In Maiduguri, former fighters and child captives blend into the urban tapestry, a place where nearly everyone has been a victim, a collaborator — or both.
Amina was 16 when Boko Haram captured her. The fighters threatened her with death unless she helped them kidnap other girls during raids on villages. Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — She hears the awful sounds in her dreams. They are the moans of a dying girl.
Amina is haunted by the memory. After all, she was the one who handed the girl to Boko Haram.
Amina was a teenager herself when Boko Haram, the Islamist fighters who have rampaged across northeast Nigeria, kidnapped and conscripted her. Sixteen and scared, Amina did their bidding, seizing young girls from their homes and escorting them to a camp where many were forcibly married off to fighters.
One of the terrified girls was 14. Amina grabbed her by the wrists, leading her to a waiting vehicle. Three weeks later, the girl was dead after being gang raped.
“I think about her a lot,” Amina said, swallowing hard and closing her eyes.
Boko Haram has abducted many hundreds, if not thousands, of girls and boys across the region, forcing them to fight, to cook, to clean and even to bear children. To much of the world, the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from their school dormitory in the town of Chibok three years ago was the seminal moment in the crisis, followed by another horror: children, as young as 7 or 8, being used as suicide bombers.
The Nigerian military has made recent gains, pushing into the forests where Boko Haram hides and recapturing areas once under its control. But throughout the war, now in its eighth year, hundreds of thousands of people have fled here to Maiduguri, the battle-weary capital where the conflict began.
It is a place where former fighters and captives like Amina blend into the urban tapestry, a place where nearly everyone has been a victim, a collaborator — or both.
With its busy tea cafes, flaming kebab stands and rush-hour traffic, Maiduguri seems like a city returning to its old self.
Suicide bombers, many of them girls, still periodically set upon the mostly Muslim city. But the days of house-to-house fighting that once terrorized residents are over. Roadside stalls offer fried doughnuts, storefront gates open every morning to sell clothing and office supplies, morning commuters guzzle caffeine and university students picnic at the zoo.
But behind the cover of daily life, terrible secrets loom.
A teenager selling sugar cane on the corner may have killed someone, but he isn’t sure. A smiling little boy, dressed in a school uniform as he weaves between grown-ups on the sidewalk, once bore a gun for the rebels, dragging it by the muzzle because it was too heavy for him to carry. A young woman with college ambitions was raped by several fighters, then accompanied them on village raids.
For them, building a new life is anything but certain.
“Normal life of Maiduguri masks the scars that the conflict left for some children,” said Patrick Rose, a spokesman for Unicef. “These children have experienced horrific things.”
On most days, Amina, now 18, can be found on the street selling detergent and broth with her mother — the only one who knows her secret.
“I feel so guilty,” she said.
A year and a half ago, insurgents would come and go in Amina’s hometown in the countryside. One day they decided to take her with them, shooting her older brother and tossing his body in the bush.
They took her to a Boko Haram camp, where she was shocked by the huge number of women living there, many of them pregnant or with infants. Amina was told that she would have to marry one of the fighters, but would first accompany them on operations to help kidnap other girls. If she did not do so, she would be killed.
“On my first outing with them, I abducted three,” said Amina, whose last name, like those of others in this article, is being withheld out of concern for their safety.
Capturing other girls soon became a pattern for Amina. Fighters would enter a village with guns blazing, kill and kidnap men, and expect Amina and other girls to round up the young women. They were told to leave behind older villagers and anyone nursing babies.
Kidnapping victims were easy to find. They were often crouched in terror in their homes.
“When the girls would hear the gunshots, they’d run into their rooms and hide,” Amina said.
Insurgents would sometimes enter the homes alongside Amina to make sure she was doing her job. Sometimes she would cry as she worked, dragging sobbing and screaming girls into waiting vehicles.
On one outing, a man resisted attempts to steal his belongings and Amina watched insurgents shoot him dead.
But it is the young girl’s abduction that weighs on Amina. Wailing in the back of a Boko Haram truck, the girl told Amina that she had watched fighters kill her parents.
Amina remembers the girl being terrified, screaming that she didn’t want to have sex with fighters. She fainted more than once in the vehicle that drove her to the Boko Haram camp.
At the camp, fighters didn’t bother the girl for about three weeks. Then one evening, Amina watched as they came for her.
“There was one room at that camp, and any woman invited into that room knew what was going to happen in there,” Amina said. “While we were eating, we heard her cries, and we knew she was being raped.”
One man after another entered. It lasted three days. When it was finally over, the girl couldn’t walk. Soon she was dead.
Amina escaped from the camp soon after, flagging down a driver who took her to safety in Maiduguri.
“He told me his daughter had also been captured by Boko Haram,” she said.
Hadiza, 19, blends easily into the crowds of young women on the streets of Maiduguri, dressed in colorful dresses and head scarves. She lives with her parents, who fled their village in the countryside, and hopes to go to college to study science.
