When she heard reports that Boko Haram was approaching her home town three years ago, Zainabeu Hamayaji had to think quickly. The Islamist militant group – whose name roughly translates as "Western Education is Forbidden" – had been terrorising the northeast of Nigeria since 2009, and now it was moving on to Madagali.
The 47-year-old’s biggest concern was her eldest daughter, Hassana Isa. At 12, she was young enough to enjoy childish games with her siblings, but old enough to be chosen as a wife for one of the violent militants whose organisation was becoming synonymous with destruction and bloodshed.
In that moment, Hamayaji made a decision that would change all of her family's lives. Speaking about it now, a range of emotions flicker across her face as she recounts what happened next. She is sitting in an old schoolroom-turned camp for the displaced in Gwoza, a rural Nigerian town that served as the headquarters of Boko Haram's once sizeable caliphate. Through a large bullet hole in the blackboard, she can see boys playing outside.
Eight years into a war that has caused tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2.5 million, the scale of the brutality of Boko Haram is still emerging. As more and more of the territory it seized becomes accessible, evidence of massacres, the use of child soldiers and other atrocities committed across Nigeria’s northeast are being laid bare.
So too come tales of heroism, bravery and ingenuity. Hamayaji’s story is one of these.
Hidden in a hole
“I dug a ditch within my compound,” she says. Inside it, Hamayaji hid almost 100 jerrycans of water, sacks of nonperishable food and some leather bags to use in lieu of a toilet. Then, she told her daughter to get inside the hole. Hamayaji covered the top of the hole with corrugated iron, and erected a tent on top. She kept her daughter hidden in that hole for the next nine months.
Within days, Boko Haram arrived in her town, killing her husband and many other local men, and quickly gaining total control of the area. “I saw them killing so many people because they were trying to escape, so I couldn’t leave,” Hamayaji says.
Next, as anticipated, the militants went door to door looking for young women. Tipped-off about Hamayaji’s eldest, they turned up at her house. “I swore and swore I didn’t have a daughter but they didn’t believe me and kept beating me,” she says.
“They came every day to beat me and they were constantly terrorising me. So I decided to strip myself of all of my clothing and just walk around naked in the village. I un-plaited my hair to look like a mad woman. I urinated and put faeces on my hair and my body. I’d go to the town centre and roll around in trash so they would think I was mentally unstable.”
Her other three children – aged seven, 10 and 11 – backed up the charade, telling the sceptical militants that their mother had been attending a psychiatric hospital before the town was captured.
Hamayaji demonstrates how, while pretending to be mentally unwell, she would pull her other daughters close to her. She’d have flies swarming around her, attracted to the excrement. This was another ploy to save her children.
“Boko Haram decided they did not want a child from a madwoman. Previously they had killed a madwoman and the curse from the madwoman prevented them from any military successes. They didn’t want to kill another, so I was spared because of their belief. They wrote something on the wall saying nobody should attack this madwoman, it will be a curse. So I was protected.”
Nine months after Boko Haram arrived in Madagali, it was ousted by the Nigerian military.
When the army’s soldiers arrived they were also suspicious of Hamayaji, asking her whether she had been married to a member of Boko Haram, unable to understand how she had survived without collaborating. She explained to them that her daughter had been living for nine months in the ditch she had dug for her.
For mother and daughter, the scars will last a long time. Hamayaji still has a dislocated shoulder from being repeatedly beaten — which, along with almost constant headaches, stops her from working. She has a scar on her forehead, and a missing tooth. She gesticulates wildly when telling her story, almost reenacting the persona she had to adopt to get her through those nine horrific months.
She readily accepts that what she did was unusual. “There are not a lot of woman who sacrificed like that,” she says. “Other women actually gave away their children for selfish reasons, because Boko Haram were giving money at the time – they got food in exchange and needed to eat.”
The sum being paid for children ranged from 100,000 Nigerian naira (€278) to twice that amount, she says.
Hamayaji says sometimes the militants would give mothers land in the villages they had captured as a kind of dowry for their daughters. “Women would be so elated, they’d collect the money and the properties.”
Boko Haram came to global attention when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from their dormitories in Chibok. However, thousands of other women and girls have also been abducted or forced into marriages by the terror group. While some have few complaints about how they were treated, many have suffered physical and sexual abuse, and some forced into warfare.
Former wives have told stories of regular rape by both their “husbands” and other militants, forced labour and even the possibility of being made to carry a suicide bomb. The majority of bombings in public areas are currently carried out by women, some of whom may not know what they’re carrying, as the devices are detonated by militants from a distance.
For women and girls who escape, the threat of abuse remains. Last October, a Human Rights Watch report found that displaced women were being raped and sexually exploited by Nigerian authorities including government officials, police and camp leaders.
For now, Hamayaji says her eldest daughter is safe. Aged 14, she is at the Eid (end of Ramadan) celebrations when I meet her mother. However, in common with some 11 million other children across north east Nigeria, Hassana Isa is not in school and has limited opportunities. Hamayaji is reduced to begging for scraps to feed the family, she says, though it's better than living under Boko Haram control.
“I will see what the future holds. I don’t know what will happen,” Hamayaji says, batting away flies in the dark, empty schoolroom, the sounds of hundreds of other displaced people outside. “I just know we’re safe now.”