The girls didn’t want to kill anyone. They walked in silence for a while, the weight of the explosives around their waists pulling down on them as they fingered the detonators and tried to think of a way out.
“I don’t know how to get this thing off me,” Hadiza, 16, recalled saying as she headed out on her mission.
“What are you going to do with yours?” she asked the 12-year-old girl next to her, who was also wearing a bomb.
“I’m going to go off by myself and blow myself up,” the girl responded hopelessly.
It was all happening so fast. After being kidnapped by Boko Haram this year, Hadiza was confronted by a fighter in the camp where she was being held hostage. He wanted to “marry” her. She rejected him.
“You’ll regret this,” the fighter told her.
A few days later, she was brought before a Boko Haram leader. He told her she would be going to the happiest place she could imagine. Hadiza thought she was going home. He was talking about heaven.
They came for her at night, she said, grabbing a suicide belt and attaching it to her waist. The fighters then sent her and the 12-year-old girl out on foot, alone, telling them to detonate the bombs at a camp for Nigerian civilians who have fled the violence Boko Haram has inflicted on the region.
“I knew I would die and kill other people, too,” Hadiza recalled. “I didn’t want that.”
Northeastern Nigeria, now in its eighth year of war with Boko Haram, has become a place afraid of its own girls.
So far this year, militants have carried out more than twice as many suicide bombings than they did in all of 2016, and the attacks keep coming.
According to Unicef, more than 110 children have been used as suicide bombers since the start of the year – at least 76 of them girls. Most were under 15 years old. One girl blew herself up along with a baby strapped to her back.
Bombers here at the center of the battle against Boko Haram have struck mosques, marketplaces, checkpoints, camps for displaced civilians and anywhere else people gather, including a single polo field attacked multiple times. Trenches have been dug around the University of Maiduguri, a frequent bombing target, in hopes of slowing down attackers.
The deployment of children has become so frighteningly common that officials in the areas where Boko Haram operates are warning citizens to be on the lookout for girl bombers. A huge billboard here in Maiduguri – the Nigerian city where Boko Haram was born – proclaims “Stop Terrorism” with the image of a scowling, wild-eyed girl with explosives on her chest, clutching a detonator.
Officials are publicly urging parents not to hand over their children to Boko Haram for use as bombers, while the military is circulating a video telling bombers they can surrender. It features an 11-year-old girl.
“Do not allow them to tie explosives on you,” says the girl in the video. “It is dangerous.”
The public service ad paints bombers and their families as Boko Haram collaborators who either support the militants’ campaign of terror, or were brainwashed or drugged into doing so.
But The New York Times tracked down and interviewed 18 girls in Nigeria who were sent on suicide missions by Boko Haram. Their accounts shatter the narrative often perpetuated by officials.
Far from having been willing participants, the girls described being kidnapped and held hostage, with family members killed during their capture.
All of the girls recounted how armed militants forcibly tied suicide belts to their waists, or thrust bombs into their hands, before pushing them toward crowds of people. Most were told that their religion compelled them to carry out the orders. And all of them resisted, preventing the attacks by begging ordinary citizens or the authorities to help them.
Aisha, 15, fled her home with her father and 10-year-old brother, but Boko Haram caught them. The fighters killed her father and, soon after, she watched them strap a bomb to her brother, squeeze him between two militants on a motorbike and speed away.
The two militants returned without him, cheering. Her little brother had blown up soldiers at a barracks, she learned. The militants told her not to cry for him. “He killed wicked people,” they told her.
Later, they tied a bomb on her, too, instructing her to head toward the same barracks.
Like some of the other girls, Aisha said she had considered walking off to an isolated spot and pressing the detonator, far from other people, to avoid hurting anyone else. Instead, she approached the soldiers and persuaded them to remove the explosives from her body, delicately.
“I told them, ‘My brother was here and killed some of your men,’” she said. “My brother wasn’t sensible enough to know he didn’t have to do it. He was only a small child.”
Other girls, whose full names are also being withheld out of concern for their security, had similar stories of terror and defiance.
Fall on your tummy, face down, the militants told Fatima A., 17. But when she approached soldiers, she put up her hands and yelled at the top of her voice: “Look! I’m innocent! I’m not part of them! They forced me!”
Amina, 16, was told to blow up worshipers at a mosque. But as she drew near the crowd, she spotted her uncle, who helped her to safety.
