The Nigerian military has been running a secret mass abortion program since 2013
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Nigeria's military has been fighting Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist movement, in the north of the country for more than a decade. The United Nations says the conflict has killed more than 300,000 people. The insurgents gained global notoriety in 2014 after they abducted more than 250 high school girls from the town of Chibok. Now an investigation by Reuters has exposed a shocking campaign by the Nigerian military, a secret mass abortion program that's been in operation since 2013. We're joined now by one of the journalists who worked on that story, David Lewis, who is in Nairobi. And just this caution - our conversation would contain descriptions of sexual violence.
Mr. Lewis, thanks so much for being with us.
DAVID LEWIS: You're welcome.
SIMON: This is difficult to talk about, but please tell us what you found.
LEWIS: Around 10,000 pregnancies were terminated. These were women and girls, many of whom had been kidnapped by the Islamist insurgents. So they'd not only been taken from their homes. They'd spent time in the bush with the Boko Haram or Islamic State insurgents. And then they'd escaped or been rescued by the military.
SIMON: When you say you spent time, they were essentially kidnapped.
LEWIS: They were. Yeah, they were kidnapped. They were forcibly married off to fighters. Several women told us stories of being married to one fighter, and then if that husband - they were forcibly married to these men, so they were calling them husbands - and if the husband didn't return, they were just married off to another one. So these women had harrowing stories. And they obviously experienced not just the danger, the dire situation of living in the bush and the war. But then when they escaped, the women who were pregnant were given abortions. And we spoke to 33 women and girls who say they underwent the procedures.
SIMON: And forgive me - this will be rough to hear - but can you tell us how those procedures were often conducted?
LEWIS: More often than not, the women we spoke to, the procedures happened without their prior knowledge. At times, they were told that they were being given pills or injections to boost their health because these women were coming out of the bush, where they obviously had no health care, and they were ill. Some had malaria. They described at times deception, at times physical force.
SIMON: Could you tell us the story of Hafsat?
LEWIS: Yes. So she was a girl of about 14 or 15 years old. And in early 2019, she'd been rescued. And we heard this story from two soldiers. And they said that she came to an army clinic. She was lying on the ground with several other women, other girls who'd been rescued. They gave her an injection. And soon afterwards, the soldiers described seeing her bleeding heavily from between her legs. And not long after that, she was dead.
SIMON: There's a soldier who remembered that in particular, wasn't there?
LEWIS: There were two soldiers. Yeah. One of the soldiers told us at the end of the interview that he would never forget her name.
SIMON: Why would the Nigerian military want to undertake this kind of campaign?
LEWIS: According to our reporting, the security personnel and some of the civilian health care workers who were involved, they said that the belief was that the children were predestined by their blood to take up arms against the government because the perception was that these were the children of Boko Haram. And therefore they, too, would become Islamist insurgents. Now, of course, the Nigerian military denies the program exists at all.
SIMON: You have asked them for reaction, I gather.
LEWIS: We have. We presented our findings to the Nigerian government and the Nigerian military. And the military has vehemently denied the program. They say it doesn't exist. They said it would be impossible to hide these abuses from the international and local aid groups that are operating up in the northeast of Nigeria. They said that everyone has free access to see what they're doing.
SIMON: Is that true? Reuters, other news organizations, for that matter, civilian oversight groups have free access?
LEWIS: There are restrictions on where people can go and when they can go in northeastern Nigeria. We put the question to the U.N. whether they have free access. But the U.N. office in Nigeria declined to comment. But the U.N. secretary-general has called for an investigation into the allegations.
SIMON: Mr. Lewis, this conflict between Nigeria and Boko Haram is 13 years old now. Is there any sight of a resolution of any kind?
LEWIS: Well, the Nigerian military says it's making great strides in its battle against Boko Haram. And certainly compared to 2014, perhaps, or 2015, when a large number of urban areas were occupied by Islamist militants - these groups have been pushed out of those cities. The conflict is now largely in the rural areas. And over the last few months, there have been a spread of attacks into other parts of the country - so further to the west and to the south. So at the moment, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight.
SIMON: David Lewis is Reuters Africa special correspondent. Thank you so much for being with us.
LEWIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.