LAGOS, Nigeria, May 4 – Many of the women and girls rescued from Boko Haram are traumatised and showing signs of depression, with psychological counselling urgently needed as they recover in camps in northeast Nigeria, relief officials said Monday.
“For some of them, who are really showing signs of trauma, we need to make them realise that this is not the end of life,” said Sa’ad Bello, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) camp coordinator in Adamawa state.
“They need trauma counselling and psycho-social support… to develop coping mechanisms,” he told AFP, adding that many of the female hostages appeared to be suffering from serious depression, likely after enduring sustained abuse by their Islamists captors.
A total of 275 women and children were brought to a camp in Adamawa’s capital Yola, at the weekend, following a military operation to free them in Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold.
NEMA spokesman Manzo Ezekiel said a priority was to provide “trauma management so they’re not treated as outcasts when they go back to society”.
Two women described how militant fighters tried to force them into marrying rebels after they were captured and how their escape turned to tragedy as at least three women were killed by landmines.
Others were crushed by tanks as they hid in the undergrowth of the dense forest to avoid shelling and firing between the soldiers and Boko Haram.
Ezekiel said the authorities were keen to avoid the women being stigmatised in religiously conservative northern Nigeria, with reports Boko Haram may have kept some as sex slaves.
Medical tests would not only check for conditions such as malaria but sexually transmitted diseases, Ezekiel said.
Turai Kadir, who helps in the internally displaced people camps in the city, said the former hostages were “not in great condition”. “All of them are traumatised,” she added.
“They’re hungry. They’re sick. One woman told me she was picked up from a market where she was selling with her husband. They (Boko Haram) took them to the bush and killed her husband.
“They said they were going to get her married to their master. There’s nothing more traumatic than that.”
Bello said NEMA was receiving support from a group of international organisations with expertise in trauma counselling, including UN agencies and the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Some 700 women and children have been freed in recent days from the Sambisa Forest, which the military says is the last remaining Boko Haram stronghold.
Yola has received hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Islamist insurgency over the last two years, although many chose to stay with host families, rather than in camps.
Bello said resources in the camps, including medicine and food, are still sufficient to cope with the latest influx.
Efforts were under way to trace family members of those just rescued, noting that most of the group are not from Adamawa state.
In the isolated cases where relatives have been located, rescue agencies are trying to facilitate transport to Yola so escapees can be reunited with loved ones, he added.
But the logistics of such movements are complicated in the restive region, where Boko Haram attacks remain a threat, especially on remote roads far from better-fortified state capital.
The hostages spent two days on the road in military vehicles after they were rescued before reaching Yola, Bello said.
“What we are actually doing is trying to stabilise them,” he said.