In September 2014, a 19-year-old woman whom I will call Aisha was celebrating a friend’s wedding in a small village in northeastern Nigeria when Boko Haram attacked. The fighters killed the groom and many of the male guests. They abducted Aisha, along with other women, including her sister and the bride.
They were taken to a Boko Haram camp in Gulak, Adamawa State, home to about 100 other abducted girls. Over the three months she was held captive, Aisha was raped repeatedly, sometimes by groups of up to six fighters. She was taught to use firearms, detonate bombs and attack villages. She was sent on “operations,” including an attack on her own village. She says she did not kill anyone herself — but she met women and girls who told her that they had.
Stories like Aisha’s do not make for easy reading. Hers is just one of many contained in a new report published by Amnesty International on Tuesday — exactly a year after more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted from a secondary school in the town of Chibok, Borno State. The fate of the schoolgirls made headlines around the world. But those girls, still missing, are sadly only a small proportion of those abducted by Boko Haram in recent years.
At least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted at gunpoint by the armed group. Men and boys have also been abducted and systematically executed or forced to join the fighters. More than 5,500 civilians were killed by Boko Haram since the start of 2014 alone.
Abducted girls were taken directly to Boko Haram’s camps in remote communities or to makeshift transit camps. From these transit camps Boko Haram moved them to houses in towns and villages and indoctrinated them with their ideology in preparation for marriage. The suffering of these abducted women and girls, some of whom were forced not only to marry fighters but also to become fighters themselves, is beyond comprehension.
Tens of thousands of civilians were subjected to Boko Haram’s brutality. In the towns under their control, Boko Haram imposed restrictions on residents’ freedom of movement. Women were often placed under armed guard in large houses. Even when allowed to remain in their own homes, women were not allowed to travel outside without permission and men had to obtain permission before traveling between towns. Boko Haram ordered men to let their beards grow and to wear trousers that do not touch the ground. Men and women were forced to receive religious education and follow Boko Haram’s version of Islam. Boko Haram’s rules were enforced by flogging or, for offences like adultery, public executions.
Recent successes by combined forces from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger have given Nigerians some hope. In addition, the coming change of government — a former general, Muhammadu Buhari, defeated President Goodluck Jonathan last month — provides an opportunity for Nigeria to protect civilians in the northeast. But there is a huge amount to be done.
The abducted must be rescued and Mr. Buhari, who will assume office next month, should spare no effort in using all lawful means to protect civilians from Boko Haram attacks — and to ensure that human rights are not violated by the Nigerian military in combating Boko Haram, as has happened repeatedly in past years. The authorities must also urgently ensure humanitarian assistance reaches those in need, particularly to more than a million people forced to flee their homes.
The conflict in the northeast has created religious tensions, and the new government will therefore have to act swiftly to prevent a lasting legacy of distrust between some Muslim and Christian communities.
An important element of the post-conflict reconciliation process will be a thorough, impartial and independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the International Criminal Court opened a preliminary examination of the situation in the northeast in 2009, the primary obligation to bring perpetrators to justice lies with the Nigerian government. But if Nigeria is unable or unwilling to investigate crimes or bring suspects to justice, the I.C.C. can begin a full investigation.
So far the Nigerian government has not taken adequate steps to investigate crimes committed by both sides of the conflict. This is another challenge that Mr. Buhari must address with utmost urgency. Nigerians and the world are expecting to see if his words to supporters last week — that his “government will investigate all human rights violations, including by the military” — will soon be translated into concrete action.
It is vital that the new government ensures that bodies are disinterred from mass graves, that victims and witnesses are given the opportunity to give evidence and that the guilty are brought to justice. Only then will the pattern of impunity that has plagued Nigeria be broken.
A year after their abduction, the Chibok girls have come to symbolize all the innocent people whose lives have been destroyed by Boko Haram. There is still hope that the Chibok schoolgirls may one day be reunited with their families.
Aisha eventually made it home. She escaped in January 2015, fleeing through the bush in the dead of night. During her time in captivity she saw more than 50 people killed by Boko Haram, including her sister. They were buried in shallow graves and the smell of their rotting corpses hung heavy in the air.
Aisha walked for three days until she reached a village where she was given shelter for two days, a change of clothes and 500 naira ($2.50). She then set off again, for another five days, until she reached her home. When she got there she discovered that her father had died soon after she and her sister had been abducted. The local doctor had put his death down to a coronary thrombosis brought on by high blood pressure. Others believed that no medical language was needed: Aisha’s father died of a broken heart.
Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International.