At 12 years old, Salma was abducted together with her two brothers from her hometown in Bama State, Nigeria. After losing her family, giving birth and fleeing from her captors, she now lives in a displaced persons camp and receives support from CARE.
This is Salma’s story in her own words:
I ran. I ran as fast as I could through the mud with my bare feet. I knew this was my only chance of escape. And I knew that my husband would kill me if I stopped running, so I ran.
I was 12 years old when six Boko Haram fighters attacked my village. They came with their motorbikes and burnt down our village. I remember people fleeing in all directions as they were shooting. They entered our house and screamed at us just before killing my cousin and neighbour, who came over to our place earlier that evening. Then they took me and my two younger brothers away.
We rode on the backs of their bikes for two whole days without knowing where we were going. When we stopped at night to rest I thought about fleeing but one of the men was always watching over us. I was so scared but I didn’t move or speak because I was afraid they would kill me too. Just like they killed my brothers along the way. One was shot and the other one slaughtered in front of my eyes. I still have nightmares about that night. We finally reached a camp in the middle of Sambisa forest. I didn’t know that this was going to be my home for the following five years.
With me, there were about 20 other girls, most of them around my age. We didn’t have anything to eat and were not allowed to leave. There was nothing to do except for speaking to each other, praying together and sleeping on the few mats on the ground. The most horrible part was when the fighters used us as spectators for their public killings. We had to witness very brutal stonings and executions of both men and women. I still can’t get the pictures out of my head. If we even made a single sound, we would be punished ourselves with 80 strokes on the back. Occasionally, some of the fighters would come to pick the girls they wanted to marry. We were treated like cattle.
I was chosen three times. Each time, I would move into a hut in which me and the fighter to which I was married would stay. But the only times I ever saw them was when they came by to rape me.
I often visit the women’s centre and speak to my CARE counsellor. She has become like a sister to me and the only one I can really trust. Together, we try to process all of the memories I want erased. But they still haunt me.
My father used to be a pastor. My mother took care of me and my seven brothers and sisters. I used to sing in a choir. I used to be happy.
My third husband was the worst but we were together the longest, for about one year. He hated me the most out of his three wives. I wasn’t allowed to speak to any other women because he believed I was a bad influence. Even when I became pregnant, he threatened to kill me.
One morning, my husband decided to kill me. A group of fighters took me to the public execution point where I was tied to the ground. They were going to kill me after their morning prayers for which they left. One of the other wives approached me shortly after they left. She said, “I’m going to untie you but if you get caught, don’t tell them it was me.”
I can only walk with a limp now as my right foot is permanently injured from all the beatings with ropes and sticks. It was very difficult for me to run, also because I was eight months pregnant. My heart was racing, thinking that they would catch me any minute. When the sky was turning dark, I thought I was lost but then I found a main road. A few meters away there was a roadblock with soldiers sitting in their uniforms. I was so thirsty and sweaty. Full of hope, I walked towards them but once they saw me they shouted I should stop. Then they forced me to strip down naked. At first, I didn’t understand, I thought maybe they are fighters too. But later I was told that they had to check whether I was carrying bombs around my body. Girls are often used as suicide bombers. I believe that’s how my husband’s second wife had died because she never returned to the camp.
After about three days the military then took me to the closest camp, which is now my new home. This is where I gave birth to my daughter. She is my everything. I’ve been here for 6 months now and it’s the first time I feel at peace again. I often visit the women’s centre and speak to my CARE counsellor. She has become like a sister to me and the only one I can really trust. Together, we try to process all of the memories I want erased. But they still haunt me. My biggest wish now is to see my family again, although I don’t know where they are or if they are alive.
The ten-year long conflict in the Lake Chad Basin, bordering Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, has dramatically affected the lives of more than 10.7 million people who rely on humanitarian assistance to survive. In 2019, 7.1 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in north-east Nigeria alone. Conflict and ongoing attacks from armed groups has meant lost lives and livelihoods, abandoned homes and villages, and deserted farmland, crippling large parts of the Lake Chad region.
CARE is distributing food and helping malnourished mothers and children; providing sexual and reproductive health support, particularly for women through family planning and antenatal care; supporting survivors of gender-based violence through safe spaces; and providing psychological support.