By Brent Swails and David McKenzie, CNN
“They came to us to pick us,” Fati recalls. “They would ask, ‘Who wants to be a suicide bomber?’ The girls would shout, ‘me, me, me.’ They were fighting to do the suicide bombings.”
Young girls fighting to strap on a bomb, not because they were brainwashed by their captors’ violent indoctrination methods but because the relentless hunger and sexual abuse — coupled with the constant shelling — became too much to bear.
They wanted a way out, she says. They wanted an escape.
“It was just because they want to run away from Boko Haram
,” Fati says. “If they give them a suicide bomb, then maybe they would meet soldiers, tell them, ‘I have a bomb on me’ and they could remove the bomb. They can run away.”
Fati, 16, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, pauses and grabs the three gold bracelets around her wrist. They’re a gift from her mother, her only connection to home after she became one of hundreds of girls kidnapped by the world’s deadliest terror group
, which forced them to marry its fighters.
There was no escape for Fati when fighters from Boko Haram descended on her village in northeast Nigeria in 2014. Her future “husband” was carrying a gun, and Fati’s parents had already spent a precious 8,000 naira (roughly $40) to smuggle her two older brothers to safety. There was nothing they could do.
“We said, ‘No, we are too small; we don’t want to get married,'” Fati recalls. “So they married us by force.”
After he raped her for the first time, Fati’s abuser gave her a wedding present — a purple and brown dress with a matching headscarf that she would wear for the next two years while under his control, whisked from hideout to hideout in order to evade Nigerian authorities.
She says she met girls even younger than her in Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa Forest, kidnapped from their families to be married off, imprisoned and abused by their self-proclaimed “husbands.”
Fati’s gold bracelets are a gift from her mother, her only connection to home after she was kidnapped.
“There were so many kidnapped girls there, I couldn’t count,” Fati says.
Among them, she says, are some of the more than 270 schoolgirls from Chibok, Nigeria, whose kidnapping in April 2014 shocked the world.
The social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls gave many people their first glimpse into Boko Haram’s targeted abuse of women and girls. But recently the group has embraced a sickening new tactic.
Alarming new statistics released by UNICEF show a dramatic increase in the use of children as bombs in four countries — Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon — where Boko Haram has waged its campaign of terror in the past two years.