INTERVIEW: Former Boko Haram bride move on from militant husband
When Nigerian teenager Zara John was rescued from Boko Haram captivity last year, she was delighted to learn she was pregnant with the baby of the Boko Haram militant who abducted her and forced her into marriage.
Seven months ago, the 18-year-old said she was still in love with the Boko Haram commander. But going back to school has helped John to forget about Ali, her militant husband, and inspired her to focus on her education and her future instead.
“It was after I started school that I stopped thinking about him,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from her home in Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa state. “God forbid,” she added when asked about the possibility of ever seeing Ali again.
John was kidnapped in February 2014, when Boko Haram militants raided her village of Izge. They razed homes, killed many men, and loaded women, girls and children into trucks.
She said captivity involved doing chores and learning about her new religion, Islam. When she was wed to Ali, he tattooed his name on her stomach to mark her as a Boko Haram wife.
John was rescued by the Nigerian army in March 2015 when they stormed Bita, a town close to the Sambisa forest, Boko Haram’s last stronghold, before being reunited with her family.
A military offensive has driven Boko Haram from much of the territory it held in northern Nigeria, and undermined its seven-year campaign to carve out an Islamist caliphate. The insurgency has killed at least 15,000 people since 2009.
When John returned home, she was dismissive of education, and celebrated news of successful Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, according to her cousin Mohammed Umaru, who lives with her.
“She didn’t want to even look at a book,” Umaru said. “Whenever she saw any written material, she flung it aside.”
Earlier this year, her nine-month baby boy Usman – Ali’s son – died from a snake bite, yet this did not change her mind about going back to school, Umaru said.
But when foreign journalists starting visiting John, she was struck by the eloquence and confidence of the women among them. One female journalist gave her advice, which John described as the turning point in her decision to go back to school.
“She told me that a woman deserves to be respected,” John said. “She told me that what Boko Haram did to me was bad, but that it was not the end of the world. She told me that I should not think about it but that I should focus on my future.”
John has just started the academic year in a state school she joined before the summer holidays. Umaru said John insists the boys in the house share the chores and tells her mother that a girl does not have to be the one who cooks and cleans.
Reeling off English phrases she has learned in school in recent weeks – from “Good morning” to “How are you, sir?” – John said she was looking forward to being able to speak to foreign journalists in the future without needing an interpreter.
“I cannot express how happy I feel,” she said, adding that she wants to finish school and perhaps become a doctor.
“I am happy to be back in school.”