On Tuesday a teenage female suicide bomber, likely affiliated with Boko Haram, set off an explosive in a marketplace in Maiduguri, Nigeria, killing herself and 33 other people. This could be her story, as I imagine it.
I am 17 years old with unruly hair and an upturned nose and knobby knees and I am a suicide bomber.
I’m dead now, with at least 33 others, and the bomb strapped to my chest killed me as well as them: young men, old men, young women, old women, even children; shopping at a bustling market on a hot day in March in Maiduguri, Nigeria.
I was born not far from here in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria. It’s dry and hot here but I had a good family and my mom used the lightest fabrics so even in summer, draped in a red dress and golden headscarf, I wasn’t too hot. My girlfriends and I went to primary school, learned to read and to write and we heard that we were from the richest country in Africa, and our President’s name was Goodluck.
We watched the sun rise and set over the dusty Sahel in the bush, a leopard darted in the distance, and we swung our hands as we walked and felt lucky indeed.
Lucky in spite of the pain – the first pain that hit like a burning knife between my legs when I was 11 and it was time to become a woman.
I cried for days, my tears mingling with the river of blood streaming from between my legs. In all the world young girls get their monthly periods; in my country nearly half of us bleed for a more grisly reason. The elders call it circumcision; a pamphlet I once read secretively in school called it mutilation.
The goal/result: I would never know pleasure, only pain.
Still for a time I was happy, until the shadow of Boko Haram cast its darkness over Nigeria and chose Chibok as its scourge. Remember when you posted on Twitter? #bringbackourgirls?
I was one of them – one of us – terrified and clinging to one another as Boko’s men bound us together and forced us onto trucks into the dark Sambisa Forest, where they rule without fear.
It was me who was afraid, tortured. The pain between my legs came back again as men with machine guns took away my honor, my dignity, such that my family would never again accept me as I once was – and they did it over and over again as if to remind me that never pleasure, only pain, was my destiny in life.
They said they’d make us wives but to them a wife is only a slave, a wife or wives … We whispered to each other and never slept soundly. Our food was old or rotten, often bloody bushmeat. We lost weight and starved and cried until we had no more tears, and our bodies felt as though they could bleed no more.
Some of the girls were Christians and others of us Muslims but the men with gruesome faces who claimed Allah but worshiped only death didn’t much care what we believed, and after weeks of this hell many of us no longer believed either, reduced to robots – forced to grovel and crawl and fear only the next month and the chance we may be pregnant, to carry a baby into this hell would be worse than living there ourselves.
It got so that I no longer desired to remember my mother, her soft yet sinewy worker’s arms – my younger brother and his gap-toothed smile – my father and his silent dignity and his quiet pride. I could no longer pray, or even think in sentences but only exist.
Outside people were tweeting and wearing T-shirts but no one ever brought me back. Boko gave me a new name, a new identity. Who I once was, running in the sand, clutching my mother’s arm, writing on a chalkboard – was gone forever.
At first I wrote in the dirt where I slept a tally for each day I was here. I guarded it carefully and kept track but as the numbers got bigger a terrible rainstorm came and washed it all away. I wondered, had I been here, with Boko, forever? Was there any before or after?
One morning a tall soldier came with a gun slung over his arm. He grabbed my elbow and brought me before another man, who kept making guttural noises in his throat. A leader of sorts, a planner they said, one who’d read the Koran and knew of ISIS.
They told me to kneel at his feet; that a price had been paid and now I was his wife. Not his first; not his last.
The pain between my legs came again, but I no longer felt it.
Sometimes I could remember dreams: of love, of softness, of a cool breeze and a warm breakfast and of someday traveling to that magical place called Lagos and seeing the sea.
The men who came into and out of our tent spoke of dreams, too. Of thousands of virgins and paradise. Of making a difference in the jihad for Allah and how life had a purpose. Their eyes gleamed and shone in the sun.
I wanted this purpose, this gleam again so that something would not be so dull. Life had become such unremitting pain that I had ceased to see colors except only occasionally, sometimes in the red-blue- yellow moments before dusk.
I noticed, fearfully, that I was getting sicker often and my cycle had not come for many weeks. My throat seized with horror, that growing inside of me was a tiny warrior like the one who had made me so numb to life. I wanted it all to stop.
They called him Anulugwo, and his name was on everyone’s lips around our tent for weeks. His eyes gleamed more than anyone’s I’d ever seen and later I heard that on March 21 in Maiduguri he had completed his mission and was in heaven.
I said I wanted my eyes to gleam, to do what Anulugwo had done with the others and so they said they had a plan for me, too. It wasn’t for Allah, or for Boko Haram, but in some sense this was the one thing – the one choice – that I got to make for me. Me, whoever that was now, the girl of pain and sorrows but the girl who would not be a slave in pain for one more day because my eyes would gleam like Anulugwo.
On Tuesday morning when they fitted me with explosives and taped them to my swollen, tender breasts, it was the first time I realized that I was really going to die and that it was death that brought the gleam to Anulugwo’s eyes.
That morning in Abuja they were protesting to Bring Back Our Girls but I was never coming back.
For the first time since that day when we were taken, a hand grasped mine gently as I climbed off the back of the truck and into the crowded marketplace. Fifty-four people had died there on Saturday but people had to buy food so they came back, stepping frightfully.
I didn’t see anyone I recognized; I wondered if I would recognize them anymore anyway because I had forgotten who I was. You never brought me back. Now I had been brought back by Boko so the death I’d died so slowly would finally be over and others could die, too.
When I pushed the detonator around my waist I noticed that the button was red. It was the first color I’d seen in weeks.