Borno's Knifar Women are Fighting for the Wrongfully Arrested
The Boko Haram insurgency continues to remain one of the country's most prolonged humanitarian crises to date. At its peak, many Northern Nigerian communities were destroyed, leaving families; men, women, and children displaced.
When the insurgency hit Bama, a community in Borno State, many had to flee the homes and lives they had made for themselves, seeking refuge in nearby villages, IDP camps, and even the capital city, Maiduguri.
This year marks roughly ten years since the crisis started and in that time, thousands of women have been forced to raise their children and fend for their families without their spouses, children have been born and raised without knowing who their fathers are. Separated from their families, many of these men were wrongfully accused of being members of Boko Haram, arrested, and jailed by the Nigerian Army for many years with no form of justice in sight.
Knifar: The Women Who Spoke Up is a HumAngle documentary supported by the Pulitzer Centre, that tells the harrowing ordeals of the women left behind, separated from their husbands and sons in such a cruel way, left to fend for themselves amidst growing hardship, and how these women banded together across communities, to start a movement whose magnitude even they were unaware of at the time.
The Knifar Women are an independent association of women from different communities within Borno State, a pressure group with the sole purpose of advocating for the release of their husbands, and a support group for its members. The group was formed in 2017 and has since then played a key role not only in the release of the wrongfully arrested men but also in the conflict reporting of the crises still very much going on in their communities.
Over the years, they have been able to stage peaceful protests, share their ordeal with the National Human Rights Commission, write petitions to the National Assembly and the International Criminal Court, and have even appeared before a presidential investigative panel. Some women have also been able to lend their voices and channel their advocacy by working as reporters for HumAngle, telling their own stories, and earning to take care of their families.
In the early years of their advocacy, things seemed bleak as the women faced many challenges in their quest to seek the freedom and justice of their husbands and sons, there were no communications about the whereabouts of their men from the military, and they had no idea what they were up against, many of the more literate people they had reached out to help them pass their message across did not want to get involved, the investigative panel seemed futile, more and more men were still getting wrongfully arrested.
It was not until 2021, HumAngle reports, that the men were being released in batches.
As at the time of this article, HumAngle testified of the release of approximately 1,009 men, even though this is nowhere close to the number of men who have been taken within the years, it was a stepping stone for the work that these brave women were able to do.
The documentary has a 46-minute run time, with founding members of the group and some of the released men narrating their experiences.
Document Women got into HumAngle’s insightful documentary, we spoke to producer, Hauwa Shaffii about her experience documenting these stories, the current state of the Knifar women, and the significance of telling these women’s stories. She expressed that her initial motivation to put the documentary together was the realisation that there lacked a central body of work that recorded the lengths these women were going to for such a phenomenal course.
Shaffii told Document Women:
“It occurred to me that as surprised as I was, that something like that was going on. There were also thousands of people in Nigeria who had no idea that this was happening.
It's just like the textbook definition of how women's experiences and women's contributions to history just get buried. Nobody ever knows what they did or any of that. So I thought, a long-form documentary would just be the perfect fit for that instead of going through several articles to see certain parts of their work.”
“When I first joined HumAngle in I think 2021, the CEO told me about this group of women who he had been corresponding with in Borno state, and that their husbands had been detained for years, so they banded together to begin to advocate for their release and all of that. And to be honest, it all just sounded so strange to me. I was unable to properly grasp what he was saying because I remember one question I kept asking was, you said, these are displaced women?
These are women in the rural part of war-torn Borno, so how then is it possible that they sat, organised, and thought to make something tangible and out of themselves? Like how does that even happen? And especially because they have had to go through so much injustice, and so much harm to their bodies and to their spirits. I was just really unable to fully grasp it until I met the women. I travelled down to Maiduguri in November of 2021, and I met Yakura for the first time. And I remember I sat there just listening to her stories and I was just really stunned by how much, strength and how much calmness she was using to tell me about the things that they had gone through, the detainments of their husbands, the displacement, the sexual violence they and their children have had to endure and all of that. The more I spoke to more women from the group, the more the magnitude of what they were doing was becoming to me.”
“Before I joined HumAngle , they had been working with the women. The organization had turned them into reporters because it saw how focused they were. And it saw that the skills they had in their advocacy could be transferred to things like reporting.
