A harrowing escape from Boko Haram in Nigeria

After breaking free from captivity in north-eastern Nigeria where Boko Haram had overtaken their village, Halima and her family embark on a courageous journey to safety

By Gerida Birukila
Halima (not her real name) and her eldest son
11 April 2016

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, 11 April 2016 – What surprised me most about the little boys was that they refused to eat. Although they were obviously hungry and tired, all three of them turned away the bowls of rice that were offered to them. The fourth child, another boy just 18 months old, sat listlessly in his mother’s arms. She tried to breastfeed him, but he was uninterested. And besides, she had no milk. All of them were alarmingly thin, apart from their legs, which were painfully swollen.

Halima’s story

Halima (not her real name), her sons – aged 8, 6 and 3 years – and the toddler, had made a harrowing escape from captivity by the armed group commonly known as Boko Haram.

When I first met them at a camp for the displaced in the north-eastern Nigerian town of Maiduguri, they had just been told that Halima’s husband, the father of the four boys, had died as he made his own attempt to escape. Already sick and beyond exhaustion, the news appeared to have broken them, although the eldest boy insisted he did not believe his father was dead.

The physical and mental devastation this family had already faced was overwhelming. After their village in a remote area of north-eastern Nigeria was taken over by Boko Haram, Halima and her sons were held by the armed group for a year. Her husband remained hidden for the duration of their captivity, sneaking in to his family at night and bringing them food that kept them alive.

Under the cover of the night

Constantly in fear for their lives, they decided they must try to escape. Halima and her husband knew it would be safer for him to leave separately; if the children cried it would alert their captors, and while Halima might get away with being flogged, her husband would certainly be killed. So Halima said goodbye as he journeyed into the night with three other men who had also been hiding out. Their plan was to walk the 80 km from their village to the town of Maiduguri, where they would be safe.

Halima was to follow after a couple of days. She had to devise a plan to get past Boko Haram checkpoints and patrols, as she had witnessed several public beheadings of people who had been caught trying to escape. Everyone in the village was forced to watch to deter the villagers from trying to leave. One day she had seen at least 30 executions, although they were mostly men.

A dangerous journey

On the day of their escape, Halima sent her two older boys ahead so as not to arouse suspicion by traveling with all of her children. Carrying corn and money to cover the grinding fee, she told them to wait for her at a friend’s home, near the place where the villagers grind their corn. Halima followed an hour later with her two youngest children. Bringing nothing with her but her children and the clothes on their backs, the Boko Haram guards believed her when she said they were going to the next village to visit relatives. They made her promise to return before dark.

Once she arrived at her friend’s house, Halima was relieved to find her sons waiting for her. They too had been stopped by the Boko Haram guards, but their story was plausible and they were allowed to pass. She had told no one, not even her friend, of their plan to escape. When she left her friend’s house at dusk, they all thought they were going home. Carrying her baby, Halima instead guided her three older sons into the bush, and they walked barefoot through the night. The three-year-old struggled, as did the eight-year-old, who a week before had been bitten on the foot by a poisonous snake and was still in pain. In the morning, they hid and tried to sleep, but they had no food or water. When night fell, Halima urged her tired and hungry children on.

Taken to safety

On the third day, her children by now barely able to move, Halima heard explosions nearby and assumed – hoped – she was hearing exercises by the Nigerian Army. With their hands raised, she and her children slowly emerged from the bush. It was a dangerous moment, as they knew the nervous soldiers would fear an ambush or suicide bomb. The first soldier they saw shouted at them to stop. He was astonished to see a woman and her children so far in the bush, where no one should have been. Once he had checked to make sure they were unarmed, he gave them bread and water and sent for a truck to take them to safety in Maiduguri. Later, he told them it was only seeing the children that kept him from firing immediately. Halima now admits that had they not happened upon the soldiers, she and her children would probably have died in the bush. 

Their luck held. A few days later, her eldest boy’s intuition that his father was still alive proved, against all odds, to be right. Although Halima’s husband and his traveling companions had not made it all the way to Maiduguri, they had managed to send word that they had reached safety in another town. With medical care and nutrition at the UNICEF-supported clinic in the camp, and the good news about their father, the family began to thrive. The older boys, for the first time in their lives, even started to go to school at the UNICEF-supported classes in the camp. And for the first time in a very long time, they were able to smile.

>> Read the UNICEF Report: Beyond Chibok assesses the impact conflict has had on children in the four countries affected by Boko Haram