Kellu: The female activist who died fighting for justice
By Hauwa Ismail
For more than two years, Kellu Haruna, a brave 35 years old internally displaced woman who became an activist, led more than 2,000 women in a campaign that took on both the federal government and the all-powerful Nigerian military. All she wanted, like the other women, was news of the whereabouts and the release of her husband, separated from her since 2015, and an explanation for the starvation that ravaged the military-run IDPs detention camps in northeast Nigeria between 2015 and 2016 that left several hundreds of people dead, many of them women and children.
After two relentless years of campaigning, she found out that her husband was alive and detained at the Maiduguri Maximum Prison. That news brought her enormous joy but also worries on how to secure his release. In the hours that followed, she spoke to other women about starting a mass protest in front of the prison. Sadly, her weak and sick heart could not contain the joy of her discovery and few hours later she had a stroke, which eventually led to her death days later.
A first encounter with Kellu revealed a shy, courteous and soft-spoken woman. She was gentle and had an infectious smile that made even a stranger she was meeting for the first time comfortable. She may have been one of the thousands of iIDPs that have died as a result of the 10-year-old Boko Haram crisis. Like many IDPs, she had not gone to school. And, she did not even speak English or Hausa, only her native Kanuri.
However, something stood her out. Unlike other, she was an activist, even though she neither set out to be one nor even understood what it meant. Circumstances thrust upon her frail shoulders the responsibility of leading a group of displaced women demanding for justice that until her death grew to over 2,000.
Kellu, from Andarra village in Bama LGA, was a mother of four – three girls and a boy. Her husband, Haruna Modu, is a 45-year-old trader. The family survived Boko Haram rule in 2015 and after a failed attempt to leave, they managed to escape their village in December 2015 and fled to Cameroon, where the army stopped them and handed them and other people over to the Nigerian army.
Nigerian soldiers took the group to Banki, where men and women were separated and screened. In total, 80 men, including Kellu’s husband, were taken to Bama prison and from there to Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri and then, later, to a section of the Maiduguri Maximum Prison run by the military. After four days, Kellu, her children and 35 other women and children were brought to Bama prison where they were screened again and transferred to Bama Hospital Camp, which was more of a detention camp set up and run by the military than an IDPs camp.
People, particularly women, were not allowed to leave, not even to go look for what to eat. This only exposed women to sexual exploitation by both soldiers and members of the Civilian Joint Task Force
Kellu and her family suffered immensely in this camp – there was not enough food or water and no toilet facilities. As a result of both hunger and diseases, the death rate was alarming, with up to 20 people dying daily by early 2016. Kellu saw countless people die and she herself lost her son and mother. Severely malnourished, she was transferred to Maiduguri in June 2016 with hundreds of others for emergency treatment.
One of the first things Kellu was focused on after her recovery was finding her husband, who, soldiers told her, was taken to Maiduguri. With no one willing to provide answers, she and some 200 other women decided to organise themselves and form a group to ask for their husbands’ release.
These brave women formed what is now known as the Knifar Movement – a group that now has more than 2,000 displaced women across Borno state with two goals: to campaign for the release of their husbands, who they believed were being arbitrarily detained somewhere by the Nigerian military; and to get justice for the hundreds of relatives who died between 2015 and 2016 in Bama.
The unanimity in making Kellu the voice and face of the group was easy and this paid off in no time. Kellu was a great listener, keen to let everybody take their time in voicing their opinions. She would never do or say anything that concerned others unilaterally without consulting them. Decision-making was democratic and, given that they all had the same demands, arriving at a decision took little time. She was the glue that in those early days held the group together. Whenever a woman felt overwhelmed by the situation, she would clearly explain why they should not give up but fight for their husbands.
First, the group petitioned the National Assembly to ask for the release of their husbands and an investigation into the sexual exploitation women were subjected to as a result of the absence of their husbands and the hunger this exposed them to, which in turn left them at the mercy of members of Civilian Joint Task Force and the military in Bama. They included in the letter to the National Assembly an initial list of 466 children and adults that died in Bama.
