In the last three years, 117 children have been used in so-called suicide attacks by Nigeria-based insurgents Boko Haram — and the rate is only accelerating, according to a recent UNICEF report.
Much of the world hadn’t heard of Boko Haram until the Islamist militants kidnapped 276 Chibok girls from their Nigerian boarding school in April 2014, but the group had already been terrorizing the region — parts of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad — for years. Boko Haram tactics include the forced abduction and use of child soldiers and the elimination of education. The group has helped push the already food-insecure region to the brink of famine.
Several of the Chibok girls were able to escape, but 219 remain missing. Girls who are abducted are often subjected to sexual violence by militants, who force them into marriages and involuntary suicide missions, according to UNICEF. As of March, 27 children, most of them girls, had been used in suicide attacks in 2017. During the same time last year, that number stood at nine.
Some children lucky enough to escape captivity are rejected by their families and ostracized in their own communities because of the stigma attached to being associated with Boko Haram, says Patrick Rose, a UNICEF regional coordinator of West and Central Africa. Those who escape are therefore often forced to stay in government custody.
“They are held in military barracks, separated from their parents, without medical follow-up, without psychological support, without education, under conditions and for durations that are unknown,” Rose said.
Boko Haram seeks to overthrow the Nigerian government and has declared areas it controls a caliphate. It rejects all aspects of Western society, including Western education. As a result, in the Lake Chad region alone more than 1,200 schools are closed, hundreds of teachers have been murdered, and 19,000 more have fled because of the fear of violence.
Rose told VICE News about one 10-year-old girl he’d interviewed who watched the execution of her father, a teacher, in front of their home in Nigeria. The girl told him that the insurgents were her father’s former students.
About 30,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram attacks and fighting between the group and government forces, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. In the northeast of the country, where the group is based, nearly 2 million people have been displaced — 1.3 million of them children — and 4.7 million are currently in need of emergency food aid, according to the World Food Programme.
Because Boko Haram attacks often target markets, people living in northeast Nigeria have begun avoiding them. Family incomes have dwindled as a result, putting children further at risk of starvation.
“The fear of the attacks,” Rose said, “is driving a huge economic slump because nobody is going to the market.”
The U.S. Congress is expected to approve a plan to sell warplanes to the Nigerian government to aid in their fight against the terror group. This is despite criticism from human rights organizations over what they characterize as rampant abuses in Nigeria’s military.
“Our hope is that all children can be protected,” Rose said. “The first thing is to recognize the fundamental humanity that connects us to these children. They just want to be kids.”