Boko Haram, Victims and Executioners
Text by Daniele Bellocchio
Pictures by Marco Gualazzini
Boko Haram, victims and executioners
Dar es Salaam, house of peace, a prophetic name for a village just a short distance from Bol where victims of the jihadist group Boko Haram live. An infinite spread of sand and huts where families twisted by hatred and fear, spend their time living with the memories of constant pain without being able to forget. Zenaba Ali Abou, 36 years old, was kidnapped in 2014, together with her son still in swaddling clothes, by the rebel soldiers of Abubakar Shekau (leader of Boko Haram).
The wrinkles carved onto her face, a stigma of her ordeal, a face which crystallizes the sense of hopeless suffering which enveloped her with fear. “For two years I was their slave, they gave me to be married to a soldier, who forced me to do his bidding and made me pregnant. I gave birth when I was a prisoner; then, a year later, one night, I took my children and, taking advantage of the distraction offered by the raging battle, I fled with another woman.
During the battle, not being able to escape with two children in my arms, I gave my smallest, the one born during the violence, to the woman who was with me. I was aware that there was a chance that something could happen to her, and I would have lost forever my son as well. It was because of this that I hate Boko Haram, because they have forced a mother to accept the possibility of abandoning her son. Fortunately, everything was ok on this day and my children are together. I want a happy life for them, but the sense of fear and guilt for what I have done will never give me peace.”
Similar to her is the story of Mariam Hassam. She is 20 years old, originally for the village of Midi Kouta, and today she lives also here in Dar es Salaam, sitting here just outside her home made of mud and straw, a white veil surrounds here face as she concentrates on breastfeeding her baby: “I was kidnapped by the men of Boko Haram who forced me to marry a soldier, I think he was called Mahamat, I’m not too shure, but it’s not important, I just want to forget about him.
He abused me and I got pregnant. I managed to escape just before giving birth and I’m happy that my son came into this world when I was already free and was not born in a prison. Today all I have is him: he is the future!”, explains the woman, while she holds him tight against her breast, and then finishes the interview saying: “After everything that has happened to me, I am a woman without a past.”
To truly understand the horror of the jihadists occurring, it is necessary to step across the barrier that divides the victims and the perpetrators, to abandon that sense of ingrained solidarity with the innocent that have suffered, and to instead push ourselves to understand the other side, the artisan of the tragedy, the perpetrator of violence, the villain of history. It is a dangerous barrier to cross, but it has to be done, because our job is to speak on behalf of those who suffer, without discrimination, even when that involves venturing through doubts, doubts in understanding the line between right and wrong, an awareness that, perhaps, sometimes, the other executioner is nothing but a victim forced into this horror against their will, by necessity, for lack of choice against the oppression of jihadists, which is an anthropomorphic evil, whose goal is for the destruction of man.
Abdoullaye Tidjani, an ex-soldier of Boko Haram, lives in Bol, and spent three years of his life wearing camouflage, a balaclava and an assault rifle, but today he works in a carpentry workshop. It is difficult to imagine these hands, that are used to shave and hammer in search of redemption in an occupation of biblical sacredness, have carried out massacres, pulled the trigger on guns that have spilled the blood of the innocent. “I am a Nigerian and used to be a shopkeeper.
I was at work when the terrorists arrived and forced me and other men to become soldiers. Those who refused were killed. They took me to a training camp and we quickly began military training, once this was finished they sent me into battle. First we attacked villages or military posts, they made us pray and the imam told us to kill because it was the will of Allah.” Then the ex-islamist rebel continued: “I continued to see people killed without cause and one day it came to a point in which I had to ask myself: “why?”.
From that moment I had no desire other than to escape. One night during a military operation I managed to escape and find my way here to Bol. It has been seven months since I arrived here and I would like to return to my life from before, but how can I go back after all of this horror?”.
Incidentally, it was also possible for us to speak with Halima Adama, the only suicide bomber, that we know of, to have survived this act of massacre. Today this woman is 20 years old and lives on the island of Gomirom Domou. In order to meet her, it was necessary to travel for hours in a small motorised canoe across the waters of Lake Chad. The temperatures are fierce, and there was risk of running into a group of Boko Haram soldiers hidden among the reeds or in the marshes throughout the length of our dangerous journey. The soldiers of the regular army don’t even attempt to maintain control of the reeds along the Kalashnikov flats, and it is only when our small boat crosses a small layer of silt and stops on an arid and deserted beach, that we know we have arrived on the island where the woman who everyone today knows as “the kamikaze” lives. After making our way through brambles, thistles and weeds, we find ourselves at a hut made of branches, the home of Halima Adama: she was sat on a wicker mat and soon after we arrived, begins to recount the story of her of her ordeal.
“When I was 12 years old, I was forced to marry a man who worked as a fisherman. One day, in 2016, my husband told me that that we were going to be transferred to an island where the fish were more abundant, but instead he turned me into a terrorist. After a year of indoctrination he came to tell me that he had offered me as a suicide bomber. I was terrified, the leaders summoned me, telling me that I would be acting out the will of Allah and that I would have to carry a bomb into in Bol. Then they drugged and strapped an explosive belt to me, I could not defy them, otherwise I would have been beheaded.” Listening to her, I could see the true terror deep in her eyes, and the fear which had controlled her. It is only through an understanding of the true importance of her testimony that I was able to continue to listen, and avoid being enveloped in the tragedy of her story. Halima Adama caresses her prosthetic legs and continues: “We were a group of eight attackers, men and women from Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, all with explosive belts tied to our bodies, but I put mine in a bag, I was too scared of dying. When we were three kilometers from Bol, we were intercepted by volunteer protectors from the village. The other suicide bombers quickly activated their belts, and there was an explosion, killing all of them: both vigilantes and bombers. I was the only one to live, I woke up in the hospital without legs and without a life.