Indications emerged, yesterday, that Boko Haram is in disarray, following shortages of weapons and fuel that had caused tensions between its foot soldiers and leaders, women rescued from the Islamist jihadi fighters by Nigerian troops told newsmen.
The group abducted an estimated 2,000 women and girls last year as it sought to carve out an Islamic state in the North-East of Africa’s biggest economy.
The army has freed nearly 700 in the past week as it advances on Boko Haram’s last stronghold in the vast Sambisa Forest.
Women, who were rescued from the terrorists, said the militants began complaining to their captives about lack of guns and ammunition last month, and many were reduced to carrying sticks, while some of their vehicles had either broken down or lacked gasoline.
A 45-year-old mother of two, Aisha Abbas, who was taken from Dikwa in April, said the fighters all had guns at first, but that recently only some had guns.
Even the wife of their captors’ leader, Adam Bitri, openly criticized him and subsequently fled, two of the women said, with one describing Bitri as short and fat with a beard.
Of the 275 freed captives brought to a government-run camp for internally displaced people in the Malkohi hamlet on the outskirts of Yola, Adamawa State capital, only 61 were over 18, and many small children hobbled around, visibly malnourished.
The women said they were kept inside, occasionally brought food and sometimes beaten severely.
The children were left to run around or do errands for Boko Haram members, while those of the fighters were trained to shoot guns.
One of the women, 18-year-old Binta Ibrahim from northern Adamawa State, said: “One evening in April, Boko Haram followers stood before us and said ‘Our leaders don’t want to give us enough fuel and guns and now the soldiers are encroaching on us in Sambisa. We will leave you’.
“They threatened us, but after they left, we were happy and prayed the soldiers would come and save us.”
The women said once the militants spotted two helicopters circling at noon on the day of their rescue, they began trying to sell the women for up to 2,000 naira (about $10) each.
Towards evening, as the army approached, the captives refused to flee with Boko Haram fighters, who began stoning them, but then ran away.
Salamatu Mohamed, from Damboa area in Borno, said: “We heard bullets flying around and laid on the floor.
“Some of the women were crushed (by army vehicles) and others wounded by bullets. 18 were killed. We counted them; they included infants.”
Mohamed said she gave birth, while in captivity and had trouble feeding her newborn as there was not enough food.
The women said the men frequently threatened to sell them or bring them to Boko Haram’s elusive leader, Abubakar Shekau, deep in the forest.
Nigeria has claimed to have killed him several times.
Defence spokesman, Chris Olukolade, told newsmen the man was not a priority target.
Hanatu Musa, a 22-year old mother kidnapped in June last from Gwoza in Borno State, quoted the fighters as saying their leader had deceived them into fighting and killing in the name of religion.
While the Nigerian army, which launched its counter-attack in January, is confident it has the group cornered in the Sambisa nature reserve, a final push to clear them from the area has been curtailed by landmines.
Elusive Chibok schoolgirls
None of the women interviewed had seen any of the Chibok schoolgirls, but Abbas said fighters, who travelled from a camp in Sambisa where they were held, to source food, would describe the situation.
She said: “They said the Chibok girls were married off this year. Some sold to slavery, then some militants married two or four of the girls.”
Meanwhile, many of the women and girls rescued from Boko Haram are traumatized and showing signs of depression, with psychological counselling urgently needed as they recover in camps, relief officials said Monday.
“For some of them, who are really showing signs of trauma, we need to make them realize that this is not the end of life,” said Sa’ad Bello, National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA, camp coordinator in Adamawa State.
“They need trauma counselling and psycho-social support to develop coping mechanisms,” he said, adding that many of the female hostages appeared to be suffering from serious depression, after enduring sustained abuse by their Islamists captors.
A total of 275 women and children were brought to a camp in Adamawa’s capital Yola, weekend, following a military operation to free them in Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold.
NEMA spokesman, Manzo Ezekiel, said a priority was to provide “trauma management so they are not treated as outcasts when they go back to society.”
Ezekiel said the authorities were keen to avoid the women being stigmatized in religiously conservative northern Nigeria, with reports Boko Haram may have kept some as sex slaves.
Medical tests would not only check for conditions such as malaria, but sexually transmitted diseases, Ezekiel said.
Killed by landmines, tanks
Two women described how militant fighters tried to force them into marrying rebels after they were captured and how their escape turned to tragedy as about three women were killed by landmines.
Others were crushed by tanks as they hid in the undergrowth of the dense forest to avoid being caught in the crossfire between the soldiers and Boko Haram insurgents.