Patience Ibrahim witnessed beheading and was served victims’ flesh to eat. Still, she survived — and gave birth to her daughter, Gift.
Patience Ibrahim had a secret — she was pregnant. The 17-year-old Nigerian woman and her husband had conceived just before Boko Haram militants had raided her village in the summer of 2014, kidnapping the women and slaughtering many of the men.
Ibrahim, a Christian, wasn’t showing yet, but it was only a matter of time. And she knew what happened to women carrying Christian babies. When another woman was discovered with a baby bump, a soldier threw her to the ground and cut the fetus out with a machete, leaving the woman to bleed to death.
In “A Gift From Darkness: How I Escaped with My Daughter from Boko Haram,” (Other Press), out now, Ibrahim and co-writer Andrea C. Hoffmann, tell the story of her capture by the Islamic terrorist organization and her desperate struggle to keep her unborn child alive.
In 2014, Boko Haram — which loosely translates to “Western education is forbidden” — became famous worldwide after kidnapping 276 schoolgirls from a school in northeastern Nigeria, saying it would turn them into brides and slaves, sparking Michelle Obama’s “#Bring Back Our Girls” campaign on Twitter. It wasn’t a success — most of the girls remain with the group almost four years later.
Ibrahim had already been married twice — sold by her father both times for a goat and a cow — when Boko Haram arrived at her village, Gwoza, in July 2014. Her first husband had died at the hands of the militants the year before. When the militants came again, Ibrahim was rounded up with other women to a Boko Haram encampment, where they were ordered to convert to Islam by a man Ibrahim believes to be the supreme leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau.
“My people and I will not rest before we have eradicated all godless people,” shouted Shekau, a machine gun and cartridges dangling around his neck. “We will have no pity on the traitors. But you have the choice. You can decide which side you want to stand on in the battle: on the side of true believers or on the side of the traitors.”
Then he asked who among the captives would convert. Many did, says Ibrahim, but she never considered it. She condemned them silently for giving up their faith so easily, “but I secretly envied them, too,” she writes. “How easy it was to take your head out of the noose if you had no scruples.”
When her captors moved her to a second camp a few days later, she witnessed their evil firsthand. Ibrahim was starving and ready to bite into what she thought was meat when another woman warned her: “That’s human flesh.” Ibrahim didn’t believe it at first, until she saw the ritual killings of soldiers deemed as traitors, accused of deliberately missing their targets in battle.
She watched, horrified, one night as a soldier hacked off the head of another soldier with a machete. “As if through a veil I saw some fighters dragging the man’s body away. They brought it to the kitchens. Really. Then they stripped it and hacked it into pieces.”
Ibrahim did not eat the soup, she says, instead surviving on very little by foraging for edible plants whenever she was sent to collect firewood. She says she witnessed eight such executions in the two or so months in the camp.
One day, a soldier watched Ibrahim praying and said to her: “You’re doing exactly the right thing; do some praying for me, too.” She began talking to the soldier, who, it turned out, had also been a Christian before he converted to Islam to join Boko Haram and stave off his execution. But he didn’t fight with enough vengeance and knew that he was slated to be killed soon. On the day of his execution, he was given the job of leading a group of women to collect water at a nearby stream.
He called to Ibrahim to join them and after they collected the water, they all kept walking out of the camp, making an escape, not stopping until they reached Gwoza, Ibrahim’s hometown. Boko Haram had recently attacked the village again, and the locals were streaming out of it into the nearby mountains.
Soon she was reunited with her husband, Ishaku, and his other wife and children, who were amazingly still alive. They all began walking, trying to escape the fighters on their trail, but they’d been tricked. The fleeing villagers walked right into a net that had been strung through the trees by the sect, trapping them again.
Once again, Ibrahim was separated from her husband as she was taken to yet another camp. At night, men would come to the women’s camp and select prisoners to “marry.” By marrying them, they could have sex with them under the auspices of Muslim law. The soldiers would pay a small dowry to the women, and an imam would perform a brief ceremony before the soldiers dragged off their “brides” — girls often as young as 12.
As the ranks of women thinned out night after night, Ibrahim knew her days were numbered. When a fighter named Mohammadu asked her to be his bride, she refused, stating that she was already married. To her surprise, the soldier didn’t force her. “I won’t take you by force because I really love you. But please at least think about my offer. It could be good for you.”
The man kept asking Ibrahim for her hand, but she kept refusing night after night. He warned her, “If you don’t marry me, then marry someone else. No woman who refused will be left alive. Do you understand?”
Eventually she trusted Mohammadu enough to confess to him that she was pregnant. Her belly was just beginning to show. “Will you help me?” she asked. The next time she saw him, he made a point of whispering to her: “During the tahajjud prayer, the compound is unguarded.”
The next night, in October 2014, Ibrahim heeded his words and with two other women climbed over the compound wall during the evening prayer and walked away from the camp — her second daring escape attempt. The women walked through the night until they found themselves at a refugee camp across the border in Cameroon. Miraculously, Ibrahim was reunited there with her husband and his family for the second time.
She stayed with her husband in the camp for a few months as her pregnancy progressed, but soon tragedy struck again when militants raided the camp. Her husband ran from them, leaving his heavily pregnant wife behind. “Take care of our child,” he said. Ibrahim hid all night in the camp, under a blanket, and in the morning faced the grim news — her husband had been killed, decapitated by the fighters. In grief, she went into labor, delivering a baby girl alone in the wilderness. “You are a gift from heaven,” she said as her child gave its first cry. “I will call you Gift!”
She began walking again, in terrible pain from the birth and still covered in blood and filth from her ordeal, when she ran into a group of female survivors from the camp who insisted she travel with them.
When the group ran into a checkpoint manned by Nigerian soldiers, the soldiers took pity on the young mother and insisted she and her child stay at their home with their wives.
After she recovered for a time, they gave her a bus ticket to Maiduguri, where she hoped to be reunited with any remaining members of her family. Her sister was still alive and well but couldn’t take Ibrahim in. So she found her way to a church, and by November 2015 had settled into a nearby shack with some other women.
While she was there, she met Hoffmann, a journalist based in Nigeria, and told her story through a translator. Now 20, Ibrahim is still living on the church compound today, has taken a sewing class in order to earn some money and is engaged to marry again, to another refugee. Her daughter, Gift, now 2, is healthy and doing well, says Hoffmann.
Hoffmann hasn’t seen Ibrahim since the book was first published in Europe in 2017, but friends in Maiduguri tell her that the young mother is proud of the book, carrying a copy of it around with her and posing for photographs with it. Although she can’t read her own story, Ibrahim understands that telling it was an important act, Hoffman says.
“When you have to live through injustice, that’s the least you can do for the victims — have them tell their story and not just have it be forgotten,” she says. “It’s like taking the record for history. I don’t think there will ever be an international court dealing with this, but if there was it would be an important testimony. At least it’s written down, at least it’s recorded.”