With the guidance of another brave woman, Hamsatu Allamin, founder of the Allamin Foundation for Peace and Development, they wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari, engaged with the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, and appeared before the Presidential Investigative Panel to Review Compliance of the Armed Forces with Human Rights Obligations and Rules of Engagement (PIP), all with the same demands. Surprisingly, the PIP initially refused to take the women’s testimonies when it sat in Maiduguri, claiming there was no time, even though it still had a day left based on the timeline of its sitting in the Northeast before moving to other parts of the country.
Kellu and the women wrote to the Panel chairman expressing their disappointment and requesting that he help pay for them to come to Abuja to testify, but the chairman responded that they would have to appear before the Panel in Abuja at their own cost. Not discouraged, the women found their way to Abuja and made their presentations. All they asked were the same things: the release of their husbands and justice for the hundreds of those who died at the IDPs detention camp in Bama.
While government did nothing about their allegations – the PIP report has not even been published – and the National Assembly could only promise to investigate, the women pushed on. The military tried everything to counter them and call them liars, even denying arresting their husbands. But the women were only spurred on rather than being deterred.
When the military organised a public relations visit for journalists to one of the Maiduguri IDPs camps to counter allegations that soldiers had sexually abused women, it was the Knifar Movement whICH exposed that the female IDPs were instructed to deny any of such allegations.
In their effort to seek justice, Kellu and some of the women met Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court when she visited Nigeria in 2017. Kellu told her, in her passionate way, about their desperate situation and their struggle for change. Fatou Benouda promised to look into their situation, but this didn’t materialise. The women saw no change and when Fatou Benouda visited Nigeria again some months back, she didn’t reach out to the Knifar Movement.
All this while, Kellu was battling with a failing health, going in and out of hospital. In 2018, she was diagnosed with a heart condition; possibly resulting from the long suffering she endured, including the loss of her son and mother and the heartbreak of separation from her husband. While she was struggling to pay for the medications, she was told she would need surgery that she could not afford. Kellu herself always blamed it on the severe beating she received from a soldier in Bama hospital camp in 2015.
Despite her frailty, Kellu could not let herself and the other women looking up to her for leadership down. They searched for any clue that held information about their men. They mobilised women in IDPs camps across Borno State, asked questions, met with people released from detentions, all with the hope that someone would tell them if their men were alive and where they were. The only information they had was that most of the men were taken out of Giwa Barracks blindfolded in the middle of the night about two years ago. They did not know where they were taken to or what happened to them.
Few weeks ago, their probing paid off and they found out that some of the men were being held at the Maximum Prison in Maiduguri by the military in a section housing Boko Haram suspects. Not satisfied with this information, the women pushed for proof of life for as many of the men as they could confirm were being held there.
For the first time in almost four years, Kellu was 100 per cent sure that her husband was alive. When the proof of life got to her, the excitement was visible and she could not contain it. The ICIR found out that on that day, she could not sleep out of sheer joy. She called another woman and said that they should organise a protest in front of the prison to ask for their release.
The following morning, she was found unable to move or speak. No matter how much she tried to say something, the words would not come out. She was taken to the hospital and confirmed to have suffered from a stroke and treatment commenced immediately. All women of the Knifar Movement and other well-wishers contributed to the medical treatment, sacrificing the little money they had to feed themselves and their children.
Unfortunately, Kellu did not recover and died over a week later, a terrible end to an incredible journey, one filled with love, despair, death, frustration, betrayal, hope and hopelessness all in one measure.
Kellu died without seeing justice. Reflecting on her death one could wonder why the Nigerian government and the ICC, who are supposed to help to get justice, only delay accountability; Kellu is now among countless of Nigerian survivors of war crimes who have died before seeing any sign of justice.
She leaves behind three daughters to be looked after by the other women. She died with her hope dashed, the hope of getting justice and being reunited with her husband. If anything, she died knowing that her husband lives, which in itself bears the hope that one day, he may be freed and hold their daughters in his arms. And she died knowing that the women of the Knifar movement will never give up.
But, Kellu’s struggle doesn’t end here. Since her death, women have come to her camp from all over Borno state to pray for her and honour her struggle. The women in her movement are more determined than ever to get justice.
They may not speak English and many may not even understand Hausa, but they know what this is all about: justice. One can only hope that her daughters will soon be reunited with their father and grow up and go to school. Maybe one day they can tell the Nigerian authorities and indeed the international community about their remarkable mother, who died before justice was served. And maybe, just maybe, her daughters will see the justice Kellu was craving for.