbands in Walasa, a town near the Nigeria-Cameroon border. But in May, Nigerian soldiers reclaimed the area. Most of the Boko Haram fighters fled, leaving their wives and children behind. Iyeza- Kawu’s husband was killed in the skirmish.
“My husband was not a terrorist,” she says. “The soldiers killed him.”
She and 33 other women were rounded up with their children, packed into vehicles and taken to a safe house in Maiduguri where they are now receiving psychosocial treatment designed to rehabilitate them back into society, away from their husbands.
“We will eventually reunite the women with their families and relations here in Maiduguri,” explains the state’s governor, Kashim Shettima.
But the pregnant ones among them say they fear that their children will never meet their fathers. And some say they have fond memories of their husbands.
Memories of the men they loved
The Amira says she met her husband one day as she was running away from a battle between Boko Haram fighters and government soldiers. As she was running, a man stopped her, she says.
“He asked me, ‘You get married?’”
She says she intrigued him because she was bold and intelligent. “It’s because I’m an educated girl. The other girls don’t go to school, so they are shy.”
Even though Boko Haram is opposed to boko, or Western education, she says her husband desired her because she was educated in Western schools. She is the only one in the group who can speak some English.
When he eventually asked to marry her, she deliberated for a month. When she agreed it was because she believed he was wealthy. He paid her dowry in naira and euros, she says.
“My husband is a Boko Haram commander. He’s an Amir, that’s why I’m an Amira,” she explains. “He had three wives. He divorced all of them when he married me, because he loves me very much and I’m like his baby.”
She lived a privileged life as an Amira.
She joined her husband in the Sambisa forest, from which Boko Haram allegedly operates its largest camp, and lived there for almost three years. The forest stretches for nearly 40,000 square miles in the southern part of the northeastern state of Borno, which has born the brunt of Boko Haram’s insurgency. Once upon a time, elephants and leopards roamed Sambisa. Now, it is Boko Haram members and their families who live among the scatterings of acacia, baobab, tamarind and neem trees.
In Sambisa, she says, she met some of the kidnapped Chibok girls, Boko Haram’s most well-known abductees, snatched two years ago from their secondary school in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Recently, Boko Haram released a video featuring about 50 of the missing girls.
She says she also met the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau.
Her lips curl into a grin as she remembers her husband. He gave her money every week, she says, and showered her with jewellery, makeup and new clothes.
For her, life in Sambisa was pleasant, she says. If anyone was sick, there were doctors to treat them. She was well fed with a full stock of rice, yams, coconuts, beans, juice and fruits.
As the Amira, she was responsible for helping to take care of the other wives. She distributed food to them, befriended them and taught them how to be good Muslim wives, she says.
All of the women attended near daily Quran classes.
Amira says she helped her husband “do jihad”.
“My husband has a gun. If my husband is coming back from traveling, he’ll call me on my phone and say , ‘Sweety, I’m coming home.’ So I’ll go put on makeup, body spray and I’ll cook food. When he comes home, I’ll collect his gun, magazine, bombs,” she says.
He taught her how to assemble and disassemble his guns, but there were so many pieces she says she would sometimes get confused.
When her husband went out on operations, she would occupy herself with her phone, she says. Many of the wives of Boko Haram members were not allowed to have one, but the Amira had one when she lived in Sambisa and she used it to browse online.
“I was using Facebook. And even now, if you look for my name on Facebook, you’ll see me there at the top. I’m the first one there,” she says.
Her phone was seized when she arrived at the safe house, but she had already memorised not only her husband’s phone numbers, but the numbers of many Boko Haram members who she says will answer her call at any time.
The other Aisha does not have such pleasant memories of life with the man she secretly married when she was a lovestruck 23-year-old. Before he joined Boko Haram, she says he was caring and allowed her to work. But afterwards, he forbade her from working and withdrew emotionally. He also became secretive, disappearing for days without telling her where he had been, she says.
“That’s how I knew he was with Boko Haram,” Aisha adds.