Wait until you find a big crowd of civilians, fighters told Hajja, 17. But if you spot just one or two soldiers first, press the button, they instructed her. Instead, when she came upon a soldier, she showed him her bomb. He guided her to an open field, where he gently removed it.
Fati, 14, was deployed along with nine other girls, each sent in different directions to hit separate targets. She walked into a police station to ask for help, holding the bag containing the bomb that militants had given her. The officers screamed and ran out, she said. But eventually they returned, telling her to leave the bag in a nearby field and walk away.
Maryam, 16, said she got help from an old man resting under a tree. The two hollered to one another from a safe distance, so that he could question her first and get some assurances that she didn’t plan to blow him up.
For these girls and others, even approaching the authorities to ask for help was exceedingly dangerous. Soldiers and civilians at checkpoints are on high alert for anyone suspicious – and usually that means any woman or girl, most of whom wear long head scarves and garments that could cover an explosive belt. In just the last three months of 2016, the United Nations says, 13 children from 11 to 17 years old were killed after they were wrongly thought to be suicide bombers.
Most of the girls interviewed said, like Hadiza, that they had been deployed as bombers after refusing to be married off to a fighter. For years Boko Haram fighters have forced girls into “marriage,” a euphemism for rape, sometimes impregnating them.
Many of the girls echoed Hadiza’s account, saying the militants had promised them paradise in exchange for pushing a red detonator button. The girls, nearly all involved in planned attacks within the past year, were dropped off along empty roads as gun-toting fighters stayed back at a distance to watch them walk toward their targets.
Maimuma, 14, whom militants told to bomb a group of soldiers, said she didn’t want to become like the dozens of other girls who have blown themselves up, taking bystanders with them. She knows that many people suspect she is a Boko Haram collaborator. But she argues that she and other girls like her should be praised for defying the militants.
“Some people see me as part of Boko Haram,” she said. “Some people see me as a hero.”
In recent months, Nigeria’s gains in beating back Boko Haram – retaking territory and capturing militant hide-outs – have begun to recede. The group’s fighters have launched not only more suicide bombings but more tactical strikes against security forces as well.
In June, they attacked a convoy of soldiers and police officers, kidnapping several female police officers. The following month, militants fired on a military-escorted convoy of oil workers, killing more than 25 people and kidnapping geologists from the University of Maiduguri.
Western intelligence officials say the militants have been recapturing land that the Nigerian military took from them. The United States is preparing to sell half a billion dollars’ worth of attack planes and other material to Nigeria to aid the fight.
The humanitarian situation in the region is dire, with nearly two million people across four countries displaced by war and some living in famine-like conditions. Maiduguri is overwhelmed by families that have fled rural farms and fisheries with no means of making a living. Many live in decaying buildings and thatched huts, or along the banks of the shallow Ngadda River, where one small group survives on roasted scraps of cow hide discarded by local tanneries.
Now, aid groups are fighting an outbreak of thousands of cases of cholera, according to humanitarian workers.
The relentless string of bombings in recent months, mostly around Maiduguri and across the border in Cameroon, has cast a frightening shadow over life here. On Sunday alone, more than a dozen people were killed when bombers struck.
In the past six years, women have accounted for the majority of suicide bombings by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad, according to a report released in August by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
In fact, the report said, the group has deployed more female bombers than any other terrorist group in history.
And as Boko Haram increasingly turns to children to carry out its suicide attacks, it is four times more likely to deploy girl bombers than boys, the report found.
“There is an uneasiness – people often mention their fear of women and girls at checkpoints, in crowded areas, at the camps, at the university,” said Harriet Dwyer, a spokeswoman for Unicef in Maiduguri. “As we see these incidences happening with more frequency, the stigma and the suspicion become a very difficult thing to reconcile.”
The bombings are taking a psychological toll on Maiduguri, a city that by some estimates has doubled in population as families flee Boko Haram in the countryside.
Bombers strike repeatedly at busy marketplaces and camps for the displaced. Residents suspect that the university has been a frequent target because of Boko Haram’s hatred of Western education, one of its founding principles. At least eight attacks on the university have occurred since the start of the year.
The suicide bombers usually operate in the early morning hours, predictably enough that many residents start their days later or avoid certain areas altogether. Worried about being shot by mistake, many women and girls squat before approaching checkpoints, hoping to convince nervous soldiers and civilian militia members that they aren’t wearing explosive belts or vests.
To avoid suspicion, some women say that they are careful to bathe and wash their clothes frequently. Most of the girls used in bombings have lived in harsh conditions in the bush and appear dirty and “haggard,” a word many residents use to describe them.