Just a year ago, she was living with the rebels. They respected her, she said, and liked the way she shouted, “God is great!” and fired her gun in the air. They called her “rugged.”
Hadiza was 17 when she was kidnapped and raped by three militants. They trained her to use a weapon, and she accompanied them on raids of villages, spraying bullets in the night and shouting to terrify residents.
“First and foremost, we scared them,” she said.
The militants respected her bravado. They called her a hero, she said. The praise was in some ways exciting, and it offered protection.
“Those who were quiet, they always wanted to rape them,” Hadiza said.
Mustapha, 18, selling sugar cane in Maiduguri, Nigeria. Captured by Boko Haram, he was forced to marry and have sex with a girl from his village as fighters looked on. Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times
Mustapha Ali sells sugar cane on a busy street corner, saving up to pay for an urban-planning degree he hopes to earn one day.
Two years ago, Mustapha, now 18, was armed with an AK-47, attacking villages alongside Boko Haram fighters who told him to join them or die.
“So I pledged my loyalty to them,” Mustapha said. Two of his brothers refused to join them on that day when the rebels swarmed his village, he said, and he watched as they killed them.
He was taken to a camp where weapons were distributed to captives like him, including two boys from his village who had also been forcibly recruited.
Soon, Mustapha was riding motorbikes with Boko Haram members as they raided villages and stole cattle and sheep. During one raid, a woman was dragged out of her home.
“You pagan!” Mustapha recalled fighters shouting at her before one threw her to the ground, pulled out a knife and beheaded her.
“I was there. I saw everything,” he said. “I was so afraid. From that day on, I did whatever they told me to do.”
The attacks he took part in were always at night, and while Mustapha fired his weapon along with the other men when entering villages, he said, it was too dark to know where his bullets landed.
“It was hard for me to tell if I killed anyone,” he said.
Fighters told him to pick a wife from among the kidnapped girls. He chose a girl he knew from his village. He was fond of her and decided that if he didn’t pick her, a stranger would. Militants watched him have sex with her the first time, to make sure he really did it.
When Nigerian soldiers fought their way into their camp, Mustapha ran, leaving behind the girl he had married — she refused to go — and kept running. He eventually found his way to Maiduguri, where he has been reunited with his parents, who had fled there to escape the fighters. He is living with them, putting money aside from his sugar cane sales to pay for college.
“I’m struggling,” he said.
Hudu, 9, and Abbani, 12, ahead of him, were kidnapped by Boko Haram from separate villages two years ago. Both endured the slaughtering of their parents, and then had to work for the jihadist group. Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times
Abbani and Hudu
In one of the many nondescript, one-room concrete homes in Maiduguri, Abbani and Hudu have found a new family.
When Hudu was 7, Boko Haram fighters came to his village and locked him in a room while they slaughtered his parents. He could hear them screaming.
“I was crying and shouting: ‘Oh, God. Oh, my parents. Oh, Dad,’” said Hudu, who is now 9. “And they said, ‘Keep quiet or we will kill you, too.’”
Militants took Hudu with them and put him on top of an armored vehicle stolen from the military. He was in charge of feeding an ammunition chain into a weapon mounted there.
“I had to put bullets into the big gun,” he said. “Every day, I had to be on top. I spent almost the whole time on top. Every day, they would shoot, even when they didn’t see anyone.”
Abbani was 10 when he watched Boko Haram behead his father and then his mother after they refused to join the fighters who had invaded their village.
“I was standing next to them, and crying and screaming and trying to get to my parents, so they tied me up,” said Abbani, now 12.
The militants made Abbani work as a porter, hauling sacks of their belongings from camp to camp. Worried the military was closing in, they trained him to use a weapon.
“They gave me a gun and said to shoot the army,” he said. “It was so heavy I couldn’t carry it, so I had to drag it on the ground.”
The Nigerian military invaded that day, and Abbani managed to flee the camp. He saw a teenage girl hiding in a field of grass and flowers. She told him to drop his gun.
“So I threw it away and ran to her,” he said. “She held me tight, and we ran to another place to hide.”
As he and the girl, Aisha, ran, they came across Hudu alone in the bush with an AK-47. He was screaming and shooting bullets wildly everywhere, holding his finger on the trigger.
Aisha hid Abbani behind a tree and ran to Hudu, who had fallen to the ground. Blood from a head wound was covering his face.
“I took them both and ran,” said Aisha, who herself was fleeing Boko Haram captivity. She didn’t know it then, but she was pregnant with the baby of a militant.
The boys, who consider each other brothers, now live with Aisha, 18, and her baby in Maiduguri. On a recent night, two pet rabbits hopped about, sneaking bites of yams and cabbage that Aisha had prepared for the family’s dinner.
The boys call her mother.
Aisha, 18, was hiding in a forest when she encountered Abbani and Hudu. She was pregnant with a Boko Haram commander’s baby, though she did not know it at the time.