‘Where do you suspect the girls are now?” I asked Joseph, a pastor from northeastern Nigeria, as we chatted in a small, empty office building in north-central Nigeria. We were sitting in the dark because the electricity had cut out, as it intermittently does in Africa’s most populous country.
“I can’t imagine,” Joseph said, bursting into tears. “They have most likely been separated. But there is little chance we will get them back.”
I traveled to Nigeria a few days after the abduction of 276 Christian girls from a secondary school in the village of Chibok in Borno State. I was there with a small team of Christian humanitarian volunteers from the United States. My plan was to shoot a short documentary about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria.
But after we learned of the mass abduction, I refocused much of my attention on the lost girls, a story that had initially attracted little international attention but that was now making headlines. Our travels would take us to Abuja and Jos in the middle belt of Nigeria and to Yaounde and then Mokolo in northern Cameroon, about ten miles from Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram, many believe, took the girls after abducting them.
I interviewed Philip, whose home in Chibok was destroyed by Boko Haram the very day the girls were abducted. Philip, who works in government security, has 15 family members among the kidnapped. He made a startling claim that highlights the government’s unwillingness to combat the extremist Islamist group. “After the mass abduction, the Nigerian government came out publicly to say that the girls had been found and returned home,” he said. “They even spoke to the secondary school’s principal to try to pressure her into backing the claim. She did not.” Of course, none of the girls had been rescued — only a handful had escaped, on their own.
“Some local citizens formed a vigilante group shortly after the abduction, despite the protests of the government,” Philip said. “They searched for the girls within Sambisa Forest. At one point they saw the girls with Boko Haram at their campsite in the forest. The group reported this to the military, but the military didn’t go.”
As we talked, Philip walked me through details of the kidnapping:
On the 14th of April, Boko Haram arrived in Chibok at 7 p.m. They came from Sambisa Forest, the same way they would leave. There were no security stops along this road. In Chibok, the few security agents were alerted at that time, but there were very few there. Security advised residents to run. Boko Haram parked their vehicles three kilometers from Chibok Township and moved in by foot. They divided themselves. Some went to the secondary school, while others moved to where the few security agents were stationed . . . the local government secretariat [government offices].
The terrorists first attacked the secretariat, where two security men were killed. “Then they went to the town center, where they seized eight trucks, looted food stores and pharmacies, before they set fire to the places,” Philip said. “They then moved to the chairman’s house. They threw explosives and burned the house down. The next house was my house. They looted and burned my house.”
The terrorists convened at Chibok Government Girls Secondary School. They were wearing military uniforms, according to Philip’s niece Mary, who was one of the few girls who managed to escape. “You could not differentiate them from the Nigerian security, except that they were wearing slippers instead of boots,” he said. “They told them, ‘Anyone who wants to remain on this earth should stay where she is. Anyone who wants to die, let her run.’ Then they bombed the school.”
Mary told her uncle that Boko Haram took them to their compound and enclosed them like cattle in a ring of thorny fences so they could not escape. Mary escaped when the two men standing watch with guns went outside to pray in the evening. She suffered deep scratches on her body and face when she crawled under the thorny fence. After escaping, Mary ran into the bush and then to a Fulani settlement (a local tribe of cattle herdsmen), some of whose members directed her to a road that took her back to Chibok village.
Our mission trip was led by Nigerian-born international human-rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe. Many in our group wondered why the media weren’t covering the abductions more extensively. The Nigerian government was partly responsible, Ogebe told me, because it wanted to burnish its image as Africa’s most business-friendly country, especially ahead of the World Economic Forum on Africa, which was taking place in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Perhaps as a result, it took President Goodluck Jonathan two weeks to publicly address the abduction.
Boko Haram has been a menace to Christians in northern Nigeria since its inception in 2002. In that span, the Nigerian government has strongly opposed the labeling of Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. Such a designation, many Nigerian government officials believed, would scare away much-needed investment opportunities. The U.S. finally made the designation last November, following intense advocacy efforts by human-rights groups and activists, including Ogebe.
Boko Haram acts with relative impunity throughout northern Nigeria. In its recently released 2014 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom writes:
While the Nigerian government does not engage in religious persecution, it tolerates severe violations through its failure to bring to justice those responsible for systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, or to prevent or contain sectarian violence. Boko Haram benefits from this culture of impunity and lawlessness as it exploits religious tensions to destabilize Nigeria.
All but a few of the abducted girls remain in captivity. With each passing day the chances that the girls will be saved from sexual slavery or death decrease. In a video released on May 11, Boko Haram’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, announced that roughly 100 of the girls had been converted, obviously by force, to Islam.
Speaking about the fate of the girls still in captivity, Philip said: “After falling into their hands, if they don’t become Boko Haram, they will just be used to make food and be raped. So it is better that they just pretend to become Muslim . . . for their own sakes. But we have also heard that many of the girls have been separated from the group and taken out of the country in different directions. It will be almost impossible to find them.”
— Jordan Allott is founder and executive producer of In Altum Productions, a documentary-film company that focuses on human rights.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Some names have been changed to protect the individuals’ identities.