Imagine living your life, free from oppression to one day be abducted by terrorists and forced to strap on a bomb. This is the reality many women of the Cameroon are facing today.
Hold the bomb under your armpit to keep it steady, the women and girls were taught.
Sever your enemy’s head from behind, to minimize struggling.
“If you cut from the back of the neck, they die faster,” said Rahila Amos, a Nigerian grandmother describing the meticulous instruction she received from Boko Haram to become a suicide bomber.
Of all the many horrors of Boko Haram’s rampage across West Africa — the attacks on mosques, churches and schools; themass killings of civilians; the entire villages left in ashes after militants tear through — one of the most baffling has been its ability to turn captured women and girls into killers.
Boko Haram, one of the world’s deadliest extremist groups, has used at least 105 women and girls in suicide attacks since June 2014, when a female bomber blew herself up at an army barracks in Nigeria, according to The Long War Journal, which tracks terrorist activity.
Since then, women and girls, often with bombs hidden in baskets or under their clothes, have killed hundreds of people in attacks on fish and vegetable markets, schools, a river dock and even camps for people who have fled their homes to get away from the violence.
“This isn’t something you can defeat or eradicate outright,” said Issa Tchiroma Bakary, the minister of communications in Cameroon, where 22 female suicide bombers were identified since the start of this year. “You don’t know who is who. When you see a young girl moving toward you, you don’t know if she’s hiding a bomb.”
Soldiers cannot open fire on every woman or girl who looks suspicious, he added. “They know where we have the Achilles’ heel,” Mr. Bakary said of Boko Haram.
The group’s abuse of women first shocked the world two years ago, when Boko Haram stormed a school in Nigeria and fled with about 300 girls, many of whom have never been found. Hundreds of other women and girls have been abducted, imprisoned, raped and sometimes intentionally impregnated, perhaps with the goal of creating a new generation of fighters.
Ms. Amos, 47, said the fighters had come to her village in the morning, firing weapons as they spilled out of cars and rounded up women and children.
Not long after, Ms. Amos, a Christian, said she was forced to enroll in Boko Haram’s classes on the Quran, a first step on her way toward being taught the art of suicide bombing.
After months of training, Ms. Amos said she was finally able to escape her captors when they assembled for evening preaching. She stayed behind, gathering two of her young children and a grandchild so they could make a run for the Cameroonian border.
“I don’t want to take a bomb,” she said inside this refugee camp in Cameroon that stretches across a vast landscape dotted by tents and mud huts.
The authorities in Cameroon and Nigeria said that many of the experiences detailed by Ms. Amos matched the accounts of other women and girls who have escaped Boko Haram, or who have been arrested before they could detonate bombs. Ms. Amos’s assertions are also strikingly similar to details recounted by other freed women and girls, including descriptions of the funeral rites performed before female bombers were sent on missions.
The accounts offer insight into how Boko Haram, despite being under military pressure from a multinational campaign to wipe it out, has been able to strike fear across an expansive battlefield that now includes Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
No longer able to control the territory it once did, Boko Haram is sending out women and young girls as newly minted terrorists who can inflict a devastating toll.
Col. Didier Badjeck, a Cameroon defense spokesman, said that after soldiers had chased Boko Haram out of villages in recent weeks, they found homes that had been used as prisons for the women and girls. He said female hostages had reported being trained during their captivity — both in the Quran and in violence.
“They are training them to maximize the number of victims,” Colonel Badjeck said. “We are sure about it.”
Boko Haram often sends male fighters to set upon mosques. But last month, a female suicide bomber dressed as a man set off her explosives during morning prayers in Nigeria. Another woman was waiting outside the mosque, and as people fled the first blast, she detonated her own explosives as well. In all, at least 24people were killed.