Nige­ria’s other ab­ducted — and for­got­ten — girls

The Chi­bok group is only a tiny frac­tion of vic­tims

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Siob­han O’Grady

JAKANA, Nige­ria — In early 2014, Yakinge Kolomi faced a night­mar­ish dilemma.

Boko Haram ex­trem­ists had re­cently ram­paged through ar­eas close to her vil­lage in north­east­ern Nige­ria, mas­sacring men who re­fused to join them and ab­duct­ing young women — then forc­ing them into mar­riage. Kolomi knew that her 12-year-old daugh­ter, Hafsa, would make an easy tar­get.

She lis­tened to friends who urged her to find Hafsa a hus­band who could po­ten­tially pro­tect her, and she weighed their ad­vice against her de­sire to save her daugh­ter’s child­hood and keep her in school. Af­ter much deliberation, she re­luc­tantly mar­ried her off to a mid­dle-age neigh­bor in hopes it would save the girl’s life.

Weeks later, Boko Haram at­tacked their vil­lage. The Is­lamist mil­i­tant group killed Kolomi’s hus­band, burned down nearby homes and kid­napped groups of chil­dren in the chaos. De­spite her mother’s wish to keep her safe, Hafsa was among the many who dis­ap­peared — as did her hus­band, who was never heard from again.

“The mil­i­tary said that Boko Haram took many chil­dren, but they don’t know where they are,” Kolomi said in an in­for­mal set­tle­ment for dis­placed peo­ple in the Nige­rian town

of Jakana. “They say some died, but I don’t think my daugh­ter did. I think she’s alive.”

In early May, the world joined Nige­ria in cel­e­brat­ing the re­lease of 82 girls Boko Haram kid­napped from their board­ing school in the north­ern town of Chi­bok in 2014. The “Chi­bok girls,” as they came to be known, were a group of 276 stu­dents whose plight cap­tured in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. They were memo­ri­al­ized in the vi­ral “Bring Back Our Girls” cam­paign and earned at­ten­tion from celebri­ties in­clud­ing then-First Lady Michelle Obama.

Since the gov­ern­ment be­gan ne­go­ti­at­ing with Boko Haram, 103 of them have been re­leased — 21 in Oc­to­ber and the oth­ers last month. More than 100 re­main in cap­tiv­ity, and some are be­lieved to have died.

But the Chi­bok girls are only a tiny frac­tion of the thou­sands of peo­ple — in­clud­ing girls like Hafsa as well as boys — who have been kid­napped by Boko Haram, which is in­tent on rul­ing north­ern Nige­ria as a caliphate un­der an ex­treme in­ter­pre­ta­tion of sharia, or Is­lamic law.

Like the Chi­bok girls, these other chil­dren have suf­fered at the hands of the vi­o­lent mil­i­tants. Un­like with the Chi­bok girls, hardly any­one seems to care. And for the fam­i­lies of miss­ing chil­dren, the wounds of their dis­ap­pear­ances only deepen with time.

Hafsa’s mother and six sib­lings are still with­out news of the girl, who was kid­napped around the time the mil­i­tants raided the Chi­bok board­ing school dor­mi­tory. They do not even have pho­tos to share with any­one who might be aware of her fate.

“Peo­ple are nar­row­ing it down and say­ing that the prob­lem is get­ting bet­ter and the Chi­bok girls are be­ing re­cov­ered, so ev­ery­thing will be OK,” said Isa Sanusi, me­dia man­ager for Amnesty In­ter­na­tional in Nige­ria. “Noth­ing is OK. So many other girls were ab­ducted, but no one is even talk­ing about them.”

Even those who man­age to es­cape the ex­trem­ists are of­ten un­able to rein­te­grate back into the so­ci­ety from which they were taken. Many in north­ern Nige­ria, scarred from the vi­o­lence of re­cent years, fear the ex­trem­ists rad­i­cal­ized the for­mer Boko Haram cap­tives, and see them more as will­ful col­lab­o­ra­tors than as vic­tims of war crimes.

Men and boys freed from cap­tiv­ity are reg­u­larly ac­cused of join­ing the group will­ingly and are then held in prison-like con­di­tions. And a wave of fe­male teenage sui­cide bombers has prompted au­thor­i­ties to treat many young women — the same age as the Chi­bok girls — as dan­ger­ous sus­pects, not vic­tims in need of psy­choso­cial sup­port. Even the girls’ fam­i­lies and neigh­bors are of­ten wary of their re­turns. Amina is a case in point. Amina’s last name is be­ing with­held be­cause of her age and the na­ture of the crimes against her. She was 13 in 2013, when her mother took her out of school to marry an older man named Ali. A clothes ven­dor, Ali spent time with Boko Haram sym­pa­thiz­ers in their home­town of Da­maturu.

Fear­ing the gov­ern­ment would soon raid the vil­lage and la­bel him a mil­i­tant, he moved hours away with Amina and his 10-year-old sis­ter to try to start over. But his old friends tracked him down and killed him as pun­ish­ment for leav­ing, then ab­ducted Amina and her young sis­ter-in-law. For four months, they held the two girls in a small house, al­low­ing them to leave only to at­tend Is­lamic school or use the bath­room with male su­per­vi­sion.

