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Inside Boko Haram

Jan Philipp Wilhelm / mc August 27, 2015

Journalist Wolfgang Bauer has been talking to women in Nigeria who escaped from Boko Haram after being held captive by the Islamists for months. Among their fellow captives were Chibok girls, abducted 500 days ago.

nigeria entführung schülerinnen proteste frauen boko haram
Image: reuters

Wolfgang Bauer reports reguarly for the respected German magazine Zeit.

DW:You were recently in northern Nigeria where you spoke to women and girls who had been exposed to the horrors of captivity under Boko Haram. What impression did they make on you?

Wolfgang Bauer: I interviewed these women and girls for two weeks. It was, of course, far more demanding for them than it was for me, but afterwards I, too, was exhausted. The cruelty in all its variations was something I found difficult to fathom. There are very few parts of the world which experience such massive, systematic cruelty as is the case as in northeastern Nigeria.

Nigeria Befreite Geiseln Boko Haram
Women and children rescued from Boko Haram by the Nigerian military outside army premises in MaiduguriImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Ola

Boko Haram doesn't only spread hate and violence, but mistrust as well. This mistrust is felt in particular by those women and girls who were able to escape the clutches of Boko Haram only to be ostracized by their own communities on their return. To whom can they turn to for help?

They can really only approach their own family, assuming their family trusts them. Families were split apart, some family members were kidnapped, other were not. There is a lot of mistrust between those who were abducted and those who were not. But self-help groups, as it were, do form spontaneously within families. Family members do support one another and hardly rely at all on any sort of outside help. One of the biggest problems in Nigeria is that it is very difficult to gauge within the family whether somebody is not just a victim of Boko Haram, but perhaps a culprit or perpetrator as well. Was this or that family member perhaps originally a victim who turned perpetrator? Boko Haram victims are brainwashed and many of the girls who blow themselves up almost daily on crowded squares in Nigerian towns and cities were kidnapped. They were kept incarcerated by Boko Haram for long periods. Some were forced to wear the suicide vests which were then detonated, others went to their deaths apparently believing in what they did. It is not just buildings that are being destroyed in Nigeria but trust as well. Relations between the ethnic groups have also seriously disrupted as far as I was able to judge.

Wolfgang Bauer, Die Zeit
Wolfgang Bauer spent two weeks interviewing former Boko Haram captivesImage: Die Zeit

The Nigerian government has created so-called de-radicalization centers in the south of the country. Is this a step in the right direction? Or does the internment of women who have just escaped from Boko Haram marginalize them still further?

I think the latter is the case. It is difficult to judge from outside what actually goes on in these camps. As far as I am aware, no journalist has been inside one. I suspect that they are actually interrogation centers. Not even close family members are allowed to visit the victims - and how can people be de-radicalized if they are denied contact to those whom they knew before Boko Haram came into their lives? It is a mystery what the Nigerian authorities are doing with these women. I hope we will eventually get more transparency.

500 days ago today (27.08.2015) 276 girls were kidnapped from Chibok triggering an international outcry. The women you interviewed said that the Chibok girls are now part of a bizarre Boko Haram hierarchy. What can you tell us about this?

I interviewed various women who met some of the Chibok girls while they were in captivity. My impression was that these girls now seem form a sort of palatial corps of domestic servants for the Boko Haram leadership. Apparently, several Chibok girls are assigned to the favorite wife of the head of Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau. I have also heard that the Chibok girls indoctrinate other abductees into Islam and inflict physical violence upon them, even though they themselves are also under surveillance. Owning a Chibok girl is a status symbol. The reason for is clearly the enormous international media interest in the girls' fate.

Nigeria Armee Operation gegen Boko Haram
Nigeria troops destroying a Boko Haram camp in July 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa

In your report, you emphasize that the inner circle of Boko Haram is dominated by the Kanuri ethnic group. One doesn't hear much about them in western media coverage of the conflict. What role does the ethnic dimension play here?

I think this factor has been underestimated. It is not mentioned much in the media, but in academic publications and in the accounts given by the women I interviewed, the ethnic dimension is certainly in evidence. The Kanuri are the backbone of Boko Haram. Before the colonial era, they ruled over an enormous ancient empire and Boko Haram has evidently succeeded in reawakening these old traditions, promising that the empire will one day rise again. This explains why Boko Haram were able to expand to their present size and fend off the Nigerian military.

You have written a very moving, but also a very bleak account of the region terrorized by Boko Haram. You were there, you have spoken to people on the ground. What needs to be done if peace is to return?

That is the big question. After an area of territory has been liberated by the Nigerian army, the villages and ethnic groups mount revenge attacks against one another. The military generally leaves the control of villages in the hands of the local militia who want to exact revenge for atrocities committed under Boko Haram. It is therefore vital that not only the military maintain a presence in these regions, but civilian officials as well. There have to be commissions to promote peace and broker ceasefires. The military should not restrict themselves to patrolling the cities and the main roads; they must enter the villages where revenge attacks are at their fiercest. It would be beneficial if the international community could help the Nigerian military to spread out more. But if Nigeria continues to reject closer international engagement in the conflict - as currently appears to be the case - then such endeavors will only have limited impact.

Wolfgang Bauer is an investigative journalist who works for the German magazine Zeit

Interview: Jan Philipp Wilhelm