Maiduguri, Nigeria – Boko Haram killed the two most important people in Komi Kaje’s life within two days.
In November 2015, Komi Akaji, her 46-year-old brother, was shot dead by Boko Haram fighters.
“There were seven students killed. When I got there, I saw he was shot twice in the head,” Kaje said.
The days of mourning followed according to tradition. Kaje was broken but Peter Adam, her 35-year-old boyfriend, provided some relief. On a Saturday afternoon, Adam observed mourning rites with Kaje’s family and shared lunch with her.
But Boko Haram attacked again, turning a visit of solace into sorrow.
“They shot him in his chest and head and he fell inside a ditch. The bullet touched his brain,” said Kaje, her eyes in tears.
Kaje has tried hard to forget the killings but military sirens, the sound of gunfire, and constant exposure to the areas where her loved ones were shot dead were enough to provoke new trauma.
If she moved to a new city, her parents thought, it might help her heal. Kaje relocated to Abuja, Nigeria‘s capital, to spend some recovery time.
But Kaje realised the solution wasn’t to run, “because Boko Haram was everywhere”.
Maybe, Kaje thought, if she could play a role in defeating the fighters some healing would come. At the time, the armed group held many towns and villages captive as part of a so-called “Islamic caliphate”.
Boko Haram since 2009 has killed more than 27,000 people and forced another two million out of their homes.
When Kaje introduced the idea of joining the fight against the rebellion to her friends and family, it was received with mockery and indifference. “How can a woman fight Boko Haram?” she was told.
However, other women aside from Kaje, such as 45-year-old Idris Fati, shared her ambition to flush the fighters out of Maiduguri.
Kaje and Fati joined the Civilian Joint Taskforce (C-JTF) – a civilian militia drawn from communities affected by Boko Haram – that partners with and supports the military in its operations.
C-JTF had been an all-male force but there were tasks best-suited for women.
For one, Boko Haram favoured using girls and women in the group’s operations, especially as suicide bombers attacking markets, hospitals, mosques, churches and other public places.
“Boko Haram were using many women and girls to fight the war. Women were needed to counter that strategy,” Kaje told Al Jazeera.
Between 2011-17, Boko Haram used female suicide bombers in at least 244 of its 338 attacks, according to the United States-based Combating Terrorism Center. In 2018, 38 out of 48 children used by Boko Haram as suicide assailants were girls.
Nigerian soldiers, for religious and cultural reasons, are restricted from searching women and girls in most cases – an opening exploited by Boko Haram to blow up its targets.
Since then the women, from dawn to twilight, search other females at security checkpoints leading to Maiduguri’s markets, hospitals, schools, and other public sites vulnerable to attacks.
Many suicide bombers have been exposed and arrested and their murderous assaults foiled.
In some cases, the military involves the women in intelligence-gathering on the armed group’s activities. This has helped reveal operations by the armed group, earning them the nickname “Gossipers of Boko Haram”.
When the military receives intelligence that Boko Haram will target a particular location, it deploys the women to detect and expose female suicide bombers who might mingle in the crowd.
In rare, but far more dangerous cases, the Gossipers are involved in military operations targeting notorious female Boko Haram members.
But not everyone is happy with what the Nigerian women are doing.
“My neighbours are always insulting me. They say that one day Boko Haram will kill me. But whenever I am involved in saving people’s lives, the joy of it is above all insults,” said Fati.
Boko Haram sends warning messages through emissaries, threatening to kill those working security.
“Boko Haram has threatened me so many times,” Fati said. “They warn me to quit the job or risk being killed. They say our work hurts and exposes their operations. But I won’t stop because I am fighting not just for my life, but for the future of my children.”
During the peak of Boko Haram’s violence, the military was accused of arresting, jailing, and killing innocent citizens on suspicion of being collaborators.
Discerning who was involved with Boko Haram was difficult for the military because of a lack of information about the communities.
About 20,000 people, including boys as young as nine, were detained without due process, according to rights group Amnesty International. About 1,200 men were reportedly killed.
Some locals knew those linked to Boko Haram, but to speak out was to risk death as the fighters retaliated against the families of those who exposed them to the military.
Women helped break the barrier by taking vital information to the military about members of Boko Haram living in their communities.
“Many women have died doing this job,” said Umar Habiba, 38, who coordinates the gatekeepers in Monday Market in Maiduguri.
She said there are more than 100 women currently working in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state – the hotbed of the rebellion. Others have resigned as a result of threats, marriage and pressure from society.
Danger is always present in their work as suicide bombers detonate explosives and kill themselves, along with those attempting to search them.
“If I die doing this work, I know my parents would be proud of me because I died for my state,” said Kaje, who earns $60 a month from the state government – a huge sum for a job she previously did voluntarily.
“Many women, unable to cope with the pressure, have resigned.”