Esther, a Nigerian Christian teenager was only 17 when her life changed forever. She fell pregnant after being raped countless times by her captors, the Islamist militants Boko Haram.
The violent insurgents attacked her town of Gwoza in October 2015, and along with Esther (not her real name) abducted several young women. Having previously lost her mother, Esther had been caring for her ill father the best she could while also attending school. As she and the other young women were seized Esther endured the pain of watching her father be struck down and left for dead at the hands of her captors. While being carried away into the Sambisa Forest she continued to look back, longing for her father to get up. He died during Esther's captivity.
The extremist group, Boko Haram, are known for targeting Christian communities in northern Nigeria, where many women in these communities, just like Esther, are abducted and forced to marry Muslim men. In Esther's case Boko Haram wanted the girls to renounce their Christian faith. She tells of the numerous methods they used, trying to lure them with various privileges. However, when their attempts failed they reverted to violence, threats and intimidation. Many of the girls broke under the pressure and surrendered their faith.
For Esther the experience of cruelty and attempts to force her to convert continued to mount. Many of her imprisoners found her extremely beautiful and wanted to take her as a wife. She, however, took a brave decision and resolved never to yield her faith. Esther tells an Open Doors worker the words she spoke in her heart at the time: 'If I perish, I perish, but I will not become a Muslim'.
Esther's courageous decision to hold firm to her faith had unimaginable consequences. She tells how she was raped continually by countless men. While struggling to hold back her tears she relives her imprisonment, saying: 'I cannot count how many men raped me. Every time they came back from their attacks, they would rape us, defile us.'
She adds: 'Each passing day, I hated myself more and more. I felt that God had forsaken me. There were times when I was so angry with God'.
Yet through this torment Esther clung to her faith, saying: 'But still I could not get myself to renounce Him. I found myself remembering His promise to never leave me or forsake me.'
During her captivity Esther eventually fell pregnant. She has no way of telling who the father is. Speaking honestly to Open Doors revealed her feelings at the time: 'I had no idea how on earth I would ever be able to love this child.'
Over a year later in November 2016, the military rescued Esther and the other girls. However, the overwhelming joy of freedom was soon eclipsed by the rejection she received from her community. Many were not so keen to welcome back the 'Boko Haram women'.
As Esther had lost both her mother and father she had no choice but to go and live with her grandparents. However, she was not warmly welcomed there, because of her pregnancy, even her own grandparents taunted her. Esther says: 'They mocked me because I was pregnant. Even my grandparents despised me and called me names. I cried many tears. I felt so lonely. What broke my heart even more was that they refused to call my daughter "Rebecca".' Instead, they referred to her as 'Boko'.
Even though Esther's captivity ended her torment had not. Through her church leaders Esther was put in contact with Open Doors. They invited her to a trauma care centre seminar. The centres have been provided by Open Doors to give professional care to those like Esther who have been the victims of severe persecution.
During the seminar Esther and the other participants were invited to bring their sorrows to the cross. As a symbolic act she wrote her burdens on a piece of paper and pinned it to the wooden cross. The trainer leading the session later burned the pieces of paper. Esther said of this experience: 'When I pinned that piece of paper to the cross it felt like I was handing all of my sorrow over to God. It felt light within me. When the trainer later removed all the pieces of paper from the cross and burnt it to ashes, I felt like my sorrow and shame disappeared, never to come back again.'
Even though many in her community still struggle to accept Esther and her child, she is full of hope, saying: 'People have noticed a change. Some of those people who used to mock me now ask me my secret. I tell them, "I forgave my enemies and now trust God to take vengeance in His time".'
She is now working on a farm to provide for herself, and her family while also receiving support from Open Doors.
Although Esther has endured great pain and suffering she pours all the love she can into her daughter and, speaking about Rebecca, says: 'She has become my joy and laughter amidst sadness'.