In Northeast Nigeria,sexual violence is a characteristic of the ongoing insurgency, during which thousands of women and girls have been kidnapped and raped by Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. Many are forcibly married to their captors and become pregnant from rape. Some have managed to escape or have been rescued and allowed to return to their almost completely destroyed villages to try to rebuild their lives.
But for many of these women—like Esther from the West African town of Gwoza in southern Borno State—the persecution doesn’t end. They return to their village only to face discrimination and rejection by family and their community who label them “Boko Haram women.” Their children, conceived from rape, face an even greater risk of rejection, abandonment and violence.
For a year, Esther was held captive by Boko Haram militants. Her captivity left her with deep emotional wounds and a child she named Rebecca—the baby others in her family and village call “Boko.” Here, Esther shares her story as her baby daughter looks into the camera, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this world can be an extremely cruel place.
The last thing 17-year-old Esther remembers seeing the day her world turned upside down was her father’s collapsed body lying lifeless on the ground.
Before that October day, Esther and her father lived a pretty simple life after her mother passed away. She attended school and took care of her ailing father as best she could.
In October 2015, everything changed when Islamic extremist group Boko Haram (which translates “non-Islamic education is a sin”) struck her town. When the first gunshots rang out, followed by harrowing screams, Esther and her father ran to escape. It was too late—the attackers had already surrounded their house.
The rebel militants struck down her father and left him in a heap on the ground. Esther became a Boko Haram captive. As rebel fighters carried off her and several other young women in the town to their hideout in the Sambisa Forest (where Boko Haram drove thousands of those they kidnapped), she continued to look back, her eyes fixed on her father. Esther doesn’t know if he survived or died that day.
She assumes the worst.
AN UNIMAGINABLE NIGHTMARE
Life in the hands of Boko Haram was the worst nightmare Esther could ever imagine. There in the Sambisa Forest, the terrorists employed diverse tactics to coerce the kidnapped girls to renounce their faith in Christ and swear their allegiance to Allah, the Muslim God. When enticement with privileges didn’t work, they quickly resorted to violence.
Many of the girls could not resist and married their captors, Esther says.
Esther also fought extreme pressure. The militants found her beautiful; many wanted her as their wife. However, Esther, like her namesake in the Bible (Esther 4:16), determined to not give in.
In her heart, she decided: If I perish, I perish. But I will not become a Muslim.
Her resolve was no doubt courageous, but it also wreaked dire consequences. Trying to hide the tears trickling over her cheeks, Esther looks down as she recalls how she was continually raped.
“I cannot count how many men raped me. Every time they came back from their attacks, they would rape us…defile us…”
She is silent as she attempts to regain control over her emotions.
“Each passing day, I hated myself more and more,” she says. “I felt that God had forsaken me. There were times when I was so angry with Him… Still, I could not get myself to renounce Him. I found myself remembering His promise to never leave me or forsake me.”
Eventually, Esther became pregnant. Who the father is, she does not know.
“I had no idea how on earth I would ever be able to love this child,” she says, remembering how she felt when she learned she was pregnant.
In November 2016, the Nigerian military rescued Esther and the other kidnapped girls in captivity. Esther came back to her village, pregnant, hoping to find support. Instead, many of the people in her community rejected and shunned the former captives, labeling her and others “Boko Haram women.”
Salamatu Umar knows that label all too well. She was also abducted by Boko Haram in 2015, when she was just 15, and was forced to marry a Boko Haram fighter. She and another girl eventually escaped their captors, running away while they were collecting firewood for cooking. Salamatu was pregnant at the time.
She is free—and yet continues to be wounded.
“People call me ‘Boko Haram wife’ to my face,” she told NPR. “They say I am the wife of a killer—so how can I be afraid of Boko Haram? They say my son is a Boko Haram baby.”
A February 2016 Unicef report sheds light on the stigma and the continued persecution of former Boko Haram captives when they return. The report indicates that villagers view these women, girls and their children as a direct threat, fearing that they have been indoctrinated and radicalized by their captors.