She says her husband forced her to cut off contact with her family. After the marriage, she left her parents behind in Cameroon and moved with him from village to village in northeastern Nigeria as Boko Haram took over territory there.
Although her husband became wealthier after joining Boko Haram, she says he was not a high-ranking member. So the life she lived did not resemble the Amira’s. She felt like a captive, she says, although she did find comfort in the other wives.
At 11, Umi is the youngest wife in the group. Her mother, Zainab, is with her at the safe house. Initially, her mother thought she was too young to marry, but Umi’s father insisted and gave her away to a Boko Haram member who lived in a nearby compound with his two wives.
She was married in Walasa, but the next day soldiers came and carried her away. Although she was only with him for a day, she says she is still in love with her husband.
Safe house initiative
Social workers from the state’s emergency management agency, a local NGO called the NEEM Foundation and the state’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs take turns throughout the week to counsel the women.
Their main task is to get the women to talk. But that’s not an easy thing to do. The women are cagey, shifting their gazes as they change their stories.
Sometimes they say they didn’t know that their husbands were Boko Haram members; at other times they admit to knowing.
The social workers are also a little afraid of the women.
“The first time these women came, we feared them because we know that it’s Boko Haram wives who used to bring bombs. They wear the bombs to do suicide attacks,” says one social worker who asked that her name not be used out of fear that she would be targeted by Boko Haram. “We also thought that Boko Haram would attack Maiduguri and come and retrieve their wives from this safe house.
“Many of these women are supporting jihad. They say it is God that helps them to do the jihad and it is God who helps them to capture a place.”
At the safe house, the women are well-fed. The government has given them new clothes. They sleep in a three-bedroom house with a large front yard and watch locally made movies on the television.
The safe house is supposed to “de-radicalise the women” through psychosocial therapy, but there is no clear structure and many of the women spend much of the day sleeping or braiding one another’s hair. Quran lessons, individual therapy sessions and English classes take place sporadically.
Reuben Ibeshuwa, the sole clinical psychologist there, says this disorganisation is “not ideal”. He cannot speak the women’s language, so he counsels them through a translator.
“Some of these women are hardened. Nobody coerced them to join Boko Haram. They voluntarily joined because they believe in their ideology,” he explains. “If given the chance some would go back.”
Iyeza-Kawu, who is still mourning her late husband, and Zainab insist that Boko Haram is merely misunderstood. They say the group teaches people how to be good Muslims.
“Everything Boko Haram tells us is the right thing. There is nothing wrong in what they are saying,” says Zainab. When asked why it kills people, she snorts and looks away.
Secrets of Boko Haram
Through gentle probing and playful interaction with the wives of the Boko Haram fighters, the social workers have been able to learn more about how the group operates.
Although many human rights organisations say the wives of Boko Haram fighters are coerced into carrying out acts of violence, the women at the safe house say that as their husbands are working for God, they do whatever they ask of them.
“It’s OK to be a suicide bomber. It’s normal,” says one.
The women say that young girls, aged between 10 and 12, who have carried out suicide bombings in cities across northeastern Nigeria probably volunteered, hoping to avenge the death of a relative. But a Chadian intelligence officer who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity says that the Chadian government, which is also involved in the fight against Boko Haram, has conducted dozens of interviews with detained Boko Haram members who have talked about how they get young girls to commit suicide attacks.
“In the interviews we have conducted with Boko Haram members, they told us that they tell women and girls that they will go to paradise if they commit suicide for Allah. So, they ask girls, ‘Who wants to go to paradise?’ They tell the girls that they will also wear bombs. So the man straps a bomb to his body and to the girl. They tell the girl, let’s do this and we will meet again in paradise. So the girl goes forward and detonates herself, expecting the man to do the same. But the man does not. He watches her blow herself up into pieces and then goes to the next girl to lure her to do the same thing,” he explains.
The women frequently talk about tea and dates. They say that when they pledged what they call a mubaya’a, an oath of allegiance, to Boko Haram, they were given dabino (dates) to eat and tea to drink. Others say they were also given pieces of coconut.
