At al Shabaab's mercy: Woman narrates gang rapes, drug abuse at camps

Some of the items security agents found when they raided an al Shabaab hideout inside Boni Forest in Lamu, September 18, 2017. /COURTESY
Some of the items security agents found when they raided an al Shabaab hideout inside Boni Forest in Lamu, September 18, 2017. /COURTESY

Fauzia (not her real name), 25, looks aged beyond her years, probably from what she has had to endure in the last five years.

At 16 years, she was already married with two children.

By her 18th birthday, Fauzia was already separated from her husband and needed to provide for her children.

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Born in Majengo, Nairobi, Fauzia was forced to drop out of school after class eight as her parents were not able to cater for any further education for her and her nine siblings.

She opted to wash clothes and do other household chores to earn a living.

After separating from her husband, it was harder to make ends meet and it is here that her maternal cousin from Lamu convinced her to join al Shabaab where she would make money as an informant - the role generally prescribed for women militants.

The promise of employment and source of income to maintain her and her children threw all reason out and Fauzia agreed to join her cousin in Lamu, leaving her sons under the care of her mother.

Her cousin, who she referred to as just 'Dogo', took her to Boni Forest, a known al Shabaab hideout before she travelled by sea to Somalia.

At the camp, Fauzia's duties were far from what Dogo had told her they would be.

In a glum tone, she describes her despondent life at the camp, that of daily abuse and mental torture,

"I was basically a prisoner, repeatedly sexually abused by up to six men at a time. Often we [all the women] were forced to use drugs by al Shabaab, especially Bugizi. (Bugizi is a combination of heroin, marijuana and Rohypnol widely used by al Shabaab, in combination with miraa).

She added: "If you were lucky, a commander would take you as a wife and that would stop other militants from raping you." She noted it was obvious that only native Somalis became wives.

One of the items security agents found when they raided an al Shabaab hideout inside Boni Forest in Lamu, September 18, 2017. /COURTESY

'Alcohol and drugs all night'

The women in the camp had to cook, wash clothes for the militants and undertake other household duties. Meanwhile, the fighters frequently physically and sexually abused them. She recalls with tears how some militants would beat her if they did not like something she cooked.

Unfortunately, this happened often for Fauzia as she was not familiar with cooking the injera that the militants liked to have

The sexual and physical violence was worse when the militants returned from engaging with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

"They would drink and take drugs all day and night, whether to celebrate killing Somalia National Army and AMISOM soldiers or mourn their own, and that’s when the gang rapes would take place."

Fauzia cannot count the number of times she was raped and forced to take contraceptives to avoid pregnancy. Rarely did the rapist militants use condoms.

Other girls in the camp conceived but were usually given medication that would induce abortion. The girls that were 'married' to the commanders were allowed to carry their pregnancies. Fauzia remembers that there were 15 children in the camp.

Her escape was facilitated by an older man who helped her on a day the captors went on a mission.

She says three friends she made at the camp were scared despite the fact that such missions took at least five days.

After days of hiding in the bushes, she secured a series of lifts on boats bound for Kenya. On arrival, she found herself in the hands of Kenya Security Forces who, after interrogations and medical check-ups, finally reunited her with her family.

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One of the items security agents found when they raided an al Shabaab hideout inside Boni Forest in Lamu, September 18, 2017. /COURTESY

Free but HIV+ and stigmatised

It has been a year since Fauzia's return. Sadly, she was found to be HIV positive during a medical examination. She is currently on anti-retroviral drugs and is also being treated for tuberculosis.

Her poor health limits her ability to work. When she can, she continues to washing clothes. Since her return, her financial situation, a key driver behind her recruitment by al Shabaab in the first place, remains as vague as ever.

Fauzia has been ostracised and stigmatised by her community. According to a government official in Nairobi, communities often shun the wives, widows or children of men suspected to have been involved in terror activities. The same goes for women recruited by al Shabaab.

The stigma Fauzia faces is made worse by the sexual abuse she endured. Muslim women who have had sex with men other than their husbands - even if these relations are forced - are often shamed by their communities.

The psychological trauma Fauzia endured during her time with al Shabaab has been compounded further by the banishment she has faced since her return.

Comprehensive counselling programmes are facilitated by the government for her and many other young women returnees

Fauzia is among other young girls and women who have been able to find their way back to Kenya after being captives in al Shabaab camps inside Somalia and Libya.

In August, three Kenyan girls - Firthoza AAhmed, Aisha Ashur and Tawfiqa Dahir - escaped from their captors in Libya and made their way to Cairo in Egypt, where they sort help from the Kenyan embassy to be brought back home.

Fauzia’s account of events resonates with that of other female returnees interviewed earlier.

They all speak of sexual abuse by the militants and widespread abuse of drugs in the camps, drugs which female captives are forced to take.

According to a Kenyan Anti-Terror Police Unit investigator, sexual violence against women is becoming common in al Shabaab camps. They are recruited so fighters have sex with them and turn their focus from going back home.