By Mariam Abdullahi, the Cable.
It has been over two years since 23-year-old Salomi Sima was violated, but the thought of the dreadful day still sends shock waves down her spine.
She struggled to control her emotions as she hesitatingly went down memory lane in her dark and disorganised room at the internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Gwada town, Niger state, Nigeria’s northern region.
Sima could not stop the tears from flowing, pausing at intervals to compose herself while recounting her two-day experience in the forest with her abductors.
She was mourning the demise of her husband who died two months earlier when bandits attacked her village in May 2020. Sima was still grappling with the burden of fending for her three children when the gunmen, in large number, invaded Pai village in Shiroro LGA of Niger. She held on tightly to her children, more terrified for them than she was for herself. The gunmen ordered her to move outside with her children, but she begged them to leave her alone. They ignored her pleas and dragged her to join other women who were already assembled outside.
One of the gunmen, Sima said, told them that they were on a mission to kidnap only women. On that fateful day, they kidnapped 10 women, including those who had infants.
“I had to leave my children behind. I followed the other women into the forest and we were held for two days,” Sima said.
“They made sure all the women abducted were raped. So, we all watched as they raped every one of us in our presence.
“They were two men, each of them had their way with me twice. They had told us before we left the village that they came for the wives. They didn’t demand ransom; the abduction was only for sexual gratification.”
After Sima was released, she went to the clinic in Erena town, a neighbouring community, to seek necessary treatment — but the memory of the ordeal torments her like a plague.
“I felt useless when I returned home. I felt no man will ever desire me again. Whenever I remember the experience, I cry. I think about the event every day. The thoughts cloud my mind even when I am cooking, walking or engaged in any activity,” Sima said, her eyes teary.
“They killed my elder brother; he was my only sibling. He used to help me escape the village whenever there was an attack. They killed him, burnt his house and shop, and snatched his motorcycle. It was after his death that I moved to Kotasu village.”
But when the gunmen permeated her new location, she packed her things again and moved to the IDP camp where she found solace.
Bandits are heavily armed criminal gangs in the north-west and north-central states of Nigeria. According to EONS Intelligence, a research organisation, about 13 attacks have been carried out by bandits in Niger communities in 2022.
Rakiya Kabiru, a mother of eight children, fled Zazzaga village in Munya LGA of Niger in 2021 after some bandits abducted Balkisu, her 15-year-old daughter, and defiled her. She was released after the family sold farm produce and properties to raise N1 million the attackers demanded as ransom. They ran to an IDP camp and resettled, hoping that would provide a haven for her daughter to heal from the trauma.
In April, when their food supply depleted, Rakiya sent Balkisu and her younger brother, Lawali, to their village to get more food. They were abducted by bandits on their way back to the IDP camp. Again, Balkisu returned to the grisly hands of her abusers.
Rakiya, 37, had just been discharged from the hospital after spending days on admission. The thought of her two children being held captive by the kidnappers had raised her blood pressure. She narrated how Balkisu was raped many times by different men in the forest during her first abduction. The thought of a second abduction was too much for her to bear.
“They have raped her many times before and now they have kidnapped her again. Many kidnapped young girls rarely return untouched. Most of them are usually raped,” Rakiya said.
“Having my two children with those thieves (bandits) gives me so much pain. If I had known, I would have asked Balkisu to wait behind. I was hoping they would go and return safely.
“They demanded N3 million and four motorcycles for the release of their hostages. We have been able to raise it. On our part, we sold three farmlands and other properties we had in the village. We have also given them three motorcycles, but they reached out to us saying they needed four more motorcycles.
“I don’t know what else they want us to do because we have sold virtually everything we have.”
IDP camp in Gwada, Niger state.
Lydia Yonana was one of the many displaced persons who fled Kawure village to Gwada IDP camp after she was abducted by bandits last year and serially violated. She currently crawls on the ground as she could no longer lift her legs properly.
