Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, author of the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature-winning Season of Crimson Blossoms, has a new essay in Granta that might wrench your heart. Entitled “All That Was Familiar,” the nonfiction piece focuses on the lives of women who, after being kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and Cameroon, now live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps, battling both hunger and memory.
In the four years since his debut short story collection The Whispering Trees, Abubakar has, by picking out stories from corners that have been silenced, established himself as one of Nigeria’s most essential writers.
That his chosen storytellers are female is significant given that it is females that bear the long-term agony of Boko Haram’s terrorism. Coming in this time when debates are raging in Nigeria about the Chibok girls, this piece gives a voice to these young women whose their bodies—how healthy or ill they look, if they are pregnant, if they were raped—have become their primary stories, the aspect of their ordeal that the public seems interested in.
The piece will appear in an anthology by Refugees Worldwide, which is commissioned by the Berlin Literature Festival. The photos accompanying it are by Fati Abubakar.
Here is an excerpt.
Zahra Mohammed, a twenty-five-year-old Cameroonian, lives here. Her shack is just a single room, about six feet by ten feet. Her personal effects – plates, mats and a flimsy mattress – are scattered around the little space. You can hear voices through the tarpaulin walls separating her from her neighbours.
In the year Zahra lived here, her life consisted of waking up, washing her dishes, cleaning her room and, at about noon, joining the queues for the first meal of the day.
‘Sometimes we don’t get food, so we try to cook whatever we have scavenged or some of the relief materials we have,’ she says. She is soft-spoken, but there is sharpness in her eyes, eyes that belie the difficult times she has gone through, both here and in the forest she was rescued from.
Herwa Community Development Initiative, the NGO that offers her counselling and trains her and others in skill acquisition, euphemistically calls her a survivor. Others who are less tactful would call her a ‘Boko Haram Wife’.
In July 2014, Zahra was recently divorced, nursing her seven-month old baby Jamila and tending to her sick mother at a hospital in Kolofata, northern Cameroon, when she heard gunshots and explosions.
Armed men burst in, pointed their guns at her, then dragged Zahra and her child away from her mother’s bedside. She was blindfolded and thrown into a truck along with other women. One of them was the wife of the Cameroonian Deputy Prime Minister Amadou Ali, and it was primarily because of her that the Boko Haram attack on Kolofata made the local and international news. Not one of these reports mentioned Zahra Mohammed by name. She was one of the ‘other women’.
Zahra’s heart beat wildly as they drove, and she heard the sounds of the life she used to know recede into the distance. They bumped their way through rough bush paths, on and on until all that was familiar was only a memory, save her daughter clinging to her.
They were driven into the forest of Buni Yadi, where the younger women were separated from the older ones. That was the last time Zahra would see the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister, even though they were held together for three months. Every day, armed men would escort the younger women to attend classes run by Boko Haram scholars. And when new victims were captured in raids, the militants asked Zahra and the other captives to cook for them. There was a routine to that life in Buni Yadi, but that routine was soon disrupted.
One day, bombs fell out of the heavens and exploded around the militants’ camp. Screaming, the terrified women crouched on the floors, fearing a bomb would explode over their heads and that would be the end of it. But they survived.
The air raid forced Boko Haram to move camp, relocating with their hostages to another forest. At the new camp, Zahra worried about the well-being of her daughter, her son, who had been with his father when she was taken, and the fate of her ill mother left in the hospital. Her captors were contemplating other matters.
‘They said they wanted to marry me,’ Zahra said. ‘I told them I wanted to return to my parents, and they said my parents were infidels and I would never see them again.’ It was a curious proposal. If Zahra had said yes, the interested militant would have reported to the amir, or the head of the cell, that he had found a willing wife. For Boko Haram, hierarchy is important. A witness – a survivor – had told me she had seen about twenty militants executed by their commander for taking ‘wives’ without his consent. They were branded fornicators and shot. Against the wishes of the executioner, the women were spared because they were forced into the ‘marriage’. The enraged executioner had to be physically restrained from shooting the women.
Zahra did not know this, of course, but she still rejected the proposal. Spurned, the militants decided to force her hand.
‘They put me in a hole in the ground and covered it with some crude construct. They kept me there for fifteen days. And when they brought me out, I still refused,’ she said. She was fiddling with her fingers now.
She sat staring out of the door to where the other women were sitting in the shade, braiding their hair and speaking in Kanuri. I imagined how she must have felt in those seven months of her captivity, losing all contact with home and everyone she had loved. I wondered if she heard when the government of Cameroon negotiated with Boko Haram for the release of the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister. If she had wished she was with those freed alongside the wife of the politician after the ransom was paid. I wondered how it felt to be one of the forgotten ones, and to remain one of the forgotten ones years later.
With no news of home, all she had was her daughter, Jamila. She held her for comfort at night and the innocent child, then fourteen months old, was the only source of joy she had.
But then the fighter jets came again. Another day, another raid. With bombs dropping, chaos broke out in the camp. The women saw an opening and fled into the forest, but were pursued by their unrelenting captors.
With little Jamila strapped to her back, Zahra ran into uncharted terrain. The wrapper she used to bind her daughter to her back came undone and Jamila tumbled off, falling to the ground and snapping her neck.
I could visualise Zahra falling to her knees, shaking her baby, asking her to wake up, calling her name and wailing to the heavens. But Jamila was dead.
Read Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “All That Was Familiar” in Granta.