Boko Haram abductions: Freed 'bride' tells of stigma ordeal

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Yola, north-eastern Nigeria

  • Published
Media caption,

Zara John: "They gave us a choice to be married or to be a slave - I decided to marry"

Zara is 17 years old and she has a terrible story. It is the story of Boko Haram and what this brutal Islamist group is doing to thousands of people in north-eastern Nigeria and surrounding countries.

Zara was kidnapped by Boko Haram and then freed by the army, but now finds herself sometimes wishing she was back in the forest rather than suffering the stigma of life as a Boko Haram bride.

She wasn't one of the missing Chibok schoolgirls, and until now didn't have her own social media hashtag, but like thousands of others - free or still captive - is deeply traumatised.

In telling #ZarasStory it's the first time she has spoken to outsiders about her terrible experience a year on, and the pain she still suffers to this day.

"They gave us a choice - to be married, or to be a slave. I decided to marry," she said.

There is little difference, but for the child she was soon bearing.

Image caption,
Zara says she has become an outcast in her community

Life was tough and dangerous. The air force jets bombarded the vast Sambisa Forest where the militants have their camps and from where soldiers rescued her and eventually returned her to her relatives.

"The women in our family realised she was three months pregnant," said her uncle Mohamed Umaru, who told us more of her story.

"In our family it happens that some of us are Christians and some are Muslims. She was a Christian before she was kidnapped but the Boko Haram who married her turned her into a Muslim."

There was a split in the family over what to do and they took a vote as to whether she should abort or keep the child.

The majority prevailed and she gave birth to a boy.

"She said her husband's father is called Usman, so that is how she named the child," Mohamed said.

And then the insults began.

"People call me a Boko Haram wife and called me a criminal. They didn't want me near. They didn't like me," Zara said as a tear slowly slipped down her cheek.

Image caption,
Zara says she prefers the forest to her home

She now sits inside the small walled compound around her house, afraid to go outside because of the cruel insults of the neighbourhood children - messages of hate learned from their parents.

"They didn't like my child. When he fell sick nobody would look after him," she said.

Last weekend, as Zara slept outside with Usman because of the heat, a snake got into their compound and the boy was killed. He was just nine months old.

Half the family celebrated what they called God's will.

"Some were happy that he died," Zara said. "They were happy the blood of Boko Haram had gone from the family."

Image caption,
Zara says she is afraid to go outside because of the insults

"They said thank God that the kid is dead, that God has answered their prayers," Mohamed explained.

"Sometimes she says she wants to go to school and become a doctor and help society, but sometimes, when people insult her, she says she wants to go back to the Sambisa Forest.

"She always talks about her husband who happens to be a Boko Haram commander. She says the guy is nice to her and that he wants to start a new life with her."

Listening to Zara's story, told quietly with eyes flicking down at the ground, it is hard to imagine anyone going through what she has gone though, let alone a 17-year-old girl.

Mohamed said Zara's life had become so intolerably hard that on one occasion she had said she wanted to "go and do a suicide mission".

"She will, she will, she will definitely do that if she gets the chance," he added.


But there is so much confusion in her face and in her answers - she is not a killer, she is just a child.

"The feeling for the forest is strong now, but it will go away. I will forget the time with Boko Haram, but not yet," Zara said.

She says she is in love with her husband although she believes she has been brainwashed. She feels abandoned by her family and stigmatised by her community.

She is sad, she is angry, she is confused. She is 17.

"People should understand that these children didn't create this, but if we continue to stigmatise people with such trauma we might create something much, much bigger than Boko Haram in the future," her uncle says.

"You are creating a more dangerous thing than Boko Haram if you grow up not welcomed by society and with nobody wanting to help you.

"My prayer is for the government to do something. They should come to their aid and reintegrate them and show them love."

So many girls like Zara have been abducted, so many others are still being held.

There is torment for those who wait and hope, and there is pain for those who survive.

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