The babies are called ‘bad blood’.
Before they can walk or talk, hostile eyes slide suspiciously over them. In the womb, even their mothers might suspect them.
They face a life being shunned, hated and rejected.
They are the children of the Nigerian militant group, Boko Haram, the products of forced marriage, sexual slavery and rape. Their plight was detailed on Tuesday in a report released by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF, and a British-based peace-building agency, International Alert.
“When I think of the baby that will come, it disturbs me a lot because I always ask myself this question, ‘Will the child also behave like [Boko Haram]?’” — An October interview by the report’s researchers with an unidentified woman freed after being abducted by Boko Haram. She wanted to terminate her pregnancy, but changed her mind after counseling in an internally displaced persons camp.
Boko Haram, which is fighting to establish an Islamic state in northeastern Nigeria, has beheaded people, burned schoolboys alive in dormitories and killed schoolteachers, among other atrocities. But the act that received the most attention was its 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Borno State. A few escaped. The others were never recovered.
Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, elected last year on a promise to defeat Boko Haram and end corruption, has vowed to free the abducted schoolgirls if possible. But he told their parents at a meeting last month that the authorities have no credible intelligence as to where they are.
The extremist group has abducted at least 2,000 girls and women since 2012. Nigerian forces have freed hundreds of abducted women and girls in recent months as they have driven Boko Haram out of towns and villages in northeastern Nigeria.
The girls are interrogated and screened by Nigerian officials and eventually allowed to move into displaced persons camps or return home.
But they are rarely welcomed, according to the UNICEF-International Alert report. Some were rejected by their husbands, or ejected by co-wives who persuaded their husbands to divorce them, according to the report.
“[Boko Haram] uses juju [witchcraft] to initiate members, so all women and children may have some of these traits in their blood.” — An unidentified representative of the Borno State Government said in an interview with researchers.
For much of 2014 and early 2015, Boko Haram controlled a vast swath of northeastern Nigeria. Its fighters with AK-47s would sweep into towns and villages on motorbikes, SUVs and even at times armoured personnel carriers. They often pulled up at the local market square and opened fire, killing dozens or hundreds of people.
They would burn down local shops, according to survivors of attacks, killing terrified shop keepers hiding inside. They dragged people out of their houses and killed them on the spot.
But Boko Haram rarely killed women, unless they were accused of being spies. Instead, they abduct and take them to base camps in their stronghold in Sambisa Forest near the Cameroon border. Some women disguised their sons as girls to escape death.
According to the report, women and girls who escaped Boko Haram are dubbed ‘annoba’, meaning ‘epidemic’, by their communities, suggesting that they can spread dangerous extremist ideas. They are also stigmatised and called ‘Sambisa women’, ‘Boko Haram blood’ and ‘Boko Haram wives’.
Rumours abound of women returning from Boko Haram camps and killing their parents.
“Popular cultural beliefs about ‘bad blood’ and witchcraft, as well as the extent of the violence experienced by people at the hands of Boko Haram, formed the basis of this fear.
“Victims’ husbands and fathers, whose views and feelings carry more weight in highly patriarchal societies such as the one in Borno, also have mixed feelings about their wives and daughters. These feelings range from complete rejection and fear to acceptance,” the report said.
“No, I will not accept her, I am afraid.” — Interview with family members of women and girls abducted by Boko Haram. The report doesn’t specify the relationship of the person speaking.
A group of community leaders interviewed said after a group of women who had escaped from Boko Haram moved into the area, community leaders set up a committee to spy on them. Women abducted and kept by Boko Haram in Gwoza, which was the group’s headquarters, where it set up governing structures, were regarded with deep suspicion, according to the report.
It said they would likely be attacked or even killed if they leave the displaced persons camps and attempt to return home.
“Should they attempt to return with the rest of their community to Gwoza, they may face grave danger,” the report said.
Even where women are reluctantly accepted, their children face rejection, stigma and suspicion.
“The child of a snake is a snake,” goes a local saying. One community leader interviewed for the report called the babies of Boko Haram fighters ‘hyenas among dogs’.
The report concluded that it was unlikely that children of Boko Haram fighters would ever gain acceptance.
“The lady would be accepted, but not her child because of the husband’s genes.” — Interview with an unidentified government leader in Borno State.
“There is a belief that, like their fathers, the children will inevitably do what hyenas do and ‘eat’ the innocent dogs around them. In addition to the immediate risks to these children, it is likely that they will be stigmatised throughout their life, thus increasing their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation,” the report said.
The report called for government programmes to sensitise communities to the suffering of Boko Haram victims and the children born of rape.
Community distrust of the women and girls has been deepened by Boko Haram’s recent practice of using them in suicide attacks. Last week, dozens of people were killed when two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in a displaced persons camp in Dikwa, 55 miles northeast of the Borno State capital, Maiduguri. A third woman was captured after deciding not to detonate her bomb because she didn’t want to kill her parents, who were in the camp, according to local officials.
Local people interviewed by the researchers said screening of women before allowing them to move into camps wasn’t sufficient to ensure they don’t harbour extremist ideas.
“An overwhelming majority among the displaced population remain deeply distrustful of the returnees even though they have been screened. They believe that the women and girls need to go through a more comprehensive rehabilitation process before returning to their village of origin, as many fear that their return to the environment from where they were abducted could re-traumatise and ‘radicalise’ them.”
The writer, Dixon is a Contact Reporter with Los Angeles Times