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Patience Ibrahim Thought No One Would Care About Her Story As A Boko Haram Captive

The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram came to the world's attention four years ago when fighters abducted 276 girls from a boarding school in the town of Chibok.

Since then, the group has kidnapped as many as 10,000 girls and boys.

The new book, A Gift From Darkness, tells the story of Patience Ibrahim, a young woman in northern Nigeria who was taken twice by Boko Haram militants. When Ibrahim was captured at age 19, her first husband and mother had been killed by Boko Haram and she had remarried and was pregnant with her second husband's child.

Boko Haram is based in northern Nigeria, where many of its members were radicalized in Islamic boarding schools. Northern Nigeria's population is heavily Muslim, poorer and less educated than the southern part of the country. Boko Haram is against Westernization.

Ibrahim's story has many improbable twists and turns. She comes to trust one of the Boko Haram fighters. He asks her to marry him; she says no but he does not object, telling her that he loves her. She has been able to conceal her pregnancy because she lost weight from not eating much but she tells this man that she's pregnant — a risky confession because Boko Haram has a history of killing pregnant women if they are Christian. Only he is sympathetic and helps her escape by telling her that the compound is unguarded during the tahajjud prayer.

Ibraham reunites with her second husband, but then he disappears. She goes to look for him and finds him dead — beheaded by Boko Haram. Hours later, she goes into labor and gives birth to her daughter alone in a field. She names the child "Gift."

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke with Andrea Hoffmann, a German journalist with Focus magazine and the co-author of the book with Ibrahim. Hoffman met Ibrahim during a trip to Maiduguri.

Hoffman says she wrote the book about the brutality faced in the Boko Haram camps because: "If it's written down, it's fixed. It won't go away. It's part of bringing justice to these women."

The conversation between Garcia-Navarro and Hoffman, edited for clarity, follows.

A word of warning: Her story contains gruesome details not suitable for a younger audience.

How did you meet Patience?

I went to Nigeria with a German former priest, Renate. She lived there about ten years ago and was doing church work in a village that has since been taken over by Boko Haram. She was worried about the Christians there because Boko Haram are violent criminalists. She is still in touch with a lot of people there who are now refugees. She had this idea to help the women — the widows there — so she decided to raise money for them and to care for them. I thought it was interesting and I decided to join her.

The city of Maiduguri itself is not occupied by Boko Haram, but everything else is. You cannot travel from there or you will be kidnapped. We went there together and stayed inside a church compound.

That's when I met Patience, this young girl who had been taken by the group.

Why did you want to tell her story?

I met a lot of women [who had been Boko Haram captives] there and it's heartbreaking because they have lived through awful things; they have been victims to violence and they don't speak about it. They are survivors — and nobody asks them what they witnessed. If something terrible like that happens, you can never make it right but at least you can listen to what has happened to them, write down the injustice and give them a voice. They have these terrible stories and they are just trying to cope. So I just wanted to go underneath that glass.

In the book, you say Patience didn't believe anyone would want to hear her story.

Yes. That was very remarkable. She thought, why would anyone be interested in what had happened to her? That's very typical.

What happened when you asked her?

Patience, the day I met her, was very open and she wanted to get out all the cruel things [that happened to her]. I spoke with her every day for a month.

How did Patience describe her life in the camps run by the militant group.

These camps are really beyond what we can really picture. The first camp [Patience was in] was out in an open space more or less. A humid, open area with some trees a lot of grass and mosquitoes — but there were no houses or anything. Just plastic to protect them from the rain. There were women there already [before Patience arrived] and all of them belonged to certain men. The wives get assigned [to the Boko Haram fighters] by the superiors. They do have wedding ceremonies by their religious scholars — if you want to call them that.

Were Christian women forced to convert to Muslim?

Patience is still a Christian and feels very strongly about it. They asked her to convert but she resisted. She uttered the words but she always, in her heart, resisted it.

When she was captured, Patience was already pregnant — but she couldn't show it?

Yes. She and other women, as well, testified the same thing: They saw that when Boko Haram captures a Christian and they know this woman is pregnant, what they do is they slit off the belly and take off the unborn child and kill the mother and the child. They just tear it out saying they don't want any Christian offspring. And so she saw that happen to another woman and she knew that was going to happen if they knew she was pregnant before she came to the camp.

What were you hoping to draw attention to by writing this story? What are you hoping the world will now know about what's happening in Nigeria?

What really struck me was the fact that [the capture of the Chibok girls] happened around the same time that ISIS took that big territory in Syria and Iraq — and the whole world was watching [kidnapping of the Yazidi minority]. Yes. And everybody was focused on Iraq and Syria and, at the same time more or less, the same thing happened in Africa and it was just a footnote. OK, we noticed that the Chibok girls were kidnapped, but that was about it. We never gave it a great deal of attention and it's just as important for these people that have to suffer it. For me, the most important thing is getting the testimony. If it's written down, it's fixed. It won't go away. It's part of bringing justice to these women.

How is Patience doing now? When was the last time you spoke with her?

I sometimes speak to her on the phone. Whenever I can get in touch with someone that can find her and can translate. She is doing well. She was thinking about going to the south, but now she has decided to stay because she has met another man and she is actually engaged.

And she and her daughter? How old is she now?

She is almost two years now and she is doing really well. Patience has really succeeded and done a great job with this little girl.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meghan Collins Sullivan
Meghan Collins Sullivan is a senior editor on the Culture Desk, overseeing multiplatform books coverage at NPR. She edits stories for NPR's radio programs and NPR.org, manages the Book of the Day podcast, and leads teams creating projects such as Books We Love.