“Hold the bomb under your armpit to keep it steady”, the women and girls were taught.
Sever your enemy’s head from behind, to minimize struggling.
“If you cut from the back of the neck, they die faster,” said Rahila Amos, a Nigerian grandmother describing the meticulous instruction she received from Boko Haram to become a suicide bomber.
Of all the many horrors of Boko Haram’s rampage across West Africa – the attacks on mosques, churches and schools; the mass killings of civilians; the entire villages left in ashes after militants tear through – one of the most baffling has been its ability to turn captured women and girls into killers.
Not long afterward, Ms. Amos, a Christian, said she was forced to enroll in Boko Haram’s classes on its version of Islam, a first step on her way toward being taught the art of suicide bombing.
After months of training, Ms. Amos said, she was finally able to escape her captors one day when they had assembled for evening preaching. She stayed behind, gathering two of her young children and a grandchild so they could make a run for the Cameroonian border.
“I don’t want to take a bomb,” she said inside this refugee camp in Cameroon that stretches across a vast landscape dotted by tents and mud huts.
She said that when Boko Haram stormed her hometown in 2014, her two brothers were shot dead. Her husband managed to flee with five of their children, but Ms. Amos did not make it out, and neither did two of their other young children and a grandchild. Boko Haram rounded them up with other women and children, putting them in a long ditch to contain them.
They stayed there for days, eating one meal a day of a corn paste made from powder. Finally a fighter arrived and asked a fateful question: Do you want to follow Christ, or do you want to be a Muslim?
The women all agreed to follow Islam, fearing they would be killed otherwise. Their training began.
Ms. Amos described a six-tiered daily education track for the women that she called Primary One, Primary Two and so on. The first two levels were Quranic training. Primary Three was training in suicide bombing and beheading. “How to kill a person and how to bomb a house,” she said.
“They told us if we came upon a group of 10 to 20 people to press this,” she said, speaking of a detonator.
The instruction given in the upper levels of the training – Primary Four, Five and Six – was a closely guarded secret among the fighters. Ms. Amos said she never learned what took place there.
Ms. Amos was lucky. Boko Haram fighters decided not to “marry” her, a euphemism for the rapes the group commits, because she already had a husband and children. She counted 14 women and four girls in her training classes who were not as fortunate.
Throughout her months in captivity, Ms. Amos was fed one meal a day and lost weight, a fact confirmed by her nephew living in the Minawao camp, who stared at her scrawny frame and said, “She used to be a big woman.”
Boko Haram incorporated the lack of food into the training, Ms. Amos said. Several months ago, she said, fighters rounded up the women and took them to an old factory to view a set of plump, well-fed girls who had plenty of food and water. Follow our ways, the fighters said, and you can have enough to eat, like these girls.
The girls, some crying, told Ms. Amos they were from Chibok, the Nigerian village where Boko Haram had captured the schoolgirls. American State Department and military officials said they would investigate the statements from Ms. Amos about the girls.
“They were very fat,” Ms. Amos said, compared with herself and the other women who were being held, “and they had lots of water.”
In Cameroon, many of the recent bombings have been carried out by girls in their early teens, leaving officials and analysts to wonder whether the girls were aware they were carrying bombs. Yet some of the bombers in recent attacks in Nigeria have been found to wear their hair pulled back from the face – a hairstyle reserved for burial rites, a sign they were ready to die.