8 December 2016

Nigeria: Boko Haram stole my child

Photo: Plan International
Grace*, 40, has no idea where her son is. She hasn’t seen him for two years – not since Boko Haram attacked her village and took her family prisoner.

Grace lives in Adamawa state, Northern Nigeria. For the past 6 years, the area has been gripped by violence as Boko Haram have tried to exert its influence on the region. Farms have been seized, villages razed and millions of people displaced fleeing the violence of Boko Haram and the extreme hunger that has followed in its wake.

It was early in the morning when Boko Haram attacked Grace’s village. The still morning air brutally punctured by the crack of gunfire and the screams of Grace’s neighbours.

“They began to burn our properties. They burned our food stores of ground nut, corn, rice, beans, even our cattle feed” she recalls.

During the confusion, some of the villagers were able to escape into the forest. However, at 8 months pregnant, Grace knew that she would not make it to the cover of the forest. She was seized just a few metres from her door, her husband and 12-year-old son being discovered moments later.

“They tied my husband’s and son’s hands behind their backs and loaded us all on to trucks. We drove for a long time and arrived at a large compound. We were taken to a big building and separated. The men and boys were taken away.”

“The next day we were forced to undertake a religious bathing ritual. They said you are going to accept our faith. The penalty for refusal is death.”

Separated from her family, pregnant and afraid, Grace had little choice but to comply with her captors demands. Escape seemed impossible, the little energy she had, was exhausted fending off the beatings she had received. With no alternative, she adopted her new routine, hoping it would keep her and her baby safe.

The details of her captivity are hazy. Grace remembers how she would cook for the men, clean the buildings and how she was given the same meagre meal every day. The days seeming to merge into a single long memory of servitude.

When she begins to describe her escape she visibly brightens and becomes far more animated and it is clear that she recalls this memory more vividly. “One night I was going outside to use the toilet and I noticed that the gate to our enclosure had been left open. I knew this could be my only opportunity, my baby was due very soon and if I did not escape before the birth, I knew I might not get another chance.”

“I ran through the gate and despite my pregnancy, I scaled the perimeter fence and ran to the forest. I didn’t know my direction. I kept on moving, groping in the dark until I came to a village after many hours. The next day, I found my way back home.”

It has been two years since Grace escaped from Boko Haram. Thankfully, her husband also escaped and the two of them are beginning to piece together the fragments of their life.

However, Grace still has no news of her son. According to reports, the militants have now moved from the area and Grace assumes that they have taken her son with them “He is somewhere…” she says, looking at the mountains in the distance. “I cannot imagine where he is or what he is doing now. I just pray that he finds his way back home one day.”

Children are paying a heavy price at the hands of Boko Haram and everyone in Grace’s village knows a child who was taken, many of them remain missing. Although they cannot be certain, their parents fear the worst. The stories of Boko Haram’s child brides and child soldiers, being all too prevalent in the region.

Plan International has recently scaled up its response to the crisis by opening two field offices in Adamawa and Borno states - the worst-affected areas in Nigeria. One of the programmes that will be rolled out will work towards reuniting mothers, like Grace, with their children and relatives that have been stolen by Boko Haram.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

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