It was three years ago, on a Tuesday morning, when Boko Haram stormed Zara’s village, and the slaughter began.
“I fled with my family to a nearby village but Boko Haram found us,” says Zara.
“I have four children, and we were all hiding my husband. They found him and killed him in front of me.
“They then took my children. I still don’t know where they are.”
Zara is 31, and for the last ten months she has lived with her 18-month-old daughter Fatima in a camp for displaced persons in Maiduguri, north-eastern Nigeria.
“I stayed with [Boko Haram] for two years. One day the army came. I was seven months pregnant and they took me to this camp. I gave birth here.”
“This is what God has delivered for me. I lost everything, my four children,” she says.
These are the young women and children stolen from their homes and families. Kept as slaves. Used as weapons and workhorses.
And now, having found their freedom, they are trying to settle back into normal life, when life is anything but.
For more than eight years, Boko Haram-related violence has devastated northeast Nigeria.
Nearly one million children have been displaced by the fighting, and around 20,000 people have been killed.
Thousands of girls and boys have been abducted and forced into the Boko Haram ranks.
And while the local militias that formed to protect their communities have helped stem the violence, they too have used children in their operations.
“When Boko Haram invaded… I tried to run away, but they shot at me. I fell and so they took me with some girls and small children,” says Esther.
“We were all locked in a room, us girls. The Emir came in, the same guy that had the Chibok girls. I started screaming as he wanted to take me away. They wanted to sell me to one of their leaders.
“Six-months after I was married, I was nearly two months pregnant,” says Esther. “Two groups [of Boko Haram fighters] started fighting. We were able to escape… now I am free.”
“This is what God has delivered for me. I lost everything, my four children.”
She is free, but at just 19 years old, Esther now has a six-month-old daughter to care for.
“Becky is troublesome, she cries a lot. When she does, people say she is troublesome like her father, like Boko Haram. I like to play with her, I hope she will become a medical doctor, but she needs to go to school. She is always sick, I struggle to get medicine for her.”
Before her escape Esther was just one of the thousands of women and children still held captive by Boko Haram. They are forced into work — cooking, cleaning, fetching water or collecting firewood.
Boys are often forced into transport or fighting roles. Others have to guard their fellow abductees, threatened with death if someone escapes on their watch.
“These children are victims, not perpetrators. Forcing or deceiving them into committing such horrific acts is reprehensible.” — Marie-Pierre Poirier.
The roles for girls are more limited, their chances for escape more narrow.
Girls as young as 13 are assigned ‘husbands’ and raped in marriages without ceremony. While their husbands are away they face periods of isolation — and periods of repeated rape when they return.
Those who refuse are told they can carry out suicide missions instead. Younger children are often not given a choice.
Since January almost 100 children have been used to carry out bomb attacks in Nigeria. Most are under the age of 15. One was a baby strapped to a girl.
“This is the worst possible use of children in conflict,” says Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
“These children are victims, not perpetrators. Forcing or deceiving them into committing such horrific acts is reprehensible.”
For those who escape, the ordeal is not over. In these very traditional societies there is an enormous amount of stigma associated with sexual violence, and communities are increasingly suspicious of those who have escaped or been freed from Boko Haram.
“When we first came, people call me a Boko Haram wife,” says Zara.
“But with time, things in the community are changing. Now, even the neighbours play with Fatima. She is a very happy baby”
There is good happening, amongst the terror. UNICEF is supporting around five thousand women and children, formerly associated with armed groups, to be reintroduced into societies.
And, for the first time in their lives, children living in camps for the displaced are benefiting from education — in some camps enrolment rates are as high as 90%.
But these small wins can’t repair the pain these women and children have lived through. Every day, Zara prays to be reunited with her other children.
“If I saw them I would be so happy. No matter what has happened I would accept them. There is nothing else to say. Life is very hard. This is all I have.
“I am happy to have Fatima. Fatima brings me so much joy, but sometimes I weep.
“I cry myself to sleep but I am beginning to overcome this by meeting other women. I am calm now, I can forge ahead with my life.”
Words by Lachlan Forsyth. To support UNICEF’s work please donate to our greatest needs campaign.