Yola, Nigeria — There is a house in Gulak, with a neem tree out front and a well in the back. Inside, dozens of women and girls spent days, weeks and even months waiting for a chance to escape their captors — members of the radical armed group Boko Haram.
The house is in Adamawa state in Nigeria’s northeast, not far from the border with Borno state, where Boko Haram fighters have killed civilians indiscriminately for nearly six years under the guise of establishing a state ruled by their extreme interpretation of Sharia. In Boko Haram’s wake are razed villages, slaughtered men and women and the nightmares of hundreds of women and girls who have been abducted.
The house in Gulak had a tall barbed-wire fence around it — a fence 24-year-old single mother Mercy Ishaya vowed to find a way over. Ishaya is one of three Nigerian women interviewed separately by Al Jazeera who, according to their descriptions of the house and events, appear to have been held in the same building.
Her baby boy was waiting for her in the mountains along the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Ishaya knew she would likely be killed trying to escape, but she had to try.
She memorized everything she could about the house while planning her escape. “It’s a big house separated into two by a short wall,” she said, speaking from the northeastern city of Yola, where she is staying with relatives. “The roof tiling is the color of ox blood.”
Boko Haram fighters kidnapped Ishaya, who was raised in Gulak, after they invaded the town in September 2014. She took her baby and ran to the mountains with a group of people to hide. They lived in the mountains for two months, and she occasionally sneaked back into town to forage for food.
Early one morning she left her child with another woman and went down from the mountain, creeping back into her house. She grabbed a few things from her kitchen and then headed back to the foothills.
As the sun began to rise, she hurried — but she had already been spotted.
“Two Boko Haram men grabbed me. Then two others came,” Ishaya said. “They trekked with me to their leader. Then they took me to the house.”
There were about 20 older women and a handful of girls in the house. She said some looked terrified, while others were dejected, as though they had resigned to their new lives in captivity. They were wearing hijabs, most having been forced to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam.
“I asked a woman, ‘How is life here?’ and the woman told me that they are being fed,” Ishaya said. “She told me to just cool down. I should just obey the Boko Haram until I see a chance to flee.”
But that day, when she learned that the captors often took men to the house to slaughter in front of the women as an intimidation tactic, Ishaya decided to run. While everyone else was kneeling for the evening prayer, she went to a restroom and jumped through a window above a toilet stall.
She climbed over the barbed wire fence and ran back to the mountains under the moonlight to find her son, Wisdom. They made their way to Yola over several days, walking much of the way.
Dorcas Aiden, who was also a captive at the house, was still waiting for her moment to flee. “The Boko Haram told us that they would break the leg of any of us who tried to escape,” she said. Aiden, a tall 20-year-old, spoke to Al Jazeera from an Anglican church in Yola where she was staying with her family.
She said the fighters once used a laptop to show her and other women at the house a picture of the nearly 300 schoolgirls they kidnapped during the infamous April 14 midnight raid at a high school in a village called Chibok. More than 200 of the schoolgirls are still missing.
Aiden said the sight of the Nigerian schoolgirls whom she has heard so much about in the media made her cry.
“The Boko Haram told us that the Chibok girls are still in Nigeria, in that Sambisa forest. They said some are married, some are focusing on their Islamic studies, others are training to be fighters so they can attack women, because the Boko Haram men are not allowed to fight with women,” Aiden said.
She said her captors frequently spoke of the Chibok girls, bragging about the mass abduction as a success and describing how the Chibok girls have submitted to the group.
Aiden was at home taking care of her siblings the day members of the armed group rampaged through the town. She and her siblings hid, and most of them escaped and found their way to Yola. But the fighters abducted Aiden and one of her sisters. Her sister managed to escape after a day, but Aiden lived in the house for two weeks, living in fear that she would be forced to marry one of the fighters. She said when she told one of the men that she would not marry him, he pulled out a gun and beat her hand as punishment.
The women said the Boko Haram fighters never touched them sexually, saying they wanted them to be preserved for marriage. Before this could happen, Aiden and six other girls escaped, running through farm fields and seeking refuge in villages that the group later also attacked. She eventually reached Yola, where she found her siblings.
But many of the abducted girls were promised as wives to Boko Haram fighters.
Ladi Apagu, 16, was one of them.
For four months she was held captive at the house, and every week, more women and girls were brought in, she said.
Apagu said she was beaten for days on end for not obeying the imam. He kicked her when she told him that she was menstruating and unable to perform Islamic prayers. The fighters had given her a new name, Fatima, and forced her to convert to Islam — but Apagu, raised a Christian, refused to follow the Islamic faith.
She said another woman who rejected the imam’s instructions was also mistreated. “The Boko Haram took her to Madagali town and took her to a place they call prison. They eventually brought the girl back after six days.” She said that when the girl returned, she was traumatized and more submissive.
Apagu’s legs are scarred with welts from beatings, and she is haunted by the frequent killings she was forced to watch of men who refused to join Boko Haram.
One day in December, she said, the captors told her and the other women and girls that they would all be married to fighters within the next two weeks.
“We cried and pleaded, and they said, ‘Are you better than the Chibok girls who are no longer crying? The Chibok girls can even slit the throats of parents if they ever see their parents. The Chibok girls now understand the religion, and if you don’t stop crying, we will kill you, and wherever you go, whether in Yola or anywhere, we will still go after you and kill you,’” she said.
She was to be forced to wed one of the fighters, who was nicknamed “One Arab.”
After plotting for a few days, Apagu escaped with three women she befriended from the house. They wore hijabs to disguise themselves as the wives of Boko Haram fighters and climbed over the fence.
When they saw Boko Haram members along the roadside, they told them, “We are the wives of the rijale” — the strong men, which is how the Boko Haram fighters referred to themselves
After a dangerous, weeklong journey, they arrived in Yola, where they parted ways. Apagu spoke to Al Jazeera from a Catholic church where she and an uncle sought refuge, but she has since fled the region out of fear that Boko Haram fighters will come after her.
The Nigerian army announced that Gulak was recaptured from Boko Haram on Feb. 26 as part of an aggressive military offensive that has made gains in recent weeks.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan pledged to crush Boko Haram forces in the six weeks before the March 28 election, which were delayed from Feb. 14 because of security issues, though violence has raged for six years.
While several towns such as Gulak have been reported free of Boko Haram fighters, the areas are still dangerous for journalists. It's unclear if women are still being held in Gulak.
When Apagu escaped from the house, she and her three friends crept through bushes and saw other houses in the area also being used to hold women captive. “At least 10 houses in Gulak,” she said.
Phineas Elisha, a spokesman for Adamawa’s governor, said the state government is aware that Boko Haram has abducted women and kept them in houses in Gulak and other towns under its control. He said, “with the success of the military operation in Gulak, those girls must have regained their freedom.”
Nigerian army spokesman Col. Sani Usman expressed similar confidence, saying, “I would not be surprised if there are such houses. But if there were, definitely they would no longer exist when the insurgents have been flushed out.”
He said he would find out if the house and others like it in Gulak are still holding women.