- The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria’s Northeast is taking a toll on victims’ mental health, and this is not receiving as much attention.
Saraya’s life took a turn for the worse when her partner was killed in 2014. She had been happily married to Awaza for three years, and they both lived quietly in Taradan, a village in Bama Local Government Area (LGA) of Borno state, in Northeast Nigeria. But, by this time, the Boko Haram insurgency, whose seeds were sown nearly 80 miles away in Maiduguri, had started spreading to surrounding regions.
Bama was one of the terror group’s targets in 2013. The militants started by launching attacks against security formations in May, killing scores of people, freeing over a hundred inmates, and holding women and children hostage. Other communities under fire included Baga, Banki, and Marte. By June, male residents were fleeing to avoid being forcefully conscripted into the group, which had set up camps and was threatening to behead whoever resisted its invitation.
The attacks continued into the later part of the year, with the terror group sparing neither security agents nor civilians. The atmosphere was tense. Suspicions were rife that Boko Haram members were embedding themselves in various communities. With the military unsure of who the enemies were, many civilians bore the brunt of state highhandedness. One of them was Awaza.
According to Saraya, 40, military personnel set fire to the town’s market, claiming it served as a hiding place for terrorists. One of the stalls belonged to her husband where he sold vegetables and condiments. When he visited to repair the burnt structure, “they shot him.” Awaza died immediately.
Extrajudicial killings and the destruction of buildings by the Nigerian Army were not uncommon between 2013 and 2014. Many alleged that its officers gunned down unarmed civilians “without asking questions” if they faintly suspected them of being affiliated with Boko Haram based on their appearances, relations, or ethnicity. In one incident, about 200 people in Baga were allegedly killed by state forces while over 2,000 homes were burnt. Refugees in the neighbouring Niger Republic described the military’s approach as being characterised by “indiscriminate bombing and shooting, unexplained civilian deaths, [and] nighttime roundups of young men by security forces.” The previous year, residents of Maiduguri accused soldiers of opening fire on civilians and killing 30 after a bomb blast targeting the army had injured two officers. The soldiers were also said to have set fire to about 50 homes and businesses.
Dr Yagana Bukar, a researcher and senior lecturer at the University of Maiduguri, explains that the Nigerian Army was often unable to distinguish innocent civilians from combatants until the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a vigilante group, emerged in 2013. Its members were better informed since they had lived in the affected communities for long periods.
“They contributed a lot to ensure that we chase Boko Haram out of our towns and cities because they were the eyes and ears of the military,” says Dr Bukar. “The military did not know who was Boko Haram. When there was a bomb attack, everyone became a suspect. In the process, a lot of atrocities were committed by them.”
An unpleasant descent
When Saraya received news of Awaza’s death, she collapsed from the shock. “I was in a coma and did not know when he was buried,” she says. “The alms-giving ceremony and prayer for the repose of his soul were conducted when I was unconscious.”
During her interview with HumAngle in Maiduguri, we enlist the help of two internally displaced women she is familiar with to make her comfortable and make her speech more coherent. She has on a multicoloured dress and a matching scarf barely visible under her black hijab. A tiny ring glistens above her right nostril and bracelets adorn both her hands.
She narrates that after the three-day alms-giving and prayer rituals that followed her husband’s death, she left for Banki town. Shortly afterwards, in September 2014, Boko Haram insurgents seized control of the town. Days earlier, they had similarly declared Bama, another town in the LGA, part of their rapidly growing ‘caliphate.’
The terrorists mandated that she remarried after observing ‘iddah, a waiting period for Muslim widows that lasts about four months. Her new husband, Massaa, was, however, not pleased with the arrangement. Unlike Awaza who was a “very nice” spouse, Massaa did not take good care of Saraya. “He was not providing food for me. I think he lost interest in me because I was traumatised and sick,” she says.
Massaa also attempted to divorce her as soon as she became pregnant. But Boko Haram insisted he couldn’t until she had given birth. “So I stayed in his house until I gave birth to Mukhtar. When Banki was recaptured by the military [about a year later in 2015], they took us to the Bama Hospital IDP camp because there was no food,” Saraya recalls.
Food was extremely scarce in Bama too though, causing hundreds of people, especially children, to lose their lives. Mukhtar fell sick and became malnourished but was lucky to have benefited from a medical intervention by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international humanitarian group, in 2016. The group relocated them to the Nurses’ Village displacement camp in Maiduguri, Borno state capital, and admitted Mukhtar into its clinic. He became stable after two months of treatment but Saraya herself had started to show signs of instability.
“I started to reflect back on the killing of my husband and the dishonourable divorce with my other husband, which all compounded to make me traumatised and mentally unstable,” she explains.
“There was no one to support me. So, on the advice of the people, my sister was invited to come. My sister later got married and wanted to take me to their house but the camp officials said they should leave me and a psychiatric doctor would come to see me in the camp. I kept waiting but the doctor didn’t come. Then people took me to a native doctor who said I was possessed; he made some recitation and I came back to the camp after two days but still, there was no improvement.”
Heeding her sister’s advice, she sold her properties (polythene mats and blankets donated by the Red Cross) to pay for treatment, but still not at a conventional healthcare facility. Her sister took her to a Muslim cleric who prescribed medicine for her before returning her to the IDP camp. Her condition only became worse.
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