The Islamist terror group Boko Haram is drugging children to turn them into suicide bombers, according to a shocking report today from Unicef.
Eight years after the conflict began and three years since the Chibok girls abduction, the report Silent Shame describes how the situation in the Lake Chad Basin is deteriorating and how thousands of children abducted in Nigeria and elsewhere are enduring ‘unimaginable horrors’.
‘This crisis is marked by massive violations of children’s rights – evident in the use of children on both sides of the insurgency. Boko Haram, in particular, has been leading a systematic campaign of abduction that has forced thousands of girls and boys into their ranks.
‘Local militias, formed to protect their communities, have played a key role in stemming the tide of Boko Haram violence, but they too have used children in their operations,’ the report says.
A defining feature of the conflict has been the increasing use of children in so-called ‘suicide’ attacks. Since 2014, 117 children have been used in attacks across all four countries in the crisis – 27 since the start of 2017.
The report says: ‘While the abductions in Chibok horrified the world, a shocking part of the story is what happens to children in captivity – and after they are released.’
According to the report, child abductions by Boko Haram are carefully planned and targeted. ‘Young girls are spotted in the markets, and nighttime raids drag them from their beds. In some cases, parents are killed in front of the girls during the process. This is typically followed by an extended journey to a Boko Haram base in the forest where the girls are forced into early marriage and sexual slavery. For boys, the stories are equally harrowing, with fewer reports of sexual abuse.’
Some children are forced to become abductors themselves and given weapons or whips to round up children and pry them from their mother’s arms.
Girls are assigned ‘husbands’ who rape them. Many girls, some as young as 13, became pregnant in captivity and gave birth without medical care. Frequent beatings are common.
Girls and boys are forced to take part in prayer and attend mosque and adhere to strict religious routines.
The insurgency has changed its tactics over the course of the conflict, from holding towns and territory to a guerrilla-style insurgency that uses hit and run attacks and improvised explosive devices. As militaries have stepped up their attacks on Boko Haram strongholds, there has been a marked increase in ‘suicide’ attacks across the region.
Since January 2014, 117 children – more than 80 per cent of them girls – have been used in ‘suicide’ attacks in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. As of March this year, 27 children have been used in this way in northeast Nigeria alone, the report says.
‘The rise in these attacks is deeply troubling for both the civilian victims and for the children being forced to carry out the bombings. Children have been intercepted at checkpoints and taken into military custody for questioning, raising concerns about this practice and the prolonged periods of custody.
‘It is unclear whether some of these children are even aware of what they are being asked to do. That they are carrying explosives in a belt on their chests is incontrovertible, but it has been difficult to ascertain if some of these children are being used to transport the devices to other locations and other active combatants or if they are being forced into a perverse death mission in exchange for promised redemption and martyrdom.
‘The upward trend of using children as a means to avoid detection is a defining feature of this conflict, already marked by grave human rights abuses. The result is that girls, boys and even infants are being viewed with increasing paranoia at checkpoints, where they are thought to be carriers of explosives,’ the report adds.
‘Communities are increasingly suspicious of children who have been linked to Boko Haram, creating barriers to reintegration and reconciliation. Society’s rejection of these children, and their sense of isolation and desperation, could be making them more vulnerable to promises of martyrdom through acceptance of dangerous and deadly missions.’
Dada’s story from Nigeria
Dada, now 15, was just 12 when she was abducted. She recalls one terrible day with Boko Haram, when a young girl was murdered
She remembers the girl screaming, ‘Why are you doing this to me? I have a baby!’
The fighters severed her head from the body and threw both the corpse and the decapitated head into the bush.
‘Her eyes were wide open,’ said Dada.
Four months after being kidnapped, she was sitting outside again with the other abducted girls. Boko Haram members came to her and pointed to a young man about 18 years old. Bana was a fighter and a sheikh.
‘This is your husband,’ she was told. That night, Dada was raped for the first of many times.
Dada managed to escape the camp, trekking through the savanna for days with no food, until she eventually came across a military camp in Cameroon. Her belly had been swelling up for some time now, and she felt as though she was having a problem with her stomach. After running some tests, the military told Dada that she was pregnant.
Today her daughter is two years old. Dada loves to play with Hussaina, picking her up and tickling her.
‘At times, when I look at her I get angry,’ Dada said. ‘But after thinking, I calm myself down. Wherever I go, I can’t be without her.’
Amina’s story from Chad
Amina was 16 when a man from another village proposed to her. She accepted against the will of her family and left her village. She had not realised her husband was part of Boko Haram.
After being manipulated and drugged, she was forced into an attempted suicide attack. Four people including Amina were on a canoe riding towards a weekly crowded market. The four girls carried bombs that were strapped to their bodies. When a vigilante committee spotted them on the canoe, two of them activated their explosives belt.
Amina didn’t detonate her device but she was injured in the explosion. She lost both her legs.
She was brought to the hospital in severe shock and with grave injuries. She didn’t speak and barely ate for months. Following family tracing efforts, her family was found but they rejected her at first out of fear of stigma. After a process of mediation they took her back home.