“I was getting married or having a belt with explosives on my hip”: the drama of girls who are forcibly converted into suicide bombers by Boko Haram

Falmata is receiving a complete beauty treatment.

She knows she will look beautiful, but that will have a fatal consequence.

Once it is ready, you will be tied to a belt full of explosives.

Falmata is one of hundreds of young women, most of them teenagers, who have been forced by the jihadist group Boko Haram to become suicide bombers in Nigeria.

It all started when I was 13 years old and was visiting a relative’s house in Banki, near the border with Cameroon.

While walking down the street was abducted by two men on a motorcycle. They traveled for hours by road entering the jungle.

“In the place where they took me there were many tents and houses with thatch roofs,” he recalled, “the younger girls put us in the tents, in mine there were nine other girls and we had to sleep on huge mats.”

The camp was Boko Haram , the radical Islamist group fighting for the establishment of an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.

Falmata tried to escape, but it was impossible. And then he found himself at a crossroads: either he married a fighter or he went on a “mission”. She refused to marry: “I told them I was too small to do it.”

There was only one option left. To which, miraculously, he survived.

The mission

Of course I had no idea what the so-called “mission” means.

He attended daily religious lessons in which verses of the Koran were recited for hours and it was the only activity he liked.

Until one day the monotony was interrupted.

An armed man approached him and instructed him to prepare for something important

They straightened her hair and decorated her feet with jena. He thought that they would force her to marry by force.

Two days later, a couple of fighters tied a pump belt on his hip. His goal was to be a market or some other busy place.

And they told her that if she killed “unfaithful” infidels, she would go straight to paradise.

“I was so scared I started crying, but they kept telling me to be patient, to accept life as it was, and that in paradise everything would be different .

Then they took her with two other girls, also equipped with belts, to the outskirts of a town.

In their hands they had homemade detonators.

They ordered them to walk towards the village: men would observe them from a distance.

But, along the way, the three made the decision not to carry out the mission.

Falmata asked a stranger who was in town to help him remove his belt.

Then he sought to return home on a dusty road.

Soon after, he found two men on the side of the road.

He realized, very late by the way, that both belonged to Boko Haram.

Falmata was kidnapped for the second time.

A history of violence

A Sanaa Mehaydali is considered the first woman suicide bomber in modern history .

He was 16 when he blew himself up in front of two Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon in 1985 .

Since then, extremist groups such as Hezbollah, the Kurds of the PKK , the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Hamas and the Black Widows in Chechnya have used women and girls in suicide attacks.

But Boko Haram has risen one step in the brutality of his methods, according to Elizabeth Pearson, an academic at the Royal United Service Institute in London and author of a book on Boko Haram.

According to their analysis, until 2017, 454 women and adolescents were immolated or arrested in 232 incidents in countries such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Those attacks left 1,225 dead.

The first of those attacks recorded by Pearson occurred in June 2014, near a military installation, a few days after the abduction by Boko Haram of 276 minors, who are known as the ” Chibok girls”.

Although Boko Haram had already kidnapped girls and women before, this fact caused a great international uproar.

“That June 2014 attack gave them more publicity than all of the previous ones, using young men, which is why they continued to use girls,” Pearson said.

For her part, Fátima Akilu , a psychologist at the Neem Foundation who serves the communities affected by Boko Haram, is clear that at the beginning many of the attacks were children inspired by the ideology and rhetoric of the Islamist group.

“Most of the children were volunteers because they really believed they were going to go directly to paradise,” Akilu said.

“But when the Nigerian army’s offensive intensified, the group of volunteer men fell significantly, so Boko Haram began to kidnap and coerce girls into executing suicide missions,” he added.

And there seems to be no age limit for that cruelty.

In December 2016 , two girls estimated to be 7 and 8 years old were sent to a double suicide attack in a market in northeastern Nigeria. One person died and 17 others were injured.

Escape

The men who kidnapped Falmata for the second time belonged to another Boko Haram unit and did not know that she had just left a suicide mission. If they had known, they would probably have killed her on the spot.

They took her to another camp and there she lived that routine again: eating, cleaning, praying, reciting verses from the Koran for hours, sleeping and starting over.

And this has its effect: according to the Neem Foundation, the women and children rescued from this jihadist group often adopt the beliefs of Boko Haram when they are under their control. Many have not received education before, of any kind.

“They have hundreds of people in captivity in their camps and there is not much there to keep them busy, so they end up teaching five or six hours of religious teachings,” Akilu said. “And the captives paradoxically find that religion helps them to deal better with their situation.”

After a month there, Falmata faced the same crossroads of the previous camp: getting married or a mission.

And again he rejected the marriage.

But this time it would be wiser. She painted herself with jena , straightened her hair, put the pump belt under a long dress and went out.

She ran out as soon as she was sent to walk towards her mission.

On the way he met some farmers, to whom he asked them to remove his belt because he did not want it to explode.

“They were scared, but they felt sorry for me and they helped me,” he said.

For several days he hid in a forest, looking for a way back to Maiduguri , the town where his family lived.

“I spent a week without food, I was terrified, but I finally made it to a village.”

A family gave her shelter for a few days and then helped her to get home. But her martyrdom did not end there: she spent months hiding, fearing that the Nigerian authorities would arrest her.

And also looking to reconcile with his past.

“She was away from her family for a long time and it is possible that she had changed, but her family too, and all of that carries certain traumas,” Akilu said.

Like many families in northeastern Nigeria, that of Falmata ended up divided by conflict.

Live now with your mother in a camp for displaced people. Conditions are difficult, but at least nobody knows their history.

Reaction

On the few occasions when a girl like Falmata manages to escape alive from a Boko Haram camp, she faces difficult times.

Most of those who do not detonate their bombs are captured by the Nigerian security forces and are taken to a “deradicalization center”.

These places are run by the army and very little is known about what happens in them. In mid-January, the Nigerian army said it had freed the first group of ” de-radicalized ” people, although it is unknown where they are now.

And the women who escape and return to their communities must remain in the shadows, because they are called “annoba”, which means something like “epidemic”.

“People in the communities see the young woman and think ‘is someone capable of eliminating our entire community, how can we have her back here?” Akilu explained.

In addition, these girls remind them of the terror they have lived in their country.

Boko Haram is considered one of the most lethal militant groups in modern history.

Since 2009 they have killed more than 27,000 people in Nigeria. And many more in Chad, Cameroon and Niger. And that fight has caused the displacement of almost two million people.

“Nearly 90% of the communities in the northeast (of Nigeria) have been affected by Boko Haram,” said the specialist.

“So when girls come back, a kind of secondary trauma is generated, there’s a huge stigma problem.”

The second time Falmata had an explosive belt hanging from his body he was 14 years old.

He had not seen his family for more than a year.

She had been held inside an extremist camp and subjected to strong religious indoctrination .

She felt the taste of freedom, but very briefly until she was kidnapped again.

So why not detonate the belt and end all this suffering?

“I wanted to live, killing is not good, that’s what my family taught me, and that’s what I think too.”

 

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