‘His father is Boko Haram, but he is still my child’
REBECCA BITRUS was three months pregnant when she was captured by members of Boko Haram and her 18-month-old son was flung into a river because she refused to marry one of them. To save her other son, she became a sex slave for two years, giving birth to a son in the process. In February 2018, Pope Francis granted her a private meeting. She tells of her horrors and dealing with the constant reminder of her experiences in her son, fathered by an insurgent:
“The evening of August 21, 2014 I was relaxing with my two children–Zachariah (5) and Jonathan (18 months), in front of our house in Baga, Borno State. I was pregnant at the time. We suddenly heard gunshots and explosions.
“We all knew immediately that it was Boko Haram, and ran in different directions. They killed people, burned houses and churches. In no time, they surrounded us and kept us hostage for three weeks.
“We were later moved to Chad and eventually, Sambisa, back in Nigeria. They picked wives from among us. Those who refused marriage were killed and their children enslaved.
“I refused to convert to Islam but they still named me Maryam. When I refused, marriage, they picked up Jonathan and flung him into a river. He soon drowned, screaming and crying, ‘mama.’ I helplessly, watched him die.
“I was told I would be married to someone who could impregnate me to replace my dead son. If I didn’t want that, then I would work as a sex slave or they would kill my remaining child. I became a sex slave.
“Daily, for almost two years, I was with more than one man. I was scared of being infected. Many times, I felt like ripping my skin off whenever they called on me. I was flogged, beaten, imprisoned with no food or water.
“I had a miscarriage in the process but got pregnant afterwards and gave birth to a son they named Ibrahim. It was very difficult to love this child. His father is Boko Haram, but he is still my son.
“I worried a lot about my husband. I wondered how I would face him if we eventually reunited. I wondered how I would cope with this current situation which had become a part of life’s story.
“I hadn’t seen or heard any news about him as we had gone in separate directions during the attack.
“My job was not limited to satisfying the insurgents. I was also made to serve their wives, hand and foot. Their wives didn’t do anything. The only things they did for themselves were take a bath and feed themselves. We did everything else for them.
“I cannot say that there was anything that specifically saw me through each day because each new day was as horrible and terrifying as the previous. I simply lived one day at a time.
“I really cannot say I was hopeful my suffering would come to an end. After they killed my son, I pretended to convert to Islam, but secretly prayed my rosary. I counted the mysteries on my fingers and always asked Mother Mary’s intercession.
“One fateful day, soldiers attacked the camp and many of us escaped during the chaos. Another group of soldiers brought us to Maiduguri. As we journeyed, I felt like flinging the baby out of the truck. But it seemed like the soldiers anticipated my thoughts and began counselling me against it.
“While I was struggling with this reality of having a Boko Haram baby, I was also worried about how my husband would accept that I was a sex slave while in captivity and had also come back with a child fathered by one of the insurgents.
“They asked me if I had anyone in Maiduguri and I told them I had the Catholic Church. That’s how they brought me to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“I met Father John and other JDPC (Justice, Development & Peace Commission) staff who accommodated me here in the Cathedral camp. They encouraged me to keep the baby. The bishop later named him Christopher.
“Although my husband has accepted Christopher, I am dealing with a lot of stigmatization from fellow IDPs. Some of them are sympathetic to what I have gone through but some others ridicule me on account of what has happened.
“They also spoke to my husband to accept the child and me. It is taking a lot of talking and counselling and his father also plays a major role in his accepting us.
“What I went through and the decisions I had to take to stay alive, were not easy ones. I really wish people would stop judging me. What is most important for me is to be at peace with myself. This is the reason I decided to forgive those who wronged me. My experience has also given me the opportunity to meet with the Pope. Who am I, a small girl from Baga to have an audience with the Pope?”
—Adie Vanessa Offiong