The recent increase in the use of female suicide bombers throughout Nigeria has also reinforced the widely held belief that women and girls held captive by militants are contributing to the region’s overall insecurity.
Some also believe that the children conceived with the rebels will become the next generation of fighters—carrying the violent characteristics of their biological fathers.
People perceive these victims of conflict as being partly responsible for the violence and losses the entire community suffers during the insurgency. As a result, increasing numbers of children and newborns, as well as their mothers, are ostracized from society and are at risk of even further violence.
Throughout northeastern Nigeria, camps of displaced persons are filled with former Boko Haram captives whose families and communities have rejected them and forced them out of their community, leaving them to fend for themselves and their children.
THEY CALLED MY BABY ‘BOKO’
For Esther, this next unexpected wave of persecution soon overshadowed her newfound freedom.
“They mocked me because I was pregnant,” she says. “Even my grandparents despised me and called me names. I cried many tears. I felt so lonely.
“What broke my heart, even more, was that they refused to call my daughter Rebecca. They referred to her only as ‘Boko.’”
AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS
Providentially, Esther connected with Open Doors through the leaders of her church who invited her to attend an Open Doors trauma care seminar. During the training, the leaders encouraged Esther and the other participants to pour out all their pain and anguish at the foot of the cross.
They encouraged them to trust in God, knowing that the Lord is willing and able to free them from the shame and anguish they harbored as victims of sexual violence.
Understanding the importance of surrendering their lives and addressing shame, the caregiver told the participants to write the burdens of their hearts on a piece of paper. She then asked them to pin that paper to the hand-carved wooden cross in the room.
“When I pinned that piece of paper to the cross, it felt like I was handing over all of my sorrow to God,” Esther says. “When the trainer later removed all the pieces of paper from the cross and burnt them to ashes, I felt like my sorrow and shame disappeared, never to come back again.”
Esther continued to receive trauma counseling.
JOY AND LAUGHTER AMID SADNESS
A year after her return to her village, people still struggled to accept Esther and her daughter. But they also noticed a change in the young teenage mother who stands as powerful evidence of God’s unending and transformative love and mercy. Esther is able to say she has peace with herself and what happened to her.
“People have noticed a change,” she says. “Some of those people who used to mock me now ask me my secret. I tell them, ‘I forgave my enemies and now trust God to take vengeance in His time.’”
Today, she and Rebecca live with Esther’s grandparents. Open Doors has also helped provide for Esther and Rebecca’s physical needs, including food aid. The help and care she has received make her feel like family, she says.
“After hearing my story, you did not despise me but encouraged me and showed me love. Thank you so much!”
The child the young girl thought she could never love—she now loves deeply. Like her biblical namesake, God has worked miracles both in and through Esther of Gwoza and her daughter.
“Rebecca has become my joy and laughter amid sadness.”
PRAYING WITH ESTHER AND FOR NIGERIA
- Please pray with Esther as she continues to walk a difficult and often lonely road. Pray that she would continue to cast her sorrows on her Savior and that she would begin to see the plan God has for her life.
- Pray with Esther for Rebecca’s life and future as she grows up in a community that looks down on and even shuns her. Pray that God would work miracles in Rebecca’s life and unmistakably reveal Himself to her as her creator and Savior. Pray that the Lord will continue to use baby Rebecca to illustrate His love and mercy to people around her.
- Pray with all the women, girls and children who have been ostracized from their community because of their exposure to rebel fighters. Pray for their strength, protection and provision.
- Pray with the estimated 20,000 men, women and children who are still captives of Boko Haram. Pray for their protection and that they would sense God’s presence in their nightmare.
- Pray for the estimated 2.7 million conflict-affected children in Nigeria in need of psychosocial support. Pray that they would seek and find help and come to know the true Healer of their hearts and minds.
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This article originally appeared here.