“The first time I came to join Boko Haram, somebody came, the commander who is a mallam, and asked me, ‘Do you believe in Allah?’ Me, I said yes. ‘And the prophet?’ I said yes. ‘And the Quran?’ I said yes. He then gave me a date palm and coconut. I ate it and then I slept for three or four hours. Then I woke up and my heart was changed,” Aisha the Amira explains. “I loved Boko Haram. I didn’t like normal men.”
She says there was always tea – mixed with leaves and other things she wasn’t familiar with.
“They all told us that the dates were usually dipped in blood and were sometimes mixed with human flesh,” the Chadian intelligence officer says, relaying what Boko Haram fighters caught by Chadian soldiers revealed in interviews. “Then they have a sort of mystical tea.”
Abba Aji Kalli has met many Boko Haram fighters face to face. One tried to attack his house in Maiduguri a few months ago. Kalli is the state coordinator for the Civilian Joint Task Force, a paramilitary vigilante group working with the Nigerian security forces to combat Boko Haram.
“When we catch Boko Haram members, they tell us things. They tell us that they sometimes even eat human meat. This is what they’ve been doing,” Kalli says. “In Boko Haram, whatever is in your imagination, whatever you think, they have it there.”
He says this is why his group burns whatever they find in Boko Haram camps – food, jewellery and flasks.
“Because they’re dangerous. They can poison you. Boko Haram is using magic charms. Once you take their water and their dates, they’ve taken over your mind,” Kalli says.
Many of the women say that some people participate in mysterious rituals, but claim that these are not real Boko Haram members. They scoff at those who say Boko Haram fighters are ghosts.
“What else do you want to know about Boko Haram that has not been revealed?” the Amira asks. “Ask me and I will give you the answer.”
An uncertain future
A few of the women say they are no longer in love with their husbands.
Aisha says she wants to forget about the man she once loved. But, she will tell the unborn child in her womb about him.
“I will tell my child that his father was a terrorist. He was not a good man,” she says. All she wants now, is to go back to her parents in Cameroon and deliver her baby.
Hauwa says she’s enjoying her life. She’s putting her “gentle” and “kind” husband behind her. Now. she says, she’d like to marry one of the vigilante men who are fighting Boko Haram.
The women don’t know what will happen to them next. Although the government plans to release them back into society, they know that many people will oppose that.
“Will my family want me back? After all the bad things I have done?” asks Falta, an elderly woman who sits alone, away from the other women. Her face is drawn in deep-set wrinkles. She is the mother of a Boko Haram Amir – Aisha the Amira’s husband.
Falta left her husband many years ago to join her son in the movement.
“If you’ve never had a son, you will never know the closeness of a mother and son. He is closer to me than anything,” Falta says.
The women are right about people opposing the plan to release them. Many think they should not have been afforded the luxury of a safe house in the first place.
Ibeshuwa believes it is unfair of the government to put the wives of Boko Haram members in a comfortable house when thousands of displaced people are starving and falling ill in overcrowded, lice-infested camps.
He says that during one of his therapy sessions with one of the wives, he showed her a video he’d captured on his mobile phone from one of the camps. In it, dozens of people are scrambling to get water from a bucket.
“I showed that to one of the wives of Boko Haram and you know what she told me? She said, ‘If they had joined us, they would not be suffering the way they are now. They should have joined Boko Haram’,” he recalls.
Kalli says that the women are “criminals” and should be in military detention, not in a house. “If they release those women into society, they should release them with their body bags because surely we will kill them. Society will kill them. They should be kept in detention at least five or six years before they should be released to the community. Because somebody who killed your father and your mother is being released to come and stay with you in the same neighbourhood. The government should think twice about releasing those Boko Haram wives into society,” he says, thrusting his hands into the air as he speaks.
Back at the house, an afternoon breeze lifts the leaves off the ground. The women put on shawls and prepare for the afternoon prayers. Those who still love their husbands say they will pray to be reunited with them.
The others pray to find new love.