The girl who escaped from Boko Haram
- 5 July 2015
- From the section Magazine
Miriam was kidnapped by Boko Haram, forced to marry a fighter and then raped repeatedly. After managing to escape, she told me her story.
"Is that her real hair?" Miriam whispered to Samson, my Hausa translator. Slightly embarrassed, he relayed the question back to me in English. "Um, yes it is," I said. She looked astonished. Everyone in her community has braids, she explained, whereas my hair looked too straight to plait. She'd never seen anything like it.
I could tell that there was a great deal Miriam wanted to ask me. There was plenty I wanted to ask her too. But we'd met very late in the day, and everyone was exhausted.
Miriam, who's 17, had travelled from her home village several hours' drive away to tell us her story. She was held in captivity by Boko Haram for six months last year. She was forced to marry one of their fighters, who then raped her repeatedly. She is now pregnant with his child. Not that you could tell from her tiny frame, or the swathes of bright material draped across her body and covered by her long floral hijab.
Miriam arrived at our hotel escorted by a young man from her village who knew her family. It was not deemed appropriate for her to stay with him overnight, or to stay here alone. We asked Miriam what she wanted to do and she said, "I want to stay with her," pointing at me.
Miriam's English was marginally better than my non-existent Hausa. I managed to explain how to use the shower, arranged for her clothes to be laundered and gave her some of mine. She emerged from the shower wrapped in a fluffy white towel, looking like a child. When she pointed at her belly, I realised how heavily pregnant she was.
Later she told me how her community had rejected her since she came out of captivity expecting a child. "I really hope it is a girl. I would love her more than any boy. A boy would always be known as the son of Boko Haram."
It was around 10pm and I stepped outside to gather my thoughts. I was acutely aware of how vulnerable she was. I was also aware that some young women like Miriam have been forced, after months of torture and abuse, to join Boko Haram, and even kill on their demand. I was fearful of what this inquisitive young woman had seen, and how she might cope in these odd new surroundings with me, a total stranger.
In the hotel room, Miriam had fallen asleep, curled in a ball at the bottom of the bed.
I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew it was 5am, and for Miriam it was time to start the day. She dragged me over to the bathroom and pointed enthusiastically at my make-up bag. She picked up my face powder and signalled for me to apply some, then passed the lipstick and the eyeshadow. She batted her eyelids at me. Before I knew it, I was doing her make-up. Miriam was smiling and laughing and pulling on my hair to confirm it definitely was real.
Perhaps we both briefly forgot what a desperate situation Miriam was in. For a few moments, she was just your average 17-year-old girl messing around with make-up. But it was just a few moments.
Last year, Boko Haram attacked and took over her village. She was taken to a house and kept in a small room with about 40 other women. At first she resisted any marriage, but eventually agreed after four men were brought out in front of her and had their throats slit. "This will happen to any girl who refuses to marry," the militants had told her.
After six months, and one failed escape, Miriam saw another chance to run away. The man she'd been forced to marry had left her alone, and she seized her moment. She ran and ran and ran, and she didn't look back until she was home.
"I took something before I left," she told me. From a knot of material around her waist, Miriam pulled out a hidden SIM card. I couldn't believe her courage. She had taken it from her so-called husband's phone.
We watched its video files. There were villages being set alight, beheadings, dead bodies lying in the streets. A grainy image of a young man emerged, shaking his rifle to celebrate an attack on a village. "My husband," Miriam said. "If he ever sees me again, he will kill me."
The spark I'd seen in her earlier seemed to be fading. "The men in my family are dead," she told me - killed by Boko Haram. "I am just alone with my mum."
Then a light came back - but it seemed more like a blaze of anger. "God will avenge me," she said. "There's nothing more I can say."
More from the Magazine
A former Nigerian soldier tells Will Ross that, low on ammunition, soldiers are often outgunned and overpowered by better equipped Boko Haram militants.
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and Thursdays at 11:02 BST
BBC World Service: At weekends - see World Service programme schedule.
Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.