TOUROU, Cameroon – A 16-year-old girl was kidnapped with her 1-month-old baby by Boko Haram from her home in northern Cameroon 18 months ago, taken to Nigeria, married off to an extremist fighter and then trained to be a suicide bomber.
Last week she succeeded in escaping when the Nigerian military launched a raid on a Boko Haram camp. She wandered through Sambisa Forest in northeastern Nigeria for several days until, tired, weak and hungry, she was found by members of a local defense group fighting the extremists, who handed her over to Cameroon's military, said Midjiyawa Bakary governor of the Far North region of Cameroon.
"When the Nigerian army attacked the Boko Haram camp where we were, there was confusion everywhere and I escaped to the forest where I walked for a week and handed myself to the first people I saw," she said.
The teenager is among thousands of people who have been kidnapped by the Nigeria-based Islamic extremists since they launched their insurgency nearly seven years ago. Recently the abductions have reached across Nigeria's borders to Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
The Cameroonian girl is among hundreds freed since January. On Sunday, she was reunited with her parents but her daughter, she said tearfully, had been left with the man she was forced to marry after her kidnapping.
"I was taken to a prison in a cave where we were locked up for three weeks and then distributed to men. We were given food every morning to prepare for our husbands," she said in the local Hausa and Fulfulde languages through an interpreter. "Every afternoon we were asked to pray and vow that we would remain obedient."
She said she and many other girls were trained to be suicide bombers. "They took us two times every week and gave us lessons on how to detonate bombs. We were told if we died while defending Allah's cause against evil men, we shall be received in paradise."
Crowds of people, including government officials and traditional rulers, welcomed the teen home to Tourou village, near Mokolo in northern Cameroon. Her 52-year-old father said he was delighted to see her.
"I am grateful to all those who fought hard for the release of my daughter. As you can see, all of Tourou is very happy that she is back, even though her 2-year old daughter is not here with us," he said. "Our immediate plight now is how to have her treated because she looks tired and very sick."
The girl needs more medical attention, according to Jacob Kodji, one of Cameroon's military commanders of troops fighting the Boko Haram insurgency.
"She was very, very sick when she was brought to us," Kodji said. "We did our best to save her life and will continue to take care of her. We are also thanking the Nigerian military for the attacks that freed her. We have deployed troops to the forest to see if other freed captives can be found."
The Cameroonian girl is among dozens who have escaped or been freed since January as troops from Nigeria and the multinational joint task force continue to launch raids against Boko Haram, including in its stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, near Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria.
A Nigerian girl who escaped last week was one of the 219 schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok school in a mass abduction in 2014 that sparked international outrage. A May 19 raid on a Boko Haram camp liberated some 97 women and children and killed 35 extremists, said the Nigerian army.
These rescues are renewing hopes that the fight against Boko Haram is yielding results and the group will not be able to kidnap so many young women and girls to launch suicide attacks or act as sex slaves and young men and boys who are forced to join their fight to create an Islamic caliphate.