Since its founding in northern Nigeria, in 2002, Boko Haram has razed villages and massacred townspeople in an effort to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region, which is largely Muslim. The militants have bombed dozens of public places, including the United Nations building and the national police headquarters, both in Abuja, the country’s capital. In 2011, the government launched an offensive, forcing the militants to flee from their base in Maiduguri into the Sambisa Forest, a former game reserve. Nigerian soldiers destroyed their homes and arrested any family members left behind, including the widow of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder, and the wife and children of Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader. Shekau threatened retaliation; since then, the militants have kidnapped thousands of girls and women, using them as servants and marrying them to militants against their will. In 2014, Boko Haram abducted two hundred and seventy-six girls from a school dormitory in Chibok, prompting a global campaign for their release—led by spokeswomen including Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai—called Bring Back Our Girls.
Aisha was driven through a dense tangle of tamarind and baobab trees, deep into the Sambisa Forest. After hours of travelling, the group arrived at a clearing filled with zinc-roofed buildings and tarpaulin tents, home to scores of militants and their families. The women were taken to a tent and fed dates—known in the Hausa language as dabino. Dates are revered in Islam: during Ramadan, the Prophet broke his fast with them, and many Muslims do the same today. Locals believe that militants place charms on the dabino that they feed their captives, in order to bewitch them. Some former captives have told me that they surreptitiously avoided eating the dates. Aisha did not believe that they were enchanted, but she was struck by the gentleness with which the militants fed them the fruit. They offered the women water to drink and encouraged them to get some rest. “That was when I started realizing that they were not as bad as people said they were,” she said.
Aisha began her life in captivity as a slave, running errands and doing chores for the wives of the militants and spending eleven hours a day in Quran classes. The captives were all kept in a single small tent, and militants came each day to select wives from among them. Almost immediately, a man named Mamman Nur began courting Aisha. Nur was a senior commander, or amir, and a close adviser to Shekau. He is thought to have been the mastermind behind the U.N. bombing, in 2011; shortly after the attack, the Nigerian government set a hundred-and-sixty-thousand-dollar bounty on his head. But to Aisha he was tender. Whenever he visited the tent, he paid her compliments and sang her songs in Arabic. “He was very romantic,” she said. “He showered me with gifts, like expensive wrappers, jewelry, and so on—any of the kind of things that women like.”
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