Abu sits with his legs crossed on a mat in front of his father’s simple thatched house in Kano, northern Nigeria. Dressed in an old cream kaftan, the 10-year-old nervously touches the back of his skullcap with one hand and bites a fingernail on the other as he recalls an ordeal no child should ever have to experience.
He was nine when Boko Haram, the brutal Islamist terrorist organisation, seized him from the street in Maiduguri, the northern Borno state, and spirited him into slave labour where he remained for a year. Abu was taken to Borno’s Sambisa forest to work at one of the multiple camps spread across the vast and remote game reserve that has now become a home and hideout for the fighters.
Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden”, has become untouchable in parts of Borno state in rural northeastern Nigeria, and has comfortably evaded the country’s armed forces. It has made its trademark the targeting of girls’ schools. In April, 276 girls were kidnapped in Chibok.
The kidnap victims are invariably used as child soldiers, sold into slavery or if they are girls, sold into marriage.
Abu was perfect fodder for a kidnap: the uneducated child of poor farmers spent his days collecting alms on the streets of Maiduguri, where he was sent by his father to live under the care of a teacher and learn to recite the Koran.
He was taken by his kidnappers back to an empty house, drugged, and over the next few days, trafficked with others through a ring of adults into the hands of Boko Haram.
“After a very long journey, we entered a village, a pick-up vehicle came with men with big guns and military jackets and we were told to get in” said Abu. “After driving for a long time, we came to a camp where we met a lot of other people, men, women and young boys, some younger than myself. There were a lot of tents scattered all over the camp, people were sleeping in them.”
Describing the camp where he was held for a year, he said: “Fighters practiced military drills and tactics every day. Senior members were taught how to handle weapons and shoot at targets. The most senior fighters were taught how to weld gas cylinders and how to mix chemicals with fertiliser.
“Each morning I would have to go to lectures and then pray, collect water, wash plates and go into the bush to gather firewood. One day one of the senior members told me to pull down my trousers. When I refused he flogged me with a horsewhip. He instructed me to do it again and I obeyed. Life was terrible in the bush with Boko Haram. We were treated like slaves and always hungry.”
His time in captivity provided a window into a world few will ever see. “Every day was like hell because I always saw horrible things that scared me a lot,” he said.
“One day I saw three men whose hands were tied to their backs being escorted by five armed men. They were taken to the leader of Boko Haram who called them police and gave orders for them to be slaughtered one by one.
“Their bodies were buried by boys who dug out graves. I was always afraid that it would be me one day.”
Abu escaped in May 2014, when fighters went out on a mission. “Early in the morning, about 18 pick-up vehicles came. Fighters took their rifles and boarded the vehicles shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ [God is greatest]. They drove off and the camp was left with very few members and women. That day I decided to run.”
Abu walked for a day in the forest and came to the main road where he was eventually picked up by a lorry driver and taken home to his father in Kano.
On his return, he said: “People were trooping from all over the village and surrounding areas to welcome me and congratulate my father. They said the son has returned to the soil.”
The United Nations global report on trafficking in persons, released recently, said that Boko Haram were recruiting and using child soldiers as young as 12, as well as abducting women and girls throughout Borno. It said the women, in particular, were “subjected to domestic servitude, forced labour, and sex slavery through forced marriages to its militants”.
•Culled from The Times of London.