Hauwa, a survivor of Boko Haram and TYTW Leadership Scholarship Grantee, spoke with TV 5 Monde during her visit to Vancouver, Canada for the Women Deliver conference in June 2019. The piece is in French, and chronicles Hauwa's journey through captivity and to freedom. The English translation is below.
Former Prisoner of Boko Haram: Fragile but Still Standing
Hauwa's story is one of a girl who spent two years in the hands of Boko Haram, before escaping. Now 18, she tells her story as the voice of those who have failed to flee as she did - hoping to mobilize governments against terror as she shares her own story of escape. Large, mascara-lined eyes and a proud silhouette conceal the terrifying story she told at the Women Deliver conference in Vancouver this past June. This is where Terriennes met Hauwa, the young Nigerian girl.
At 14-years-old Hauwa lived happily with her brother, father, and mother in Bama, located in northeastern Nigeria, when a Boko Haram commando burst into the village. The jihadists were looking for her brother, whom they wanted to enlist, but since he was not at home, they attacked Hauwa instead. Her parents tried to protect her: they were shot on the spot and Hauwa was captured. The fighters also kidnapped some 150 other girls from the village, which they ransacked, starting with the school. They took their captives into the immense forest of Sambisa- close to 60,000 square kilometers of dense vegetation. Hauwa did not know where she was, losing all frames of reference. For two years, she would suffer daily beatings and rape: "They beat us and raped us in turn every day, without any hygiene," says the young woman.
What was fated to happen came to pass: Hauwa became pregnant. As the term of her pregnancy approached, her captors lowered their guard and forgot to close the door of her cell. She jumped on the occasion and fled into the forest. She cut across village after village. In one of them, an old woman helped her to give birth to a little girl. Hauwa then left with her baby in hopes of reaching a safer city. The little one died on the way under circumstances whose details are unknown, because it was a subject that we could not discuss with Hauwa. We know that she lost her child and buried her with her own hands in the forest.
There are many questions that can not be asked of Hauwa. The head of the organization "Too Young To Wed"; who accompanied her explained to the small group of journalists who met her in private that there are subjects one cannot approach, because it is still too painful for her. Throughout the interview, accompanied by a translator - Hauwa spoke little English - the young girl kept her eyes lowered on the table in front of her. She murmured brief answers, giving no additional detail. One could feel and understand through this restraint, through her body language and tone of her voice, how much Hauwa was deeply traumatized by those two years of captivity that changed her life forever. These interviews were painful for her, as they plunged her back into the horror she experienced, as illustrated by this tweet from the vice president of the Catholic Teachers Association of Ontario:
“Heartbreaking story of Hauwa, who was kidnapped at 14 by the Boko Haram, was forced to become a child bride, was raped, and impregnated. She escaped and began immediately advocating for the other thousands of girls who were abducted.”
- Barbara Dobrowolski
Too Young to Wed
We do not know how the teenager managed to reach the city of Maiduguri after this flight into the forest. Shortly after, she told her story to American journalist Stephanie Sinclair, Pulitzer Prize-winner and founder of the organization Too Young To Wed, which helps girls who have been captured or forcibly married. And who, often, are rejected by their families and their environment when they manage to escape their ordeal: which is the case of almost all survivors of Boko Haram. In 2018, Hauwa received the “Girl' Champion Award” from the organization. She has become a voice for all those who are still captive.
“I beg the international community to go and save all those still in the hands of Boko Haram.”
The young girl decided to continue living in Nigeria. She resumed her studies in Abuja, the capital city, attending a law school. She wants to become a lawyer so that one day she can defend girls like her. Her study is logistically supported by Too Young To Wed, which also provides necessary psychological support that helps her through the trauma, to learn to live with her recurring nightmares and terrifying memories. The healing process will be long and painful, experts say.
And despite the pain, Hauwa does not hesitate to tell her story on the stage. She does it to draw attention to all those who could not escape. And for all the girls who are captive of these extremist groups, these monstrous fighters for whom women are trophies of war, objects - one thinks in particular of the Syrian women, Iraqi women and Yazidies become sexual slaves of the men of ISIS. In August 2016, along with Ya Kaka, another survivor of Boko Haram, she was in New York and Washington, DC, to challenge US authorities and UN officials:
"We hope to let people how the true situation of what is happening;" said Ya Kaka, who was 16 when she was kidnapped by Boko Haram. #TBT to Hauwa and Ya Kaka's visit to speak in front of U.S. and U.N. officials.”
- TYTW Tweet
Cry of The Heart
Of Hauwa, there are still thousands like her in the world. It is for them that the young Nigerian spoke to Congress in Washington. Then again in front of the UN Commission on the Status of Women in Washington in March 2018. And it was still for them that she came to Vancouver. "I urge the international community to go save all those still in Boko Haram's hands and help them return to school and be able to resume a normal life, protect them and provide them with an education;" she said in a press conference. Hearing this girl's heart-rending cry, the question arises: Yes, so why is there no operation to liberate the “wives” of Boko Haram?; Why doesn’t the Nigerian government intervene and stir heaven and earth to find them, and save them? Why don’t the great Western powers of this world, the United States, France, Canada, Great Britain, involve their forces through special operations to help these women? How, in the 21st century, can we still tolerate girls and women suffering such atrocities?
Fragile, But Standing
We do not return from meeting with Hauwa unscathed. We look at her and wonder: how is it possible to continue living after having experienced such a nightmare? How does one learn to live with it? To find a normal, or almost normal life? To fall in love? To make children? Hauwa agrees to answer the question: Yes, one day she would like that, to get married. To be a normal young woman as others are. Her testimony shocked those who heard her at Women Deliver. Hauwa, a frail young girl who, like a reed was bent but did not break. Fragile but standing. A survivor, as there are too many.