The group of kidnapped women were terrified. They had been brought back to the camp as booty and were being urged to convert to Islam with machetes pressed to their necks. They did their best to gabble words that sounded like the prayers they were being taught before one fighter noticed a captive with a swollen belly. ‘I’m not pregnant,’ she insisted, spreading her hands over her belly in an instinctive reaction that only showed she was lying.
The most senior of the armed men, who looked barely 20 years old, ordered her to lie down on the ground. ‘We don’t bring any Christian babies into the world here,’ he screamed. Then he stripped off the shaking woman’s clothes, slit open her stomach with his machete, ripped out the unborn baby and threw it in a field behind him. ‘All Christian children must die,’ said the killer, as the woman bled into the grass beside him.
This obscene scene is recounted by Patience Ibrahim, captured a few days earlier. This was the young Christian’s second time held by Boko Haram, which mounted regular raids on villages to kill men, grab women and steal possessions. She had already seen her first husband shot, her blind mother butchered by the gangsters and been raped against a tree. And watching this latest atrocity, she knew that inside her own womb was the growing child of her second husband.
Ibrahim’s escape from the savage jihadists who have devastated northern Nigeria is nothing short of miraculous. She gets away once, only to be caught in nets strung across bushes. Then a kindly captor aids a second escape and she reaches nearby Cameroon, where she meets her husband again. But he is decapitated in another awful attack; she comes across his head with its ‘empty, lifeless gaze’ beside the corpse. She only survives by playing dead — then hours later, gives birth to her Gift.
Her harrowing story and successful flight is astonishing. It encompasses every horror, from cannibalism, with bodies allegedly chopped up for soup, to child abuse, with girls as young as nine abducted from a compound filled with cowering women to be ‘wives’ of fighters. The details, told in a simple style that nicely captures Ibrahim’s voice, are chilling: children beaten until they recite the opening sura of the Quran, then their mothers given a small dowry before the whimpering ‘brides’ are dragged off to be raped. Some are returned later, since their bodies are too immature.
This is a very human insight into an insurgency that has led to two million people being displaced. It is delivered by the German journalist Andrea Hoffman, although impeded by the device of alternating her subject’s amazing tale with snippets of her own travels with a retired Protestant missionary named Renate. From the start, this is off-putting, especially given the story that unfolds, underscoring her heroism in travelling to a blighted region. ‘For a foreigner, and a white-skinned woman, such a journey is an incredibly risky undertaking,’ she writes proudly.
I wanted more about the life of Patience and her daughter after they reached sanctuary in the city of Maiduguri. Yet this book still offers an unusual insight into slaughter largely ignored by the wider world, despite Boko Haram killing tens of thousands of people as it captured a caliphate the size of Belgium. There is a decent analysis also of the group’s background and rise in the Muslim north, exploiting the divisions and corruption that plague Africa’s most populous nation.
But, most importantly, this bloodstained story reminds people how the depravity of Boko Haram goes far deeper — and the abuse of women far wider — than the kidnap of 276 schoolgirls from a Chibok school three years ago. The fame of these seized pupils spread on social media with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, backed by Michelle Obama. There was another flutter of interest with the recent revelation that 82 more of the unfortunate girls had been released in a prisoner exchange.
Helon Habila, a prominent novelist and poet who grew up near Chibok, returned to his home region to report on the saga of the stolen girls. His slim volume is lyrically written. ‘The sadness was palpable in the hot-motionless air…. It was like going to Hamelin and feeling the weight of the absent boys taken by the Pied Piper,’ he says with poignant beauty of the town. He also has a fine ear for a quote, such as the aid worker who describes traumatised parents walking around ‘as if there was no blood in their body’.
But missing is any sense of what impact this had on the shattered community, especially given Habila’s knowledge of the area. Ultimately his account adds little to a familiar story, despite his encounter with a parent and three escaped girls. I ended with an impression that perhaps he was left baffled by ‘the shocking banality’ of extraordinary acts of evil.