YOLA, Nigeria – Life in Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram members held her hostage, was five months of crippling anxiety for Umi.
The 10-year-old’s slender arms are covered in insect bite marks. The blood-sucking bugs kept her awake at night, as did the sound of nocturnal animals walking and flying through the forests, an expanse of low-lying bushes and coarse-trunked trees stretching for nearly 40,000 square miles in the Sahel region of northeastern Nigeria.
It was here that elephants from Central Africa roamed, along with other beasts. Colonialists designated the area as a wildlife reserve, which it still technically is, although it has been long neglected.
The people living near Sambisa have long nurtured a deep respect for this forest, and only the most experienced hunters ventured there. Some tell tales of huge lions living in the grasslands.
But that reverence has morphed into fear ever since Boko Haram turned the forest into a safe haven years ago, setting up numerous camps among the thorns and poisonous bushes.
The fighters return to these forests after indiscriminate and brutal attacks on nearby towns, bringing back hundreds of female hostages. Boko Haram has abducted more than 2,000 women and girls, according to an April 2015 report by Amnesty International.