"It's not peaceful in my head"
This is what 15-year-old Aissatou* finishes with. We’ve been talking for almost an hour – she has had so much to tell me.
It’s hardly surprising, after everything she’s been through.
Forced from her home over a year ago, Aissatou was more than eight months pregnant.
She was 14, and gave birth to her son Salam less than a month later, on the run and staying in Gao.
She still remembers the day the rebels first entered her town, but the words come hesitantly at first, in short pieces.
“I was really scared,” she starts. I ask what she was doing before the attack started. “I had been having fun. I was playing with my friends. Everyone was outside. It was a Friday.”
“First we heard gunfire,” she remembers. “We thought it was the military. Then we started seeing people running everywhere.”
Aissatou tells me she started running too, straight into her house. She stayed there for two days without leaving.
It was on the second day that she finally came out and heard what happened.
One of her friends had been hit by a stray bullet. She was alive, but needed urgent medical treatment, and was fleeing the town for a refugee camp in Niger.
Aissatou’s family had also been directly affected. As she describes what happened, her pace picks up, rushed, as if she wants to get the words out as quickly as possible.
She tells me how her brother-in-law had been accused of stealing. She explains how, under the rebels, the punishment for this was amputation.
She saw him after it happened – his hand had been cut off at the wrist. As she explains this to me, Aissatou looks down at her own hands, drawing a thin line with her finger over her wrist, over and over again.
“It wasn’t true,” she says, looking back up at me. “He said he hasn’t stolen anything.”
But what hit Aissatou the hardest wasn’t either of these things. It was what happened to her friend Ines. And it’s now, telling Ines’ story, that the words pour out of Aissatou’s mouth.
She stares me straight in the eyes, and I can see the horrific events playing back in her mind as she describes them.
“The rebels went into the village and took girls – not women, but girls. They were 15, 16, 17. They said they needed the girls to go prepare food for them. They took them into their cars and brought them into the bush.
“They left them in the bush after they were done raping them – but they beat them before leaving. I know because my friend was one of them.
“There were 16 girls in total. My friend’s name is Ines*, she is 15 now. She was 14 then, like me – we went to school together,” Aissatou starts, and then paints a vivid picture of just what happened to Ines.
“She told me that they took her by force. They threatened her with their weapons to make her sleep with them. There were 20 men but only 16 girls – so some of the men shared the same girl between them. Ines was lucky; there was only one man who took her.
“Afterwards though, he hit her five times with a long rod before she managed to escape.”
Impossible to forget
Beaten and abused, Aissatou’s 14-year-old classmate ran from the bushes, but in her fear and confusion, fell when she reached the road.
Aissatou says that’s how the men from her village found Ines, and brought her home again. Ines told her classmate the whole story before Aissatou got her brother and brought her to the hospital.
Aissatou and her family fled the town the next day, and she hasn’t seen Ines since.
As she finishes her story, Aissatou pauses. She looks at the ground down for a second, almost self-conscious.
“Even now, even if I’m here,” she starts, “I can’t forget what happened. My head is full of these things – what happened to my friends, my family…”
She looks up one more time at me, willing me to understand.
“It’s not peaceful in my head.”
- Names changed to protect children’s identities.