Fifty-six-year-old Ibrahim Dubji is still trying to adjust to life out of the bushes of rural northeastern Nigeria.
It’s been about three years since he left. He was a fighter with Boko Haram, taking cover in the region’s rocky and semi- arid terrain.
Around the Borno State town of Gwoza, which Boko Haram captured in 2014 and declared as the headquarters of their Islamic caliphate, Dubji spent two years with the armed group, invading and attacking villages.
He says he struggled with the group’s extreme mode of operation.
“The son of my elder brother, they killed him in my presence,” Dubji says. “That is the worst thing I always remember.”
He found a way to escape the group, turning himself in at a Nigerian military base. He said the soldiers there accepted his surrender but flogged him for four days, with “sticks, cables and machetes.”
Last year, Dubji went through Operation Safe Corridor. It’s the Nigerian government’s official rehabilitation and de-radicalization program, set up in 2016, mainly for low-ranking Boko Haram fighters and low-risk women and children affiliated with the Islamist group.
Dujbi says he’s a reformed man. But he’s treated like an outcast. When he went back to his hometown to see his mother after being away, he said he wasn’t welcomed.
“People suspect that you are still Boko Haram or a Boko Haram informant,” he says. “The government has already cleared us… but still, people around are suspecting us,” says Dujbi. “I need forgiveness from people.”
He’s now more than 150 km from his home, living in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital known as the birthplace of Boko Haram. Dujbi found safe haven at a refugee camp and the government gave him help to set up a small grocery store to support his wife and nine children.
Hundreds of people linked to Boko Haram have gone through Operation Safe Corridor and the Nigerian military is releasing them to rejoin civilian life. But they face intense social stigma that doctors say contributes to mental health problems.
Some of them get treatment at the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital in Maiduguri. It’s the only one of its kind in northeastern Nigeria. Psychiatrists here treat former Boko Haram insurgents sent over by the military through therapy such as group sessions and a detoxification program.
Dr. Sadique Pindar, the head of clinical services and drug rehabilitation, says substance abuse is major problem with many former insurgents.
“There are quite a number of them that might be having personality disorders or social phobia, he says, which makes them take drugs so that they can express themselves.”
Many former Boko Haram overdose on opioids, like the common pain reliever Tramadol. The government recently banned Tramadol, but it is sold at a high cost on the black market. Sukudai, a slang term for “suck-and-die,” is another popular drug where users inhale formaldehyde fumes.
The hospital helps the former insurgents to kick the addictions and develop social skills to ease their transition into civilian life.
Now past the 10-year-mark, the insurgency has mentally traumatized an entire generation, says Dr. Pindar.
Boko Haram attacks forced about two million people to flee their homes.
Once discharged from the hospital, social workers try to stay in touch with the former fighters, who are often shunned by people in the community who discover their past.
Forgiveness and support for reformed insurgents is a controversial issue. But security analyst Joseph Babatunde Sotomey says it’s vital.
“When they’re really sorry, they’re sorry. But they need close monitoring,” he says. “The business community is able to do that. To send them to jail is not even the solution because they can go and start planning from jail too,” says Sotomey.
Analysts and peace negotiators say that many Boko Haram members are ready to come out of the bush and surrender, but they’re afraid of being killed by neighborhood vigilante groups.
The Civilian Joint Task Force, or CJTF, set up in 2013, is the largest such group operating in Borno State, the heart of the insurgency. It’s tasked with helping the Nigerian military’s counterterrorism operations and has achieved great success in flushing Boko Haram members out of Maiduguri.
One of their commanders, Baba Shehu Abdul-Gani, says the CJTF will not harm insurgents who surrender. But he says the former fights won’t win acceptance overnight.
“CJTF are law-abiding citizens of the nation,” he says. “If anyone tells you that CJTF is ready to kill those people or whatever, they just talk. There is no source on that. Those people, they killed people, they slaughtered people,” says Abdul-Gani. “Many businesses have collapsed. Many people suffer in the community. So, this thing is not easy,” he says.