Maiduguri, Nigeria - Barrister Aisha Wakil is quite literally caught in the middle between Boko Haram fighters and the government of Nigeria - and has nearly died because of it.
For the past five years, "Mama Boko Haram" - the name given to her by locals - has been negotiating a peace agreement between religious fighters and Nigerian authorities in Maiduguri, the main city in the troubled northeast.
From her home in Maiduguri's Shehuri North district, the former stronghold for Boko Haram, Aisha recalled how she first became acquainted with the hard-line group, which has received global notoriety for recently abducting more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, and its violent programme to implement strict Islamic law across Nigeria.
Thousands of people have died - more than 2,000 so far this year - and an estimated 750,000 Nigerians have been driven from their homes in the five-year-old conflict.
Barrister Aisha has a lot of contacts and personally knows many who are in the group. She instigated dialogue through her contacts and nearly died trying to facilitate talks.
In April 2013, Aisha was one of two women appointed to the government-initiated Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North. She was also named as a must-have participant by Boko Haram representatives.
A lawyer and human rights activist, Aisha along with 25 other committee members consisting of politicians and northern community leaders were given the task of identifying and engaging key leaders of Boko Haram, and developing a framework for amnesty and disarmament of the group.
Sheathed in a full black niqab with only her light brown eyes peering out from behind her spectacles, the 44-year-old told Al Jazeera about how she first became involved with Boko Haram, including its slain chief Mohammed Yusuf who was shot dead allegedly while trying to escape police custody in 2009.
"I would visit his house regularly and always cooked food to bring to the almajaris [pupils] of the Quranic school," Aisha said.
"Yusuf would always be there preaching and he liked my cooking very much, especially my egusi soup. He prayed that Almighty Allah would reward me because so many were eating from my pot, and that was how we established a close relationship. The boys called me 'mum'. Many of them didn't have mothers."
Killed in custody
Aisha described the cult of personality that Yusuf developed among his followers.
"Yusuf would attract a large crowd whenever he preached, especially the youth. He was a very good orator and he knew the Quran very well. I think that was what really carried people away with him," she said.
But as the number of his supporters began to grow and his rhetoric intensified, Nigerian authorities began to run out of patience.
"Yusuf was giving a sermon insulting the government. They wanted Sharia law implemented across the entire country. That was when Yusuf started getting dragged into the police net. They would arrest him for one thing or another," said Aisha.
Yusuf confided in her that Boko Haram was planning to "wage war" amid increasing repression and government violence. "It had got serious … He said, 'Mum you were here when they shot and killed my followers and as we were carrying the bodies they shot us again. My hands are tied, but if we're able to meet governor Ali Sheriff [former governor of Borno state] and talk things over, the war will not happen.'"
That meeting did not take place, however, after Yusuf died in police custody on July 30, 2009. Since then, violence in the region has dramatically escalated, and the government later turned to Aisha to use her influence as "Mama Boko Haram" to initiate peace talks.
She has risked her life to communicate with Boko Haram, and was nearly killed in the crossfire of a gun battle between soldiers and fighters as she entered a remote region under their control for talks.
|More than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls remain missing [AP]
"Barrister Aisha has a lot of contacts and personally knows many who are in the group," said Bulama Gubio from the Borno Elders Forum, and a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on National Dialogue.
"She instigated dialogue through her contacts and nearly died trying to facilitate talks between Boko Haram and the government. The process of dialogue can only be successful if those who are involved in the grass roots level are included. Boko Haram trust her and she is a vital key from their community."
Fight for Islamic law
Nigeria's 170 million people are nearly evenly divided between Christians, who dominate the south, and the primarily northern-based Muslims. Boko Haram - which means "Western education is prohibited" in the local Hausa dialect - has called for the enforcement of Islamic law even among non-Muslims.
Sharia law has been implemented in 12 of Nigeria's 36 states - all in the north - after Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999 following years of military rule.
As Aisha recounted her story, a gurgling baby boy crawled around her feet and rested two chubby fists on her ankles, lifting his head up to shed a smile. In her humble home, men sit on the floor eating food. They do not meet her eyes as she passes, and instead smile at the floor and greet her as "mama".
"I know all the boys from here," she said, picking up the infant in her arms. "I held them when they were born."
As a married Muslim woman, Aisha could be considered an unlikely associate of West Africa's most notorious rebel group. But Nigerian women have been at the forefront of Boko Haram's activities, not only as victims of abduction but also as galvanisers of political action.
|A video grab of the girls held by Boko Haram fighters [AFP]
In April, a "million woman march" protested the mass kidnapping of the girls and was accompanied by the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls campaign organised in the capital, Abuja, which rapidly spread throughout the country and across the world, eventually reaching the US White House.
Even before the mass abduction, women in Maiduguri under the aegis of "Concerned Mothers of Borno" marched for peace back in 2009.
"Women should be included in all talks and the peace process in northern Nigeria," said Hamsatu Allamin of the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme.
"Barrister Aisha is … fighting for all our children so that they don't have to grow up in a society filled with hatred, killing and fighting."
Barrister Aisha is … fighting for all our children so that they don't have to grow up in a society filled with hatred, killing and fighting.
'Nigeria's lost boys'
Aisha said Boko Haram had separated the more than 200 kidnapped girls into "many groups".
Asked how the schoolgirls were being treated, Aisha said, "I know that Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awatiwal-Jihad [original Boko Haram fighters led by Mohammed Yusuf] don't touch women or elderly ones."
But she added that Boko Haram has evolved over the years and the girls were abducted by members who have deviated from its original teachings.
"I have spoken to them about the girls and the situation to plead for their release. When this first happened they told me the girls are well but some are sick. They need medication. They are giving them antibiotics but they cannot buy food to feed them. They are attacking villages for supplies."
Aisha said she asked Boko Haram what they wanted in return for the girls' release, and was told the government must free about 70 of their fighters from prison.
"And they want to be given amnesty, rehabilitated, and allowed to come back home and move freely," she added. "I told them not to hold the girls as ransom and to give me the sick ones - and that was where we ended up. The girls are a growing burden to them, and if the demands are not met ..."
Aisha paused and closed her eyes tightly, trying to hold back tears.
"I don't agree with what they are doing, but I speak to them because I am their mother. Sometimes they call me Um el Salam [Arabic for mother of peace]. These are Nigeria's lost boys. My hope is that the government listens to them and lets them have dialogue.
"I'm still with them after all these years because I didn't betray them. I didn't betray the government, I didn't betray the military - I'm just in the middle grasping for peace."