Ex-Boko Haram fighters face their hardest battle: Reintegration

After living with Boko Haram, runaways, including wives and children, struggle for social acceptance in Nigeria.

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    Female relatives of Boko Haram fighters are assumed to be sympathetic to the group, even if they ran away from their partners [Simpa Samson/Al Jazeera]
    Female relatives of Boko Haram fighters are assumed to be sympathetic to the group, even if they ran away from their partners [Simpa Samson/Al Jazeera]

    Maiduguri, Nigeria - A ring with a big red glass stone sits on Mohammed Adamu's middle finger. It is all that is left of the small jewellery business that he tried to set up.

    "It reminds me that I need to push much harder to be able to get out of here," he said.

    Adamu, 30, is a former Boko Haram fighter who now lives in a refugee camp.

    He claims he was captured by the group and joined in 2014, along with his wife and four children.

    "In the beginning, I liked their ideology, everything happening in God's name," he said. "But soon, I realised that it was all about killing people. They just murdered without reason. So, I decided to run away."

    They lived with Boko Haram, but one year into their "captivity", fighters killed his family members, he said.

    In 2017, he managed to flee. 

    But reintegrating back into society has been near impossible.

    After leaving, ex-fighters must complete a government-led rehabilitation programme, which lasts up to one year.

    At the end, they receive 45,000 naira, about $125, a sum aimed at helping them kickstart their new life.

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    When Adamu arrived back in Gwoza, a northeastern town near Cameroon of almost 400,000 people - mostly Muslims, local elders had already decided not to accept back anyone who had lived with Boko Haram. 

    In an instant, Adamu was an outcast.

    He moved into a refugee shelter in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno, living alongside displaced people, many of whom had lost loved ones to Boko Haram attacks.

    Former fighters were not welcome guests.

    "If I had known that I would be so rejected here, I would have stayed in the bush," he said.

    He used the last of his savings to buy jewellery to trade in the suburbs, but this brought little income.

    Now, Adamu sees no way out of the refugee camp.

    I tried to run away four times. When they caught me the third time, they brought me to my husband. My husband threatened he would order to kill me immediately, should I even try to escape again.

    Zaha Banu*, ex-wife of Boko Haram fighter

    The Boko Haram "uprising" began in 2009. Over the past 10 years, the armed group has killed thousands of people, taken hundreds of young women captive to be fighters' "wives", kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls, and forcibly recruited huge numbers of boys and men to join the battlefield.

    Speaking to Al Jazeera in Bakassi refugee camp in Maiduguri, Mohamed (not his real name) said he has been trying to get on his feet for three years, but the stigma weighs heavily.

    He claims that he was forced to join Boko Haram after fighters attacked his town in 2014, and that he never killed anyone. 

    But his neighbours don't trust him.

    Mohamed lived with Boko Haram for one year, together with his wife and five children, in a town called Naona.

    At first, he found the ideology appealing - all the talk about fighting in the name of God.

    "But after realising the cruel side of their preaching, I started to doubt the ideology because of the massive killings."

    The longer he stayed, the less he could bear it.

    "They kept telling us that the Nigerian army would kill us immediately if they caught us. So, even those of us who thought about running away, stayed hiding in the bush," he said. 

    One day, he decided he couldn't face it any longer - even if that meant risking death and losing his family, who he left behind. He had feared his wife or children may tell someone else about his desire to leave, increasing the likelihood of them all being killed.

    When he reached a military post in Gwoza, not far from where he had been living with the armed group, Mohamed discovered that he would not be killed by Nigerian troops - that the Boko Haram fighters had spun him a tale.

    But he soon realised that society would not accept him back either. He often spends his time with former fighters, who, like Adamu, claimed were the only people who understood him.

    Today, at 35 and having not heard from his family in three years, Mohamed has lost hope. His dream of running a convenience store is a distant dream.

    Ex boko fighters
    The Bakassi refugee camp in Maiduguri is home to both ex-Boko Haram fighters and victims of the group's bloody attacks [Alicia Prager/Al Jazeera]

    According to a government official who requested anonymity, the state-led rehabilitation programme, launched in 2016, is a successful project.

    She explained that earlier this year, the programme started to work closely with local communities, adding that more than 1,000 former Boko Haram fighters have been rehabilitated so far.

    But outside the corridors of power, the picture is different.

    "Boko Haram killed my husband and father, we cannot simply forgive and forget", said 20-year-old Laraba Mohammed, who cannot imagine living side by side with former fighters.

    After her family members were killed, she joined the Civilian JTF, a militia formed in Maiduguri that fights Boko Haram.

    To prepare the ex-fighters for verbal assaults, one of the key lessons of the rehabilitation programme is to keep quiet. Peace education, the government calls it.

    "People always talk bad behind my back. I do my best to ignore them," said Mohamed.

    Adamu said being ostracised was "humiliating". 

    "It is painful," he said.

    Dr Anthony Ali Mshelia, head of the Department of Mental Health at the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital in Maiduguri, treats former fighters and warned that their post-Boko Haram experiences could lead to substance abuse and depression.

    "And wherever they go, people will be sceptical if they were really only there in captivity," he said.

    Anyone associated with the group is most often rejected by the community, he said.

    The most common problem among his patients is drug abuse, especially tramadol - a narcotic-like pain reliever.

    Ex-fighters, IDPs and the unemployed are among the groups who use the drug. 

    The drug is also allegedly popular within Boko Haram. For some, tramadol numbs a sense of fear, fuelling risk-taking on the battlefield.

    Adamu said he was part of Boko Haram's drug business; his main task was to get drugs to supply his fellow fighters.

    Stigma sticks to family members

    In addition to former fighters, some ex-wives of Boko Haram members say they are outcast from society and that finding a new husband can be difficult.

    Zarah Bunu (not her real name) lives in Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, and spends her time with other women in her predicament.

    Originally from Marte, she was already married when she suddenly discovered that her husband had joined the group. They moved into a Boko Haram village - she stayed for a year.

    "I tried to run away four times. When they caught me the third time, they brought me to my husband. My husband threatened he would order to kill me immediately, should I even try to escape again. But four days after my son was born, we ran again", the 20-year-old said. 

    That time, with her only child in her arms, she got away successfully. 

    That was two years ago. Since then, she has always been labelled "a wife of Boko Haram", she said. 

    She gets particularly upset when people call the children of fighters, including hers, "Boko Haram bastards".

    Because of the heavy stigma, some decide to leave Borno state. 

    They create fake identities and start over, said Umar Lawal Yusuf, a researcher at the University of Maiduguri.

    Adamu has considered this exit plan, but was not yet ready to leave the area that raised him, where he has roots.

    He points to a small gold ring that he wears next to the big red one.

    "My father gave it to me," he said. "He wanted me to remember our traditions here in the northeast."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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