Shortly after Halima* arrived at a displacement camp in northeast Nigeria, a soldier approached her offering chicken and yams. Halima recognised him as one of the men who had beaten her husband and taken him into detention. For days, she had barely eaten so she accepted the food out of desperation. When the soldier returned demanding sex in exchange for the food, Halima was too scared to say “no”.
“The soldiers are kings. When you see them, everybody is afraid”, said Halima, who arrived at the Bama Hospital camp in late 2015. “They decide, they say nobody should complain. So, I did what he wanted.”
Halima is one of thousands of women who, after surviving the brutal rule of the armed group Boko Haram, found themselves trapped in a nightmarish system of sexual violence and exploitation at the hands of the Nigerian military.
A new report by Amnesty International, “They Betrayed Us”, documents the plight of women who were forced from their homes, separated from their husbands and confined to remote “satellite camps” in the northeast of Nigeria.
With hunger rife in the camps, military personnel and the militia members working with them used their authority and access to food and other basic necessities to coerce women into sex, which amounts to rape under international law. The soldiers sometimes used force if the women resisted.
Hauwa* told us she was raped on several occasions by a militia member after arriving at Bama Hospital Camp. She described being hemmed in by sexual violence and starvation.
The crimes committed by Boko Haram must not blind the outside world to the widespread abuses carried out by the Nigerian military, which is responsible for arbitrary detention, torture and thousands of unlawful killings
“I arrived with 130 other women and children [in early 2016]. Hunger and thirst [killed] 58 from our group in the first four months,” Hauwa said.
“You’ll see a military man with food in the hand and he’d say, ‘If you like me, take this food’. If you accept the food, later, he’d come back to you to have intercourse. If you refuse, he’d rape you [using physical force].”
Amnesty International has collected evidence that thousands of people have starved to death in these camps, mostly in late 2015 and in 2016. Almost half of the women we spoke to in one camp, Bama Hospital camp, said that one or more of their children had died.
While the daily deaths have now abated as humanitarian assistance has scaled up, many women are still restricted from leaving the camps and sometimes go days without food. In these conditions, sexual exploitation has thrived.
Since 2012, when Boko Haram started attacking civilians in northeast Nigeria, Amnesty International has repeatedly denounced abuses carried out by the armed group, which has committed massacres, launched car bomb and gun attacks in cities and abducted thousands of people.
But the crimes committed by Boko Haram must not blind the outside world to the widespread abuses carried out by the Nigerian military, which is responsible for arbitrary detention, torture and thousands of unlawful killings.
Rape and sexual violence are just one of the numerous injustices women have faced at the hands of the military. They described their villages being burned down in military operations and being ordered to leave, and being starved and beaten in the camps while their husbands and sons were detained.
Treated with suspicion by soldiers simply because they lived under Boko Haram’s control, hundreds of women and girls were also detained and transferred to military detention facilities such as the Giwa barracks, where Amnesty International has documented the deaths of at least 37 women and children since 2015 due to the appalling conditions.
“They asked us women where our husbands were, then they flogged us with sticks. They beat my children and said they are Boko Haram children … I was pregnant at the time,” said 25-year-old Zara, who spent two years in Giwa barracks with her children, and gave birth unassisted in an overcrowded cell.
Some women detained for being so-called “Boko Haram wives” told us that they had been abducted by the armed group and forcibly married to a member. During subsequent military interrogations, they were beaten into silence as they tried to explain this to the soldiers.
For too long, Nigeria’s allies – including the United States and the UK – have been content to condemn the terrible crimes committed by Boko Haram while giving the Nigerian military a free pass. Even UN humanitarian agencies working on the ground, where abuses are often committed in plain sight, have done little to challenge the confinement of women to militarised camps and the outrageous levels of sexual violence perpetrated by security forces within them.
Last year, the acting president of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, established a Presidential Investigation Panel to review the army’s compliance with human rights obligations, but so far there has been no action and the situation for women in the camps remains bleak.
Yet, against all odds, these women bravely continue their fight for justice including the return of their husbands and sons. In September 2017, hundreds of displaced women lined the streets waiting to tell their stories to the president’s investigation panel. They had drawn up lists of their loved ones in detention, or of those who died in the camps.
As one of these women told us, “This has happened to us. It cannot be undone now. But the government should recognise it. They should know how we suffered and how we died. They should make sure it does not happen again.”
* Names were changed to protect the women’ identities.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.