We equipped them with phones, recorders, and stuff like that so that whenever something happened in the IDP camps where they were, they were able to just organize and interview the people who were involved and then send it back to us through WhatsApp, through voice notes, since they don't necessarily know how to type. And then we would then make reports out of those. Of course, they were getting paid on a monthly basis because I mean, it's valuable work that they are doing. A lot of our work has been just sort of amplifying their work, but also trying to get their stories from them themselves.”
Before HumAngle stepped in, do you have any idea how they were able to fend for themselves?
“They weave the traditional caps mostly worn in the Northern part of the country for sale. Borno State is like the origin of the caps, that's where a lot of the caps are done. All of the ones we see being sold and worn in Abuja, in Lagos, and practically all over the country, mostly come from Borno state. It's like the dominant crafts that the women in those communities do. Every single IDP camp you visit in Maiduguri, you would see a long line of women just sitting down on the floor, weaving caps. The profit that they would get from trades like that, they would sort of contribute and fend for themselves in terms of transportation, food, and all of that.
But they also relied on the goodwill of other people, for example, since they didn't know how to read and write in the English language, if they wanted to do peaceful demonstrations, they would need cardboards to have their demands written on it. They would approach people in the neighborhood who they knew could read and write, and then tell them what they wanted written on the cardboards, and then the people would then go ahead and write it for them.”
“However, even that proved difficult from what they told me because a lot of people thought what they were doing was really daring and courageous. They were basically trying to speak truth to power, and we know how that goes in Nigeria, especially in the North-East, so they also got a lot of rejections. There were sometimes they just needed people to translate a phrase for them from Hausa or Kanuri to the English language, and the people would say, oh, no, I don't want any parts of this. But there were also people who were willing to help. They also had allies like men who were activists who saw what they were doing and thought that it was important for them to intervene and help in some tangible ways.
Mostly they were very self-reliant in those early days. But, over time they also got some sort of support from notable Human rights groups who prefer to remain unmentioned, they provided some form of support for them as well. And then there was Makmid Kamara, who was the then director of the Africa Transitional Justice Legacy Fund, he had also gone to Maiduguri when he was in Nigeria, and he met with the women, and offered them some sort of support.”
What actions did the Borno state government take initially and what ongoing efforts are in place to address the crises that shifted from Kaduna and Jos, especially considering it has spanned multiple administrations?
“So what the government did at first, when the Boko Haram insurgency first erupted was that they responded with force and that force was often not justified because in order to be able to respond with force, you also need verifiable intel. Like, if you've heard that there are, insurgents gathering at a certain place, you have to verify that information before going there with air strikes and all of that. So because the force was a lot, there was some sort of over-militarization in the region, and a lot of innocent people got caught up. If, for example, a town had fallen to Boko Haram and people sort of found a way to escape from that village, they would encounter members of the military on the road. And these people, when they see the military, they'll be so excited, like, oh, finally they have some sort of security, somebody who can take them to safety.”
“But when the military received these people, they would then accuse them of being a part of the insurgents and then detain them or their husbands or their sons.
Because of how high the level of force and militarization was, it inadvertently spilled to innocent civilians. These are people who were victims of the insurgency, people who had already been wronged by Boko Haram were now been further wronged by the government.
Currently, since all of that force has sort of waned, because the insurgent group itself has waned a bit, or should I say they've now been decentralized, they are no longer just in Borno state, what the Borno state government is doing now, really is just refusing to acknowledge the gravity of the humanitarian crisis, because they've shut down some IDP camps in Maiduguri, which is the safest place in Borno state right now, and have relocated all the people-and these are thousands of people into, either the communities that they fled or new communities.”
“There is evidence that these places where people are being resettled to are not even safe. I've been to some of these places and I know how incredibly, incredibly risky it was for me to have gone there, and I didn't even spend a long time there, so imagine how it is for people who actually have to live there.”
“The strategy the government is using now is just closing down the IDP camps and then banning access to humanitarian aid because according to them, they want people to be able to build resilience and fend for themselves, add that to the economic hardship in Nigeria right now.
So mostly, they are being resettled, they no longer have IDP camps or humanitarian aid from NGOs or even the government itself. And then there's also the fact that these, insurgents, well, or should I say surrendered insurgents are now being reabsorbed back into the society, so we have a situation where these women and men who have been wronged, are seeing the actual people who contributed to their displacement, who contributed to the attacks on their homes and livelihood, living within them, with no form of accountability.
