Amina’s Stockholm Syndrome
You would remember Amina Ali, one of the lucky escapees from the Boko Haram dungeon in Sambisa Forest in North East Nigeria. Amina was one of the 219 girls abducted by the Boko Haram terrorists from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, on April 14, 2014. On May 18, 2016 she found her freedom. But she was different from who she was before she had an involuntary sojourn in a forest she had never heard of. This school girl now came out of the forest with a baby nestling in her arms, her own baby, a product of the forced marriage that she had with one of the terrorists called Mohammed Hayatu.
But Amina is lucky to be alive. According to her account, six of the girls are already dead. She is luckier than the remaining girls whose lives hang in the balance and who have no idea whether or not they will ever see their loved ones again. It was a minor miracle that deserved to be celebrated because it gave hope that if all things go well the rest of the girls may come home sometime in the uncertain future.
When Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State presented Amina and her daughter to President Muhammadu Buhari at the Presidential Villa the attention of a distraught nation, was focused on that event like a laser beam, because that incident was a piece of epiphany. It was a lean consolation that one girl was out and a major worry that 218 are still in. But President Buhari gave hope that his government will leave no stone unturned to ensure the safe return of all the girls. On that occasion, he said of Amina: “We will ensure that she gets the best medical, psychological, emotional and whatever other care she requires to make a full recovery and be reintegrated fully into society.”
The odds against Amina are daunting. Her father died from the trauma of her abduction so she is now fatherless. Amina is one of the two surviving children in the family, the other person being her only brother. Her mother is now not just her mother but also her father, combining the roles that were separately assigned to both by God and society. As expected the mother was ecstatic to see her daughter and a granddaughter, Safiya, she neither expected nor planned for. She gave her daughter a bear hug on meeting her for the first time after two years of unplanned absence from home and residence in the middle of nowhere. She hugged her so hard the young mother had to scream: “Please mom take it easy, relax. I never thought I would ever see you again, wipe your tears. God has made it possible for us to see each other again.”
Amina has a new life to live, she never finished school, she doesn’t have a job, she has a child to feed and bring her up to the best of her ability. She has a man she calls her husband, a man she met in the forest. No sane man or woman lives in the forest. A forest is not a place to live because it carries in its womb the harshness of the wilds but it also contains the world’s flora and fauna. Forestry officials go there and take what they want. Hunters go there and take home some animals for dinner. Farmers go there and till the soil and expect the soil to smile at them with a bumper harvest. But no one really lives there. And when the media referred to Mohammed Hayatu as Amina’s husband, her mother cautioned them not to call him her husband. But she was saying so because the consummation of marriage is never done in the forest between abductor and abductee. That is an unusual setting in terms of time, place and people. But Amina’s mother’s world is different from Amina’s new world, the world of a captive. It is not a normal world. It is, in fact, a very abnormal world. What is the evidence?
Hear it from Amina: “I am not comfortable with the way I am being kept from him (husband).” Then she addresses him directly. “I want you to know that I am still thinking about you and just because we are separated doesn’t mean I have forgotten about you.” Amina has been staying in Abuja undergoing what the government calls a “restoration process” and has not had access to her “husband”. It is evident she misses him. Unusual, you would say. But it exists. It is called the Stockholm syndrome.
On August 23, 1973, two machine gun wielding criminals entered a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. One of them, a prison escapee called Jan-Erik Olsson, announced to the four frightened bank staff (one man and three women): “The party has just begun.” The two criminals strapped the four hostages with dynamite and held them in the bank vault for 131 hours while negotiation with the police was going on. The hostages were eventually rescued on August 28, after six days in the hell hole.
In their post trauma interviews, the captives said that their captors were actually protecting them from the police. In fact, one of the three women later became engaged to one of the criminals, and another raised funds for the legal defence of their tormentors. That is perhaps a product of emotional bonding during the six-day stand-off.
The term “Stockholm Syndrome” was coined by the criminologist and psychiatrist, Nils Bejerot, who was the consultant to the police at the time. Amina was involuntarily involved in captive bonding with the man she now calls her husband. In a situation such as she found herself, she had to develop a positive attitude and express empathy and even sympathy for the terrorist, who obviously satisfied her sexual and other existential needs. Her adaptation strategy was something like this: If you cannot get what you like (freedom, school, and family) learn to like with what you get. Such a change of idea or opinion helps the abductee to remain sane, normal and healthy. This is what social psychologists call “dissonance reduction.”
Besides, emotional bonding with an abuser is a strategy for survival. In the Sambisa Forest none of the girls could refuse to do what the terrorists ordered them to do otherwise they would be dead. So for their psychological and physical well-being they had to make a reasonable adjustment to the situation on ground. In that setting, they are isolated from other influences, friends, family, news media, government and their judgement is based on the information made available to them by the terrorists.
It is obvious that Amina has, in two years of captivity, under conditions vastly different from what she had ever experienced, gone through a process of mental mutilation. Let me explain: Here is a girl who was in secondary school studying to become a working class person in future, maybe a doctor, lawyer, engineer, journalist or public servant. She hoped to get a good job, a good income and pick and choose a husband of commensurate or superior education and career and build a family together. Her life is in a different direction now. In a normal setting she would never have married a man who lives in a forest, cooks with firewood, and who is not certain that the next bomb that drops in that forest will not end his life. But her life is different now. She needs some mental rehabilitation to get away from her present affliction: the Stockholm syndrome.