One Maiduguri resident, Fatima Seidu, 45, said that whenever she saw girls on the street, she crossed to avoid them.
“I get afraid of bombs, and afraid someone will see me and get afraid of me,” said Ms. Seidu, whose husband was killed by Boko Haram. “But hopefully they’ll look at my age and they’ll also see I’m wearing clean clothes.”
Hassan, a member of a local civilian militia, said that when women and girls approach his checkpoint, he tells them to drop what they’re carrying. Several months ago, he said, a woman refused to stop when he shouted at her. He watched as she raised her hand and pressed a detonator, setting off a bomb.
“I get afraid when I see women,” he said.
Hassan’s wife, Fatima G., 19, said she had been abducted by Boko Haram, held for about six months, and forced to marry a fighter. One day, militants gathered a group of women hostages and told them to parade before them as they barked orders. It seemed to be some kind of test for obedience, she said.
Not long after, she said, a fighter put her on the back of a motorbike and sped toward Maiduguri. On the way, he told her she was going on a suicide mission. But they came upon a firefight between militants and soldiers instead. In the chaos, she escaped.
Now, in her daily life in Maiduguri, she is fearful of women. “It’s not like anyone is wearing identification,” she said. “There’s no way to know who is who.”
The girls who were sent on suicide missions now try to blend into teenage life in Maiduguri. Most had painted nails, tiny rhinestone studs in their noses and curls of henna on their feet. Their long headscarves covered patterned or sparkly dresses and braided hair.
Nearly all had their schooling interrupted by the war. They are eager to return. They dream of becoming teachers, doctors or lawyers.
They value their religion and say they were unconvinced by Boko Haram’s insistence that Islam supports suicide bombings. Some worry that God would have punished them had they accidentally set off the bombs attached to them.
In most cases, the girls told no one about their missions, other than the security forces who helped them. Some girls did not even tell their parents, frightened of being rejected. Those who did were told not to repeat their stories, for fear they would be labeled Boko Haram sympathizers.
The militants sometimes tried to trick the girls, hoping to convince them they would not be harmed in the attacks. Maimuma was told that the moment she hit the detonator, the bomb would leap from her body and land in the crowd. She didn’t believe it, especially after militants prepared her hair in a traditional burial style.
“I knew very well that bomb would kill me,” she said.
But there was little she could do. They tied an explosive belt around her waist and dropped her along a road. Follow it to where the soldiers are, they told her. Act like a woman, they said. Look attractive. Wait until you’re very close to them. Then press the button.
She tried to keep her composure until she was out of sight. The explosives were heavy and the detonator – a device that looked like a small radio – was hot against her waist, she recalled. She wanted to remove the belt, but was terrified of accidentally setting it off.
She began to cry. Some passers-by spotted her sobbing on the road and approached. She told them Boko Haram had tied a bomb under her gown. They sprinted away. Others approached, but they too fled when she told them her problem.
“They came one after another,” she said, almost laughing at the grim absurdity of the scene. “I tried to run after them and they told me they would kill me if I kept coming.”
After a few minutes, a group of soldiers arrived, telling her to keep her distance and put her hands in the air. A soldier came over to gingerly remove the device. It seemed to take forever. Her arms grew tired as she held them overhead. Finally, the belt was off.
Initially, Maimuma hid the episode from her family and friends, and she worried about being jailed if people found out. “Then I thought to myself, ‘Why should I be arrested for being forced to carry a bomb?’” she said. “I decided I was going tell everyone.”
When Maimuma hears about girls who set off bombs she is frustrated. There’s no question in her mind that they had no loyalty to Boko Haram. She thinks they were naïve, terrified and ultimately foolish for not realizing they had the option of surrendering to security officials, she said.
But that is risky, too. When Hadiza and the 12-year-old girl approached a checkpoint, she was scared of what the soldiers might do. Hadiza told the younger girl to wait by a tree in the distance while she explained their predicament to the soldiers. She knew the girl would raise suspicion because she was too young to be walking in the bush without a parent.
“She was such a small girl,” Hadiza said.
The soldiers believed her and helped the girls take off their explosives belts before splitting them up for questioning. Hadiza was eventually taken to a camp for displaced people. She still doesn’t know where her mother is, or if she is even alive. But her father showed up at the camp a few weeks after she did. When she told him what happened, he cried, both horrified and relieved.
“He would never reject me,” she said. “He was so happy I survived.”