Dorathy Osayi, Yonana’s friend at the camp, said she got pregnant while she was with her abductors, but she later had a miscarriage. Her situation worsened when she lost her husband earlier in the year. She is now a shadow of her former self. Osayi said Yonana has been taken from one clinic to another for treatment but her condition has not improved.
“That woman is very sick. She doesn’t talk to anybody; you will see her crawling from one place to another. Currently, she cannot lift even a bucket of water,” Dorathy said.
Blessing Anthony, 13, was among those kidnapped by bandits while escaping Zazzaga village to Gwada IDP camp in June. According to Christy, Blessing’s aunt, the bandits have demanded the sum of N1 million and two motorcycles as a ransom for her release. But they cannot afford the amount because her parents are poor farmers struggling to survive.
“They have threatened to make our daughter their wife if we fail to pay them. Blessing’s mother has been crying since they called to inform us that they have grown fond of the girl. Yes, they told us they will continue to sleep with her. They also told us that she has been sick and could die at any moment,” Christy said.
ENDLESS TRAUMA: WILL THEY EVER GET HELP?
Many young girls and women abducted by bandits in Nigeria’s northern region often deal with trauma after their sordid experience in the camps of the gunmen. During the interaction with the IDPs, it was observed that the women and girls who have been kidnapped and raped by bandits have not been given proper medical care.
According to the data from World Health Organization (WHO), 30 per cent of women globally have experienced a form of sexual violence in their lifetime. The WHO noted that sexual violence can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health, and is capable of increasing the dangers of contacting the Human immune virus (HIV) – a deadly disease contracted through sexual intercourse with an infected partner.
Habibu Kurebe, desk officer in charge of the Gwada IDP camp in Niger, said the victims of rape don’t confide in the officials. According to him, the women are not comfortable disclosing their condition to them because most of the officials are men. He added that the cultural ideology attached to issues around sexual assault is a big obstacle.
“You know, this issue happened before they all came here to resettle. If the sexual assaults had happened here, we would write a report to the government for proper medical attention,” Kurebe told TheCable.
“They were able to discuss it with you because you are female. They are hiding the issue. So, we can’t help them if they don’t disclose it to us. However, we usually find a way to help them seek medical attention whenever there is a sick person among the IDPs.”
Tsallah Ibrahim, the commissioner for women’s affairs and social development in Niger state, said issues regarding traumatic experiences of female IDPs raped by gunmen have not been formally brought to the attention of the government.
“I can’t say anything about them because nobody has reported the issue to me and not to talk of getting in touch with them,” she told TheCable.
Mohammed Makusidi, the commissioner for health, declined to speak on the issue when he was contacted.
Mairo Mann, director of gender and domestic violence, ministry of justice, Niger state, said living in an IDP camp is enough trauma for displaced persons in the country. She said the experience of the rape and physical injuries sustained during abduction can cause trauma in survivors.
According to her, most of the survivors are susceptible to infections which could severe their health and cause mental health issues or chronic diseases.
“In most of the IDP camps, the medical attention is zero. What they have is Panadol and probably some malaria drugs. They go about with a lot of illnesses, which if treated earlier, will not escalate, but there is no opportunity,” Mann said.
“The fact that they were forced to escape their communities, having lost their loved ones, can affect their mental health. They have been destabilised, they have become disoriented and have lost hope.”
According to the director, a partnership between the government and relevant organisations will help to improve the condition of rape survivors across the country.
“First of all, the government should be seen doing what it is supposed to do. Organisations should be there to render services. The truth now is that there have been a lot of improvements; we have not gotten what we want but we are better than where we used to be. In our sensitisation, we tell people to cooperate, we cannot continue to condemn and lose faith in the justice system. We have the gender-based domestic violence committee in Niger state chaired by the wife of the governor,” Mann said.
While the women in the IDP camp nurse their traumas and find every reason to heal from the past, the memory of 13-year-old Blessing and 15-year-old Balkisu still in the dark shadows of their abductors haunts them more.