"Khadija" was just 8 years old when Boko Haram fighters attacked her village in northeast Nigeria and took her by force to their camp. Her abductors tried to marry her and other captives to members of the armed Islamist group, she told me. When the captives refused, they were locked in a room.
They managed to escape a month later, but Khadija's ordeal didn't end there. Nigerian soldiers found her. But instead of returning her to her family, they detained her in a military prison for two years as a suspected Boko Haram member.
Boko Haram’s crimes in northeast Nigeria are notorious: abductions, forced marriage, suicide bombings, and attacks on schools perceived as providing “Western education.” But the victims of the insurgency also include thousands of children imprisoned by Nigerian authorities for suspected Boko Haram involvement, often with little or no evidence.
Since 2012, the United States has spent over US$100 million to help Nigerian authorities try to defeat Boko Haram. As part of its counter-insurgency efforts, Nigeria’s military has detained thousands of suspected Boko Haram members. Those detained since 2013 have included at least 3,600 children, the UN says.
In 20 years of human rights work, I've never come across conditions as bad as the children described at Giwa barracks, the main military detention facility in northeast Nigeria
In June I interviewed some of these children, including one 10-year-old boy who was detained when he was only 5 years old. What became clear is that most of these children were victims of Boko Haram. The government's detention policies simply add another layer to their suffering.
One boy I met said he was detained for two-and-a-half years for allegedly selling yams to Boko Haram members. Other children told us soldiers arrested and detained them after they fled Boko Haram attacks on their villages, sometimes singling out adolescent boys perceived as being of fighting age. Several children said that soldiers accused them of being Boko Haram because they hadn't left their villages soon enough after Boko Haram attacks. Girls who were abducted and forced to become Boko Haram wives have also been detained.
The vast majority of these children are never charged with a crime. Most are held for months and often years with no contact with the outside world. Their families often presume they are dead. Of the 32 children a colleague and I interviewed, none said they were ever taken before a judge or appeared in court. Only one said he saw someone who he believed might have been a lawyer.
In 20 years of human rights work, I've never come across conditions as bad as the children described at Giwa barracks, the main military detention facility in northeast Nigeria. They described cells so crowded that they were forced to sleep on their sides, packed tightly together in rows. "We were so close you couldn't put one finger between one person and the next," said one. "We were like razorblades in a pack," said another.
They described beatings, overwhelming heat, and an overpowering stench from hundreds of detainees sharing a single open toilet. Many spoke of frequent hunger or thirst. Deaths were common, and many of the children said they saw soldiers carry bodies out of the cells.
Many of the children I met felt doubly victimized, first by Boko Haram for abducting them or attacking their village, and then by the government for detaining them. Many felt frustrated that the military did not adequately investigate their claims that they were not part of Boko Haram. "My years were wasted in suffering," said one bitterly.
Several of Nigeria's neighbors, including Chad, Niger, and Mali, have signed "handover protocols" with the United Nations to ensure that children detained by soldiers are swiftly transferred to child protection authorities for rehabilitation, family reunification, and community reintegration. Nigeria should do the same, and immediately release children in military custody to national child welfare authorities. The US, as a major supporter of Nigeria's counter-insurgency operations, should urge Nigeria to take these steps.
Boko Haram has caused untold suffering for millions, and it's possible some children may have committed serious crimes. If Nigerian authorities have credible evidence of criminal offenses by children, they should transfer them to civilian authorities for treatment in accordance with international juvenile justice standards.
Locking up children based on speculation or dubious evidence is not an effective way to counter Boko Haram's violence. The former child detainees I met had no sympathy for Boko Haram or interest in fighting. They want to go to school or find work to support themselves. Instead of putting them in prison, Nigerian authorities should help them build their future.
Jo Becker is the children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and author of "They Didn't Know if I was Alive of Dead": Military Detention of Children for Suspected Boko Haram Involvement in Northeast Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter at @jobeckerhrw.