Conflict & Justice

Many of the girls who escaped Boko Haram in Nigeria are so traumatized they can't even speak

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A man claiming to be the leader of Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau.

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Boko Haram

“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah.”

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Those chilling words were delivered by a man claiming to be Abubakar Shekaul, leader of the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram.

Three weeks ago, Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 teenage girls from a school in the tiny town of Chibok in northern Nigeria. About 50 girls have escaped, but as many as 276 girls remain missing. Alexis Okeowo, a reporter based in Lagos, Nigeria, spoke with Deborah Sanya, one of the girls who managed to escape from Boko Haram.

“She told me she thought she was going to die, it was such a terrifying experience,” says Okeowo.

When the Boko Haram militants showed up at her school, Sanya told Okeowo, they pretended to be military soldiers. They rounded up all the girls, waking them up and dragging them outside. The girls were scared, but did not think they were in danger, since the men were with the military.

Once the militants took them into the forest, though, shooting their guns and shouting “God is great” in Arabic, the girls realized their captors were Boko Haram. When they got to the the Boko Haram camps, the militants ordered them to cook and clean and to fetch water and firewood. About two hours after they arrived, Sanya and two friends decided to make a run for it. Sanya told Okeowo some of the militants spotted them running but decided not to follow them.

“Sanya ran back toward her village and spent the night at a friendly stranger’s home, a herdsman,” Okeowo reports, “[He] then helped her get in touch with her family the next day. She was very lucky.”

Okeowo says Sanya was so traumatized, she found it difficult to tell her story.

“She’s in a very bad state,” Okeowo says. “Her father told me they’re just trying to help her get through it. There are no ‘psychological counseling services’ in this tiny village.”

Okeowo says she tried to speak to another girl who had escaped and the girl couldn’t even speak to her. “She told me through another resident of the town that she was just afraid of everyone right now.” Okeowo says. “She didn’t trust anyone. She couldn’t be interviewed, or even speak.”

There has been an appalling lack of government response to the abduction, Okeowo adds. The military initially claimed to have rescued many of the girls, but then retracted its claim. In addition, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has seemed indifferent to the plight of the girls and their families.

“He does not seem serious about getting these girls back,” Okeowo says. “He gave a presidential address on Sunday in which he admitted he doesn't know where the girls are, that there are no negotiations with Boko Haram. He just didn’t appear to have the manner of someone who was serious about trying to rescue these girls. All he’s done is create a presidential committee ... it's very disappointing to Nigerians.”

Parents in Chibok were so frustrated with government inaction, Okeowo says, that they went after the militants on their own, with rudimentary weapons like bows and arrows. “This village is so poor,” Okeowo says, “that they had to raise money just to get fuel to transport the parents into the bush. Most of the parents had bows and arrows, some had machetes and knives.”

The parents made it into the bush and came across some villagers who said they had seen these girls nearby. The villagers warned the parents that for their own safety they had to turn back, because the militants were armed with RPGs and AK-47s.

Anguished parents turn to Twitter.

But the parents of Chibok have refused to give up. They continue to demand action from the government and, even more surprising, they've begun a Twitter campaign — #BringBackOurGirls. Okeowo says #BringBackOurGirls was a homegrown movement that came from Nigerians who were concerned neither the media nor the government were paying enough attention.

“It really blossomed,” says Okeowo, “and now it has supporters all over the world. It [also] translated into actual physical protest — so it was successful in terms of putting pressure on the media and the politicians.”

Anne Perkins, an editorial writer with the Guardian, has also been reporting on the story. She wrote a piece a few weeks ago criticizing the Western media for not covering the story enough. Right after the abduction happened, Perkins says, the Western media became obsessed with the sinking of the South Korean ferry on April 16. That disaster, she says, met all the criteria for a big global story.

“It was accessible, there were television cameras everywhere, there were developments [every day], it shouldn’t have happened — everyone could imagine it being their sisters or their daughter or their sons. There was terrific empathy with the grieving parents,” Perkins says.

The Boko Haram abduction, on the other hand, happened in Africa and the story unfolded in a tiny town nobody had ever heard of, in a place the media had almost no way to get to.

“People struggled to find a way to fit [the story] into the narrative they have of Africa. [People thought], ‘Nigeria is a country that is a long way away, we don’t know very much about it, and what we do know about it is bad, and here’s another bad thing," she adds. "What’s news is new, and this, in kind of an awful way, didn’t feel sufficiently new.“ 

What’s changed, she says, is partly to do with the “incredible social media campaign.”

“Suddenly we were able to see women — individual women — angry, grieving and frustrated. I think it gave everyone a much stronger link into the enormity, the outrage of what had happened, and the pressure began to build and we began to hear about it," Perkins says. 


Perkins says the one thing that frightens her about the sudden worldwide interest is the possibility that Boko Haram will see this is as a “kind of encouragement to go out and do this again and again, because it gets them global media attention. That is a problem I do not have an answer to.”

“There is a very long and terrible tradition in African wars of abducting kids,” Perkins concludes. “This isn’t something new. The only thing that marks this one out is the scale of it — and the fact that these brave women who are protesting on the streets of Abuja and Lagos and other Nigerian cities will begin to make governments take the security of women and girls more seriously.”

This story first appeared as an interview on Q with Jian Ghomeshi, an energetic daily arts, culture and entertainment magazine that takes you on a smart and surprising ride.