When the mil­i­tants guard­ing the house mar­ried Amina off, she spent three weeks avoid­ing hav­ing sex with her new hus­band. He re­ported her to the other mil­i­tants, who then pun­ished her with a pub­lic beat­ing in front of ev­ery woman in their cap­tiv­ity. She said her beat­ing was used as a warn­ing of what would hap­pen to any­one else who tried to re­sist.

“They beat the hell out of me,” she said in a con­ver­sa­tion at a UNICEF-sup­ported tran­sit cen­ter in Maiduguri.

No one doubts the ruth­less­ness of Boko Haram. The group has killed more than 20,000 peo­ple in north­ern Nige­ria since 2009 and dis­placed an ad­di­tional 2 mil­lion across the re­gion. At one point, Boko Haram con­trolled an area the size of Bel­gium, but an in­ten­si­fied mil­i­tary cam­paign un­der Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari, who promised in his 2015 elec­tion cam­paign to put an end to the in­sur­gency and se­cure the re­lease of the miss­ing Chi­bok girls, has re­turned much of the north­east to rel­a­tive gov­ern­ment con­trol. Hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions have also ac­cused the mil­i­tary of car­ry­ing out abuses against the civil­ians they are sup­posed to pro­tect.

Still, con­di­tions re­main dire. Hu­man­i­tar­i­ans are now warn­ing that much of the af­fected area is on the brink of famine, with close to 5 mil­lion in ur­gent need of food.

Amina re­cov­ered and soon be­came preg­nant, and de­liv­ered a baby in the for­est with­out any med­i­cal sup­port. Her hus­band then mar­ried an­other girl — a 12year-old who had al­ready mar­ried two other fight­ers be­fore him. Amina said it was com­mon for mil­i­tants to re­marry young girls whose hus­bands died in bat­tle or moved to new lo­ca­tions. Her 10-year-old sis­ter-in-law was soon mar­ried off as well.

When Amina re­al­ized she was preg­nant again, she and a young friend mar­ried to an­other fighter be­gan to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity of es­cape. “No women were happy to stay there,” she said. “If you sat down and started chat­ting with each other, ev­ery­one would be say­ing, ‘I want to go back home.’ ”

What they didn’t re­al­ize was that home wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily want them back.

When the Chi­bok girls (by then, young women in many cases) were re­leased, Buhari per­son­ally wel­comed them back and promised them that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment would work to help “all other Nige­ri­ans who have been ab­ducted safely re­gain their free­dom.” For the most part, that hasn’t hap­pened.

Amina’s first son got sick around the same time she de­liv­ered her new­born. With her hus­band away fight­ing, she buried her 1-year-old in the for­est, waited to heal from her sec­ond de­liv­ery and then fled with her friend — the two of them car­ry­ing their ba­bies on their backs.

“I al­ways in­tended to run. When the baby died, it was al­most a relief,” she re­called. “We de­cided that we couldn’t stay. We didn’t care whether we got caught or were killed. We were not afraid of any­thing.”

Af­ter three days on foot, they reached the first gov­ern­ment-con­trolled vil­lage. Sol­diers, sus­pect­ing they were sui­cide bombers, made them stand back and present their ba­bies from afar to prove they weren’t bombs. Then they held them in a trans­fer cen­ter for three days and dropped them off at a camp for the dis­placed in the re­gional cap­i­tal, Maiduguri.

When Amina fi­nally re­con­nected with her fam­ily mem­bers, they said they couldn’t wait to see her. But when she re­turned home, ev­ery­one kept their dis­tance, and her step­fa­ther, a po­lice of­fi­cer, moved out over fears she would kill him on be­half of Boko Haram. Af­ter a few months of try­ing to rein­te­grate at home, she gave up and moved back to the camp to stay with an ac­quain­tance.

For Amina, it’s hard to imag­ine what will come next. At 17, she has al­ready been forced into mar­riage twice, given birth to two sons, buried one and faced re­jec­tion by the fam­ily she dreamed of re­unit­ing with while she was held cap­tive.

“I don’t want to stay in the camp, but I have no choice,” she said. “But any trou­bles I might go through now are not equiv­a­lent to what I al­ready went through with Boko Haram.”

Sun­day Aghaeze PGDBA & HND Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

SOME of the “Chi­bok girls” res­cued in May, part of a group of 276 stu­dents whose plight cap­tured global at­ten­tion and set off the “Bring Back Our Girls” move­ment.

Sun­day Aghaeze PGDBA & HND Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion

ONE OF THE 82 Chi­bok girls who were re­leased in May is united with her par­ents in Abuja. Rein­te­gra­tion can be dif­fi­cult be­cause many peo­ple in north­ern Nige­ria fear that Boko Haram rad­i­cal­ized cap­tives, and see them more as will­ful col­lab­o­ra­tors than as vic­tims.

Siob­han O’Grady For The Times

“THEY SAY some died, but I don’t think my daugh­ter did. I think she’s alive,” says Yakinge Kolomi.

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