Hundreds of traumatized Nigerian women and children rescued from Boko Haram terrorists arrived at a refugee camp Saturday night, bringing the number of females declared liberated this week to more than 677.
The 275 women and children, who were freed from captivity by the Nigerian military, told of the deplorable conditions in which they were held – and said some women were stoned to death even as rescuers approached.
The accounts, reported by the Associated Press and Reuters, tell of the hostages – 61 women and 214 children, almost all female – being strictly confined, starved, and beaten while held in the forest:
“They didn’t allow us to move an inch,” said one of the freed women, Asabe Umaru, describing her captivity in the forest. “If you needed the toilet, they followed you. We were kept in one place. We were under bondage.
One young mother had just given birth when she heard the first gunfire, signaling that rescuers may be near. She described the terrifying ordeal that followed as she fought to protect her newborn:
“Boko Haram came and told us they were moving out and said that we should run away with them. But we said no,” Lami Musa explained from a bed in the camp clinic.
“Then they started stoning us. I held my baby to my stomach and doubled over to protect her.”
There was confusion during the rescue operation, many of the women said. Nigerian soldiers accidentally ran over some of the hostages who were hiding under a bush, one survivor said. Another said several people were killed by stray military gunfire. Some were killed by a land mine.
“When we saw the soldiers we raised our hands and shouted for help. Boko Haram who were guarding us started stoning us so we would follow them to another hideout, but we refused because we were sure the soldiers would rescue us,” Asabe Umaru, a 24 year-old mother of two, told Reuters.
The prisoners suffered constant malnutrition and disease, she said. “Every day we witnessed the death of one of us and waited for our turn.”
The survivors were brought to a refugee camp in Yola. Those who suffered the worst injuries, such as bullet wounds and bone fractures, were taken to a hospital. At the camp, health workers put babies – who the AP said were so starved their rib cages were protruding – on intravenous drips.
Many of the freed hostages still can’t believe they’ve been rescued, the outlets reported.
It is not known how many people Boko Haram has abducted but Amnesty International estimates the militants have taken more than 2,000 women and girls captive since the start of 2014. Many have been used as cooks, sex slaves or human shields.
Boko Haram had seized a large swath of northeast Nigeria last year, declaring it an Islamic caliphate. The group is thought to have killed at least ten thousand people since then, with another 1.5 million forced to flee their homes to escape the violence.
The tide has turned in the past nine weeks, however, with a new infusion of armory including helicopter gunships, and a coalition with troops from neighboring countries.