“Rule number one is to never speak to anyone except militants, and that is on request,” 27-year-old Lami Musa, one of the 657 women recently liberated from the forest, told Anadolu Agency at a camp for internally displaced persons in Yola, the provincial capital of Adamawa State.
“Violation of this rule brings the death penalty,” she said.
Musa was abducted from Lamsa village in Borno State and driven to Sambisa Forest, along with several other women.
She was taken to the forest with her infant daughter, who was still breastfeeding, after her husband was shot dead in front of her eyes.
“We met other abducted children in the forest,” said Musa, who wept profusely as she recounted her ordeal.
“We don’t know who they were, and did not know till we were rescued, since we were never allowed to speak to one another,” she recalled.
“The language of the militants is guns and knives. They kill people at will,” said Musa.
She and her fellow captives lived in constant fear of being killed at any moment.
“We were always reminded that death awaits anyone who defies their rule,” she said. “We were threatened with being sold as slaves.”
“Sometimes they would point guns or cutlasses at our heads with threats of killing us if the government made any moves,” Musa recalled bitterly.
In three recent rescue operations, the army freed a total of 687 women and girls from Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest, a Boko Haram stronghold in the country’s restive northeastern region.
Nigerian troops also recently rescued some 260 women and children found fleeing Boko Haram militants in Adamawa State’s Madagali local government area.
Authorities said 214 of the women and girls rescued were at various stages of pregnancy, while 22 were critically ill and were receiving treatment.
The Nigerian military – backed by Nigerien and Chadian troops – recently liberated all territory captured earlier by Boko Haram in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states.
In the face of the government’s recent onslaught, Boko Haram militants are believed to have retreated back into the forest.
The forest extends from Borno State into parts of Adamawa, Bauchi and Gombe states – all in the northeast – and into parts of Jigawa State and elsewhere in the country’s northwest.
Musa said Boko Haram commanders were as strict with their field soldiers as they were with their prisoners, often gunning down anyone caught raping female captives.
Ironically, she said, there were some marriages between militants and captives who agreed to it.
“I never experienced sexual harassment during my stay at Sambisa Forest; nobody even approached me for that,” Musa told Anadolu Agency.
“One thing I know is that Boko Haram killed any of their members who failed to comply with their law in regard to sexual conduct,” she said.
Her version differs from the accounts of some other liberated captives, who claimed to have been raped repeatedly by the militants.
Ahmad Salkida, a self-exiled independent journalist credited with a good knowledge of Boko Haram, challenged the claims of rape by militants, who, he said, were Islamic ideologues that wouldn’t do such a thing.
Salkida admitted, nonetheless, that Boko Haram followed a strange creed.
Musa, meanwhile, said many captives had died of treatable diseases in Sambisa Forest because there was no medical attention.
“We didn’t have doctors to attend to us,” she recalled.
“Anybody that fell ill was left to the mercy of God; if the person died as a result of the sickness, it was seen as God’s will,” Musa said.
“We did not have any first aid treatment for people bitten by snakes. Everybody was on his own with medical challenges,” she added.
Haruna Hamman Furo, executive secretary of the Adamawa State emergency management agency, said efforts were underway to ensure that freed hostages were given proper medical attention and relief material before being relocated.
“You will definitely sympathize with them if you see them,” he told Anadolu Agency. “We rushed 22 of them to emergency medical care when they arrived.”
Lami Dabo Mashang, one of the medics at the camp, said that all the hostages would be examined to learn their health condition, especially their HIV status.
“We have yet to test them; we are going to give them more days in order to find out some cases, like HIV and related diseases,” Mashang told Anadolu Agency.
“Surgical operations had to be carried out on some of them [who had sustained] terrible bullet wounds,” she said. “Their medical condition is simply pitiful.”
Mashang said it had been a terrible sight when the 275 rescued – but traumatized – people were first brought to the camp.
“They didn’t want to meet people; they didn’t want to talk,” she recalled. “Some could not even walk.”
Musa, the rescued woman, never saw dreaded Boko Haram kingpin Abubakar Shekau during her time in captivity.
“I never saw Shekau,” she told Anadolu Agency. “But one day some Boko Haram commanders told us we should not panic, as Shekau was still in command, by the will of God.”
“They said he would surely deal with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who was just elected as a president of the unbelievers,” added Musa, in reference to Nigeria’s new president-elect.
“They said, ‘Who is Buhari? He can’t do anything to us because he is our enemy’,” she said.
Buhari, a former Nigerian military ruler, defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in March elections.
He has vowed to eradicate the Boko Haram threat once he assumes office on May 29.
Musa said the army had invaded Sambisa Forest – killing hundreds of militants in the process – one day after their captors had told them that nobody could rescue them.
Monica Yohana, a 50-year-old mother of six, said she had remained in Sambisa Forest for seven months after being abducted from her village in southern Borno State.
“Boko Haram militants have no human feeling,” she told Anadolu Agency. “They killed captives who violated their law on a daily basis.”
“They mistreated us. Whenever they asked us to fetch water, they put dirty things in it before any one of us drank it,” she added.
Yohana asserted, however, that, as a Christian, Boko Haram militants never forced her or others to read the Quran or learn about Islam.
“They will only go for a [militant] operation and come back to sleep,” she recalled.
Asked whether she was ever raped by the militants, Yohana said: “I will not lie; I was never approached by any of them.”
“Also, I never saw anybody being raped during my captivity in the forest,” she added.
One month ago, Yohana escaped from captivity, fleeing back to her village, along with one of her two children with whom she had been originally abducted.
“I escaped with one of my sons. I left my other son in Sambisa Forest,” she told Anadolu Agency.
When news emerged that 275 captives had been rescued from the forest, Yohana found a lift to the Malkoli camp in Yola, where she was reunited with her second son.
“He is fortunate to have been among the 275 rescued people handed over to the National Emergency Management Agency,” she said, smiling.
She added: “I am very excited and thank God for his mercy on my family.”
Nevertheless, Yohana still grieves the fact that she remains separated from her husband and the rest of her children.
“My husband escaped with four of our children the day Boko Haram raided our village,” she recalled. “And I still can’t say where they are.”