So that's another thing the government is doing, the way that they're reabsorbing surrendered insurgents back into the society has left little or no room for transitional justice efforts.”
Let’s address the arrested men for a bit. When they were taken by the army, on what grounds were they arrested? Did they just walk into communities picking these men up?
“These people were migrating from their villages, they had just escaped their villages because their villages were now under Boko Haram control, at some point in villages like Goza, nobody could go in, and nobody could go out apart from the military. And then at another point, Bama had fallen to Boko Haram, and not even the military could go back there. So in cases like that, people would have to sneak out because if they were caught trying to escape, the insurgent group would quite literally just kill them.”
“And then there was also the fact that the government kept announcing on radios that they were aware that certain towns had fallen to Boko Haram, but that they were assuring people who live there, that if they were able to escape and come to Maiduguri, that the government would receive them warmly. So people took the government's word for it and started attempting to escape from the villages but on their way, the Army would then intercept them, question them, and all of that, which is okay, but then they would then expect that after the questioning, they would now be let into IDP camps. I mean, it shouldn’t take more than a few days to know that someone who is obviously not a terrorist is actually a victim, but then they would just take their men aside, and the women would expect to hear back or see their men in like a day or two, but then they wouldn't see them for like seven years.
At the time, for them, it was just like routine measures. They thought the military just wanted to ask the men some more questions, do some documentation, and all of that, but then they would simply never hear from the men again.”
“There are people whose fathers or sons have died and they have no idea. There are women who think their men have died, but their men are really just in detention because when they are put in detention, they are denied any access whatsoever to their families.
I remember one particular woman that I spoke to, her husband was detained in I think about 2014 or so, but she wasn't entirely sure if he was detained or if he just died. With people migrating in large numbers the way they did, it’s hard to keep track, it was difficult for her to find out what had happened to her husband and because she couldn't wait forever, after about six years, she remarried someone else. Last year, her first husband, whose whereabouts she did not know came back, apparently, he had been detained by the Army and taken to Kainji in Niger state, and he had been there for all those years. There are so many cases like that where women don't know where their sons or their husbands are and have been forced to continue their lives in the face of that uncertainty.
Oftentimes when we do this report, we reach out to the government because, you know, right of reply, and it's either they never respond or they respond with comments that are just so evasive and do not necessarily answer your question.”
Do you have any idea how their first few days and first few months were affected by the sudden “disappearance” of their men? What was their day-to-day life like after the men were taken?
“A lot of them, the women, were mostly transferred to an IDP camp in Bama. It used to be a hospital, but then it was bombed, it was no longer functional and was then turned into an IDP camp. There was really a major humanitarian crisis at the time, people were dying, people were starving, and there was just so much illness. And because, I mean, these are deeply, traditional societies, so their men are the providers of the house, and then all of a sudden they're left vulnerable, they no longer have anyone to fend for them.
So lots of the women were becoming single mothers to many children, without any forewarning at all. And then they had just been displaced, nobody had any money, and there was disease all over the place. There was starvation, so the humanitarian crisis was just a lot.”
“I spoke to one humanitarian worker who worked around the place at the time because the reports I was getting from the women and even the men after they were released were almost unbelievable. I'm like, wow, how can you say up to ten people were dying every day because of starvation because they didn't have food to eat? So to be able to report that bit a lot more confidently, I thought to get some corroboration from someone who was an actual humanitarian worker working there. Unfortunately, the figures that I was given were even more than what the women had reported.
The women had reported at least ten dead bodies every day, but the humanitarian worker said personally, that he usually had to pack about thirty dead bodies every single day whenever he was going to distribute aid to them.
So they were really just thrown into some really intense humanitarian disaster. It didn't even cross their minds at the time to organize into a group. They were really just focusing on survival then. They also kept hoping that their husbands would come back, but after about three years and nothing, I think that was when it started to dawn on them that the chances of the men returning were slim, so they started to sort of band together.”
What were some of the practical measures they took to seek justice and secure the release of their husbands and sons?
“They wrote petitions. Surprisingly, they were able to band together and find people who knew how to write and tell them what they wanted and then found a way to deliver it to the government. I remember at some point, Chelu Haruna of blessed memory, she was their pioneer leader at the time. Chelu went as far as coming down to Abuja all the way from Maiduguri to testify at a vice presidential panel that had been set up to look into their case.
