Some of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants last year have been brainwashed to begin fighting for the Islamist group, with many carrying out public beatings and even killings, other captives have told the BBC.
Women who claim they lived in the same camps as some of the 219 girls who were taken from their school in the town of Chibok last April told the Panorama programme televised on Monday that many are now administering punishments on behalf of Boko Haram.
Those punishments include flogging young girls who were unable to recite from the Qur’an, and slitting the throats of captured men. One witness says she has seen the Chibok girls carrying guns.
The claims have not been independently verified, but human rights organisation Amnesty International says their research also indicates that some girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have been trained to fight.
“The abduction and brutalisation of young women and girls seems to be part of the modus operandi of Boko Haram,” said Netsanet Belay, Africa director at Amnesty International.
Militants abducted 276 girls from their secondary school in north-east Nigeria in April 2014, with 57 later escaping. The remaining 219 have not been seen since a video was released the following month apparently showing about 130 of them reciting from the Qur’an.
Their kidnap sparked an international outcry, with global protests held against the perceived slow response of the Nigerian government, and the hashtag #bringbackourgirls shared more than five million times.
‘Miriam’, 17, told BBC Panorama that she met some of the Chibok girls while she was held captive for six months in a Boko Haram camp, although they were kept in a separate house to the others. She said they were “brainwashed” by the Islamist militants.
“They told us: ‘You women should learn from your husbands because they are giving their blood for the cause. We must also go to war for Allah.’ The ones I’ve seen are totally heartless. Even the men avoid them because they are scared,” she said.
Miriam claimed that some of the Chibok girls had killed several men in her village. “They were Christian men. [The Boko Haram fighters] forced the Christians to lie down. Then the girls cut their throats.”
Anna, 60, told Panorama she fled a Boko Haram camp in the Boko Haram stronghold of the Sambisa forest, where she too had seen the Chibok girls commit murder. “People were tied and laid down and the girls took it from there. The Chibok girls slit their throats,” she said.
Anna also claimed Boko Haram militants used the girls as teachers to administer brutal punishments. “They shared the girls out as teachers to teach different groups of women and girls to recite the Qur’an,” she said. “Young girls who couldn’t recite were being flogged by the Chibok girls.”
But she said she did not blame them. “It’s not their fault they were forced to do it. Anyone who sees the Chibok girls has to feel sorry for them.”
Amnesty says that at least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the beginning of 2014, with many targeted because they are Christians or attending school. Captives are subjected to rape, torture, forced marriage and religious conversion, according to a previous Human Rights Watch investigation.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has previously claimed on video that the Chibok girls would be married off to Boko Haram militants.
Faith, 16, another former captive interviewed by the BBC, said she had seen at least one Chibok schoolgirl married off. Miriam explained she got married after being told that any woman who refused would have their throats cut. After, she says she was repeatedly raped, and is now pregnant.
Boko Haram has killed about 5,500 civilians in north-east Nigeria during its campaign to attempt to establish an Islamic state in the region.
Hundreds of women and girls have been rescued in recent months as part of a Nigerian military offensive in the Sambisa forest.