17 June, 2018
A woman who claims to be the mother of a militant leader says she does not know if her son is alive or dead.
Abubakar Shekau is the head of the Boko Haram militant group. Boko Haram launched its campaign against Nigeria's government in 2009. Nigerian officials blame the group for more than 30,000 deaths in the country's northeast and the Lake Chad area.
A woman claming to be his mother recently met with a VOA reporter in Shekau, a village in the Nigerian state of Yobe.
Community leaders identified the woman as Falmata Abubakar. They said that Abubakar Shekau's father was a local clergyman who died a few years ago.
Falmata Abubakar said she had never spoken to a reporter before VOA made contact with her. She added that she does not know where her son is hiding.
"I don't know if he's alive or dead. I don't know. It's only God who knows. For 15 years, I haven't seen him," she said.
Townspeople say they often deny being from the hometown of Abubakar Shekau because others may believe they have ties to Boko Haram.
Growing up in Shekau
Falmata Abubakar says her son left Shekau as a boy to continue his Islamic education in the city of Maiduguri. Maiduguri has been a center of religious studies for hundreds of years.
Abubakar Shekau was an almajiri. In the generations-old tradition, almajirai are sent by their parents to study the Quran, Islam's holy book, in schools locally known as a tsangaya. In the classroom, a teacher trains the 20 or more, sometimes hundreds of, male students at a time to memorize the complete Quran.
Almajirai often go up and down the streets, asking people for food. It is thought that Abubakar Shekau did the same. His mother says that during his studies he met Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram.
Yusuf believed that a Western education violates religious law. Falmata says her son was brainwashed.
"Since Shekau met with Mohammed Yusuf, I didn't see him again," she told VOA. "Yes, he's my son and every mother loves her son, but we have different characters. He brought a lot of problem to many people. Where can I meet him to tell him that these things he is doing is very bad? He brought many problems to many people, but I am praying for God to show him the good way," she said.
In 2009, Nigerian security agents killed Mohammed Yusuf, and Abubakar Shekau became the leader of Boko Haram.
Campaign of violence
Destroying schools is at the heart of the group's teachings. The United Nations Children's Fund says Boko Haram forces have attacked more than 1,400 schools.
Members of the group attacked the first primary school in northeastern Nigeria in 2010 and 2013. The head of the school and his assistant were killed.
In 2014, Boko Haram killed 59 students at a federal school in Buni Yadi, Yobe State. It was one of the most deadly school attacks in Nigerian history. Currently, the school is being rebuilt.
In February of 2018, Boko Haram fighters kidnapped more than 100 students from a girls' secondary school in the town of Dapchi. The group returned the students a month later, but kept Leah Sharibu, reportedly because she refused to accept Islam in exchange for her freedom.
Her mother, Rebecca, and her brother say they believe that she is still alive.
In 2014, Boko Haram fighters seized about 100 girls from their school in the town of Chibok. The kidnapping made news around the world. The Bring Back Our Girls activists are still demanding the freedom for at least 100 Chibok Girls.
Falmata Abubakar says she can never condemn her son, but he has become someone she doesn't recognize.
"He just took his own character and went away. This is not the character I gave him. I don't know what this type of behavior is. It's only God who knows."
I'm Kelly Jean Kelly.
VOA's Chika Oduah reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English, and George Grow edited it.
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Words in This Story
brainwash – v. to cause (someone) to think or believe something by using methods that make a person unable to think normally
character – n. the way someone thinks, feels, and behaves, someone's personality
primary – adj. of or related to the simplest things