So what they did was to do this peaceful demonstration, but also just get people to help them write petitions contained with the names of the women and the names of their men who had been missing, and then deliver it to relevant authorities while also just trying to create some form of awareness within their immediate communities.
At the time they started, I think they were just like 900 or so, but other people heard about them, other women started to hear about the movements, and because they also had relatives who had been detained, they would look for the women and say, oh, how can I join? What can I do? That is how the group sort of started to expand.”
Do you think the bias that many Nigerians have for the North has affected the way the information being put out regarding this issue has been received from other parts of the country?
“Well, I can’t really say for sure because the people we relate with, the people in the circles we work within, we usually confer and correspond with other newsmakers, media publications, and stakeholders and these are not the kind of people that hold that bias, usually they are quite informed about what is going on. Although when we post on social media, we would usually have people commenting about how they had no idea that things like this were going on in the North.”
As a fellow Arewa woman, what did going there and seeing these women do for you? How did you feel seeing and speaking with them?
“To be honest, I felt a lot of pride because not everybody can function that effectively in the face of that kind of tragedy, a lot of people would just fold and quite literally waste away but these were women who insisted that their voices had to be heard.
I remember the very first conversation I had with Yakura when I met her. I had just so many questions about their resilience. It was really exciting for me to finally meet her because then I could ask her these questions myself. I first asked her ‘how do you guys keep the spirits burning and how do you not get tired? How do you not lose hope?’
“Her response is something that has stayed with me, she said ‘It doesn't matter where injustice towards women is being done, whether it's in Nigeria or it's in Sudan or it's in Chadif they hear about it, they will speak up for those women. It doesn't matter if these are women they know or not, women everywhere are the same, and so long as she and other Knifar women hear of any injustices, they will speak about them no matter the cost.’
She spoke so passionately and I just felt really proud to have been able to speak with the women and also that they were able to trust me enough to speak more honestly than they had been speaking over the years. It's not everybody that goes to them that they speak with because they also know most people come with their own biases and stuff.
It helped that I was an Arewa woman. I think they could also see that this was something I was genuinely interested in, it wasn't like I just needed a story to be told, they could see that we shared the same passion.
It just really felt like such an honor to have been able to speak with them like that.”
How was the documentary process and journey for you and your team, all things considered?
“So I made a couple of trips to Borno, and I think each trip lasted about a week or two.
As I said, the Borno state government is closing down IDP camps, so a lot of the women were no longer in Maiduguri, they were in places like Bama and some other communities that are not very safe. It was a bit difficult to decide whether or not I wanted to bring them to Maiduguri instead to speak with me, or if I wanted to go down to speak with them because I also wanted to be able to capture them in their natural places, in their actual immediate environs.
Eventually, there were some interviews I was able to do in Maiduguri, but for others, I had to go down to those communities to speak with the women and their husbands, so I could also get some b-rolls of them just going about their lives, not necessarily just talking to me.”
“I went with the technical producer, he was the video editor, we took the clips together and then we would return after every day to sort of look at all the clips that we had gotten, and where exactly we wanted to place them and what texture really, what central emotion we wanted viewers to be able to walk away with from the documentary.
We decided that it was empathy, so everything we worked towards for the documentary was just to be able to establish that at the end. We wanted viewers to feel empathy, and to also feel inspired by how these women empowered themselves to do all that they have done for the cause despite their situation.”
“There were also some people we spoke to who spoke Kanuri, which is a language I do not personally speak, there was a bit of a challenge with that, we had to get a translator, who stayed with us while we interviewed the persons. So after that, we also had someone, a native Kanuri speaker who helped with the subtitles because I wanted them to be as accurate as possible.
And then my video editor speaks Hausa excellently, so he did the subtitling of the Hausa interviews.”
“We just sort of started working on it until we arrived at what I thought was the first draft, which I also thought was really strong but when I sent it over to the Pulitzer Center, which is the organization that gave us some sort of support for the documentary, they were impressed by it but my editor also had some insights that she thought would make it better. So that pushed the publication dates back a bit. At the time I sent it, I was ready to publish, but the insights she raised were really, really helpful and I knew it would make it better. So we had to spend an extra month or so just trying to brush up on the observations that she had and then finally we had something I felt comfortable putting out.”