The shocking story of Rebecca Bitrus, a Nigerian woman who suffered terrible abuse after her capture by Boko Haram in 2014, has been shared with Pope Francis at a meeting in the Vatican.
Her story, shared as the Colosseum was lit up in red last Saturday (24 February) in support of persecuted Christians, is part of the grim picture created by Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency that has claimed more than 20,000 lives and forced more than 2 million others to flee.
The young woman, who was brought up a Catholic, was with her husband and two sons when in August 2014 Boko Haram militants abducted her and her children, while her husband managed to escape, Catholic news agency Crux reports.
They were taken to a forest encampment where she was forced to convert to Islam. When she refused, one of the militants told her he was going to “teach her a lesson” and so he snatched Rebecca’s youngest son, three-year-old Jonathan, and drowned him in a nearby river while Rebecca was watching.
Fearing the same fate for her older son, five-year-old Zachary, Rebecca partook in Islamic devotions but says she inwardly recited Catholic prayers.
“They would come on us with their guns and force us to pray. Each time I bent down to pray, I was reciting the ‘Hail Mary’ and the ‘Our Father’,” Rebecca told Crux.
After being forcibly married to a Boko Haram fighter, Rebecca says she was raped repeatedly for months, resulting in a new child.
After spending two years in captivity, one day, when gunshots alerted her that Nigerian troops were approaching the camp, Rebecca managed to flee into the forest with her children. Away from the camp, she says she decided to leave six-month-old Cristopher, the child conceived from a militant, behind, as he would be a constant reminder of her time in captivity.
However, her older son changed her mind.
“Zachary told me, ‘Jonathan isn’t here anymore, I don’t have a little brother, so why don’t you take Christopher?’” she told Crux.
Wandering through the forest for 28 days with no food or water, being bitten by mosquitoes and developing rashes, they eventually reached an army base. She was taken to a hospital and later transported to Maiduguri, her hometown and the capital of the northern state of Borno.
At church she was reunited with her husband but says she still struggled to accept the Boko Haram militant’s child and wanted to give him away for adoption.
However, Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme of Maiduguri convinced her to keep the child and helped her to feel more positively towards him.
Christopher was baptised by Father Innocent Zambua of Maiduguri, with whom Rebecca visited the Pope.
She told her story to the Pope, who hailed Rebecca an example of Christian persecution, along with the Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, who has been on death row for blasphemy since 2010.