Human Rights Watch urges Nigeria to aid Boko Haram survivors

The Human Rights Watch report includes details of how survivors of Boko Haram attacks were sexually abused and forced to convert to Islam. (AFP)

The Human Rights Watch report includes details of how survivors of Boko Haram attacks were sexually abused and forced to convert to Islam. (AFP)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the Nigerian government to help those women and girls who have escaped from Boko Haram by providing them with adequate medical and mental health services.

This includes post-rape care and psychosocial support for those who have survived abduction by the terrorist group.

The Washington-based organisation says Nigeria should implement plans to make schools safer for students in the northeast of the country, which is under constant attack from Boko Haram.   

The organisation gives detailed accounts of interviews with 46 witnesses and survivors of Boko Haram attacks in a 63-page report released this week. The women and girls, aged between 15 and 38, explain how they were sexually abused by their captors and forced to convert to Islam.   

At least 500 women and girls have been kidnapped by the group since 2009.   

In a  video released with the report, one girl explains how she was had to accompany Boko Haram fighters on an attack and “carried their bullets”.   

“When they wanted me to kill the first man, my body was shaking and I fell to the ground,” she says.
“They forced me to get up and watch as they killed the second person,” says Hauwa*, who was abducted in September 2013. She says she contemplated suicide after the event.

No rescue despite outcry
Twelve of the women HRW interviewed were from the group of 267 schoolgirls Boko Haram kidnapped from Chibok in Borno state on April 14, the largest kidnapping to date.

Despite an international outcry and help from various countries, including the United States, Britain and Israel, the Nigerian government has still not managed to free the Chibok girls.   

The eyewitnesses in the report give a detailed description of the area where they were held, the 518km2 Sambisa Forest Reserve bordering Cameroon and around the foot of the Gwoza hills.

Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, says the area in which Boko Haram operates is far larger than that and spans an area the size of a country like Rwanda.   

“It is extremely difficult to locate Boko Haram fighters as it is very rugged terrain and they move around all the time. The girls quoted in the [HRW] report also tell of how they are made to hide when planes are circling overhead.”   

US drones have been deployed from nearby Chad for some time now, but have found little information that could help with a rescue of the girls, says Ewi. And the risk of casualties among the hostages would be great if there was a full-on assault on a Boko Haram base.

“The difficulty of the task doesn’t take away from the fact that the Nigerian government has failed dismally to free the girls,” he says.

Still under negotiation
The Nigerian military announced on October 17 that it had struck a deal with Boko Haram and that the Chibok girls would be freed, but it has since emerged that the deal is still being negotiated.

Experts say the Nigerian government could be negotiating with one of various factions of Boko Haram, which doesn’t have a clear leadership hierarchy.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Cameroon recently managed to negotiate the release of 27 hostages, including 10 Chinese workers and Cameroon Deputy Prime Minister Amadou Ali’s wife, Akaoua Babiana.

Ewi says it is slightly easier for Cameroon to deal with Boko Haram as the group’s major target is Nigeria. There is also a strong suspicion that the Cameroonian government paid ransoms for the hostages or that Boko Haram prisoners were handed over in exchange for their release, but Cameroonian authorities have denied both allegations. 

In its report, HRW points out alleged human rights abuses by the Nigerian military, which is known for its harsh treatment of militants and terror suspects. 

The organisation has called for an independent inquiry into these allegations and called on the Nigerian government to work with the International Criminal Court in investigating abuses in Nigeria. It has also requested that the country domesticate in Nigerian law the crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

* Name has been changed.

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