Gwoza, once a stronghold of the group and where Fati spent several weeks, is visible from the sights of the soldiers’ machine guns. The worry now, as the coalition continues to notch up military victories, is that Boko Haram will continue to pivot towards the use of young girls as their weapon of choice.
Noubossa says girls make for ideal suicide bombers. The devices can be hidden away under their long veils or in baskets on top of their heads. He says the devices are often remotely detonated. The most vulnerable people in this society are now becoming the most feared.
“These are victims,” says UNICEF’s Cameroon Country Director Felicity Tchibinda. “But they are being viewed in suspicious ways, and we need to change that narrative. There are long-term consequences if we don’t. We’ll lose the trust between communities and victims and the authorities that are supposed to protect them.”
In Minawao, changing the narrative involves campwide advocacy programs and protection for girls such as Fati.
Here, the label of Boko Haram wife can carry serious consequences.
“It’s a double tragedy,” says UNICEF protection officer Loveline Ndam. She says girls are rescued from terror only to be ostracized by their communities.
Spread out at the foot of scrub-covered mountains, the camp is just beyond the red zone of frequent Boko Haram attacks, but on the other side of the hills, small pockets of fighters operate.
“A year ago, the humanitarian situation was clearly worse in Nigeria. Today, it’s the same (across the border), same level of crisis,” says one senior Western diplomat.
Security officials say that Boko Haram has infiltrated the camp, but what refugees fear the most is escaped abductees such as Fati.
“If we see a strange girl, she may be a suicide bomber,” says Mohammed Amodu, a refugee leader. “Perhaps their mind is with Boko Haram.”
It’s a sentiment that permeates the area where Boko Haram operates.
Fasumata, a recently arrived refugee, says when the fighting came to her village, she hid for days under mattresses with her children, unable to move until there was a lull in the fighting. When the shooting stopped, she picked up her children and ran.
“Everyone was scared, no shoes, no nothing,” she recalls. “Everyone was running for their lives.”
Still, she considers herself lucky. She made it to Minawao without getting caught by Boko Haram. She had heard the stories even when her village was still safe from the conflict.
“If they see someone who escaped from Boko Haram, they think they are still with Boko Haram,” Fasumata says, “that Boko Haram freed them to do suicide bombs. Not just in the camp, anywhere in Nigeria. People are afraid because everywhere, if you hear ‘suicide bomb,’ it is a young girl.”
Fati, meanwhile, is simply grateful to be alive. On the last day of March, she managed to get in touch with her mother by phone after she found a refugee from her same village in camp.
It took two days for her mother to get to Minawao.
“She had to collect money from people in the village so she could afford to make it here,” says Fati. “Now that I have escaped, I thank God, and I am always praying to God that I was able to escape.”
But she says many girls are still in Sambisa Forest, some volunteering to die so that they can perhaps live.