From Jihad to Jewelry Making: Inside Nigeria’s Secret Prison for Former Boko Haram Fighters

Government offers ex-militants rehabilitation at prison complex, while also aiding women they traumatized

Usman Balami once commanded hundreds of Boko Haram jihadists in attacks on police stations and banks. Now serving time at a prison complex in northern Nigeria, he says he is a changed man.
“In the past, I would have loved to die as a martyr,” said the 34-year-old, after changing out of a yellow goaltender’s jersey following a morning soccer match. In a nearby room, a group of former insurgents strung together beaded necklaces in a jewelry-making class.
About 100 miles away in another government facility, Fatima Bukar prayed that she can move on as well. Each day at midnight, the hour in which she believes God is listening most intently, she rises in the hostel where soldiers are keeping watch over hundreds of women rescued from Boko Haram. The group held Ms. Bukar and her daughter hostage in a forest clearing for nearly five months.
“I pray that Allah can turn them back into good people,” said the 27-year-old. “If not, Allah should destroy them.”
Boko Haram has become Nigeria’s collective trauma. The insurgency has swept thousands of boys and men into its ranks, often at gunpoint. It has snatched several thousand more girls and women, many of them raped nightly for months.
Continued fighting has left more than 25,000 people dead and more than one million people without homes, Ms. Bukar among them.
Now, in these two high-walled camps, survivors from both sides of the conflict are coming to terms with the scars of the six-year insurgency that has redefined their lives.
It is the start of a long reckoning for Nigeria.
The conflict rumbles on across the country’s northeast, with suicide bombings killing scores each week. But there are tentative signs of a healing and a shift in government policy.
Thousands of hostages have escaped or been freed after the Nigerian army raided the forests where Boko Haram once held sway. Two months ago, meanwhile, Nigeria began to offer weary Boko Haram fighters safe passage in exchange for prison sentences with the kind of psychosocial counseling Mr. Balami attends.
The question for the government of newly elected President Muhammadu Buhari is what to do with this mass of young people who have either been failed by the state, or at war with it. Already, hundreds of Boko Haram members are in detention, said Fatima Akilu, the director of behavioral analysis at the office of Nigeria’s national security adviser. Forty-seven more have taken up the government’s safe-passage offer.
“They get tired,” she said. “More and more of them want to defect. So this is actually prime time.”
Ms. Akilu was a London psychologist, counseling homeless teens and writing children’s books, until a Nigerian counterterrorism general, impressed with a newspaper editorial she had written, called to ask her to design a program to draw Nigerian terrorists back into society.
For two years, she traveled to countries including Algeria and Saudi Arabia with similar programs. Most of those nations had more money to spend.
Nigeria’s caseload is particularly grim. In Ms. Bukar’s camp, some women have become psychotic or mute. Loud noises put several on edge. Many have lost children or husbands. Several saw the deaths occur.
None of the 309 former hostages in this camp report being raped, but women in other camps testify to that horror. Many gave birth to captors’ children.
Suspected Boko Haram fighters at a secret government rehabilitation camp play soccer on 21 Aug. 2015 Published Credit: Patrick McGroarty/The Wall Street Journal ENLARGE
Suspected Boko Haram fighters at a secret government rehabilitation camp play soccer on 21 Aug. 2015 Published Credit: Patrick McGroarty/The Wall Street Journal Photo: Patrick McGroarty/The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Balami’s fellow inmates are battling their own demons. Some of them built suicide bombs, the program’s imam said: “Quite a number of them regret their actions.”
Many spent years bouncing between teeming, choleric military jails, where allegations of human-rights abuses have sparked an investigation by the new government. Mr. Balami recalled soldiers executing five cellmates at another prison: “It was unimaginable,” he said, a remark that prompted his new prison guards to lead him away, ending the interview.
These days, the state is trying to repurpose Mr. Balami and 40 other confessed and suspected terrorists as ambassadors for peace. Since March, Nigeria’s national security adviser has put these men through a daily regimen of jogging, counseling, computer classes and art therapy.
They enjoy volleyball and badminton lessons from a national ping pong champion. When prison guards recently played former Boko Haram members in a friendly soccer match, they let the insurgents score two goals to tie the match.
It is an expensive and controversial way to treat fighters of a war that has brutalized Nigeria. Even in Mr. Balami’s prison, other inmates, booked on criminal charges, say they have lost family to the group.
One recent morning, more than 100 prisoners erupted into protest, livid over the preferential treatment: “My mom died [in] a bomb blast! My father died!” one inmate screamed, as he blocked a prison guard from clearing a soccer field for the Boko Haram team. “My whole family!”
A few hours away, in Ms. Bukar’s camp, the state is equally stretched making amends to the women it failed to protect. Women there attend therapy sessions. They take soapmaking and culinary classes. Many have been prescribed antidepressants to soothe nightmares.
They may be stuck here: “Every time we’re ready to take them back to so-and-so community, that community is attacked once more,” said camp manager Usman Sadiq.
Mr. Balami knows he could spend many years behind bars. In 2000, he joined a houseful of Nigerians trying to travel to Afghanistan to join al Qaeda, he said. Instead, they fell in with Boko Haram. For eight years, he traveled village to village recruiting young men to jihad, he said. In 2009, Boko Haram appointed him commander of a cell in the northeast. His stint ended in 2011, when Nigerian soldiers arrested him at a checkpoint. Faced with multiple terrorism charges, he spent the next four years in five crowded military prisons.
In March, the government moved him into a new prison annex, staffed with social workers, psychologists, teachers, athletic coaches and an imam. Jail guards cleared a small garden for Boko Haram suspects to grow their own okra.
A few dozen Boko Haram suspects became some of the best-treated inmates in the Nigerian prison system. Mr. Balami began daily conversations with the prison imam.
One morning as they discussed the value of life, he broke down weeping. He says he broke then with radicalism.
While Mr. Balami was learning to tend goal, Ms. Bukar was stuck in a forest clearing with more than 200 other women and children, cooking for Boko Haram. Her husband Adam had run into the bush during her December kidnapping. Since then, she had been feeding their 2-year-old on scavenged leaves.
One day, Nigeria’s military rushed in. Soldiers trucked the captives through a series of locations, before settling them in this secret camp.
Here, Ms. Bukar began to revisit her faith, she says, poring over flimsy cardboard books of Islamic theology.
Now, she believes her ordeal was destiny, ordained at birth. At night, she leads a prayer group of women who forgive Boko Haram.
“It was a trial from Allah,“ she said, working her fingers through a chain of green plastic prayer beads. ”I don’t blame them.”
One recent afternoon, their daughter Maryam, her strength back, was scrambling with other children over plastic playground slides. Ms. Bukar had just finished a culinary class and was on her way to a course on the Arabic alphabet.


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