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What The Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls Have To Tell Us

An image from the book <em>Bring Back Our Girls. </em>The families of these missing girls sent photos of them to photographer Glenna Gordon.
Glenna Gordon
An image from the book Bring Back Our Girls. The families of these missing girls sent photos of them to photographer Glenna Gordon.

Seven years ago this April 14, armed Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped 276 school girls in the remote Nigerian town of Chibok. Fifty-seven of them managed to escape by jumping onto the highway as the trucks into which they'd been forced were driving away. The Boko Haram convoy continued on, taking the remaining 219 hostages to a destination, and a fate, unknown.

In Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria's Missing Schoolgirls, Wall Street Journal reporters Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, who were based in Africa at the time, present the story in gripping detail. The girls' return remained elusive for years, until the release or escape of 107 of the girls between 2016 and 2017.

The school girls' ordeal is central to the book, revealed through lengthy interviews conducted by the authors with 20 of those girls. Their accounts revealed brutal beatings, repeated death threats, near-starvation conditions and ongoing coercion to convert to Islam and enter into forced marriages with Boko Haram fighters. They were held mostly in Boko Haram base camp huts hidden in the Sambisa Forest.

Of the other 112, who remain officially unaccounted for, the authors estimate that at least 40 have died.

And this past week, another mass kidnapping took place. The kidnapped schoolgirls were subsequently released. Asked to comment, Parkinson said: "Sadly, it does now seem that the country has become trapped in a difficult to break cycle of kidnappings for ransom that encourage more kidnappings for ransom. The dynamics of the more recent kidnaps are different as they have been conducted by bandit groups motivated by money rather than Boko Haram motivated by ideology. There are no easy answers on how to break this cycle. But kidnapping for ransom is now one of the fastest growing sectors of Nigeria's economy."

NPR spoke via Zoom to Parkinson, now based in Johannesburg, and Hinshaw, in Warsaw, about their book. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

How and why did the story of the Chibok kidnapping capture the world's attention?

Hinshaw: The Twitter hashtag "Bring Back Our Girls" caught fire, and celebrities, officials, everyone started weighing in. They were asking, What if they were my daughters? What are the human rights of these girls? What are we going to do?

Parkinson: This was one of the first moments that the power of social media was recognized. Within days the Bring Back Our Girls campaign spread all over the world.

Did the notoriety help rescue the girls — or lead to a longer, harsher captivity for them?

Parkinson: It's very hard to disentangle. The attention helped focus the world on rescuing the girls. But it also made it harder for the girls to escape because they were so well-known and recognizable [and people feared what Boko Haram would do to them if they helped]. It also made it more difficult to negotiate a rescue because there were too many [negotiators from Nigeria and around the world] involved.

How so?

Hinshaw: There were disagreements. Some of the negotiators [like those from Switzerland] believed the best way to proceed was by silencing the noise, being discreet, while others said you need to galvanize forces to bring focus. It also raised the question, how do we rescue the girls without providing the global attention to Boko Haram that the group's leaders craved?

Tell us about the girls themselves. The youngest was 16 when kidnapped. You spoke to 20 of them. How were they treated?

Parkinson: The Boko Haram used physical and psychological torture. The girls were threatened and beaten. They were lied to, told their parents had been killed, that nobody cared. Just to be able to eat and survive they were made to feel they needed to give in to the demands to convert to Islam and marry a Boko Haram soldier. Those who refused were given smaller food rations and were forced to do manual labor, like repairing roads, or assist with medical care, helping with childbirth and treating the wounds of the soldiers.

How did these girls manage to survive?

Hinshaw: When you're kidnapped you don't know how long this endless expanse of time, bleak and hopeless, will last. But several of the girls decided they wanted to bring evidence to the outside world, and they took the risk of keeping secret diaries. One of them, Naomi, kept four diaries tied to her, hidden under her clothes, for three years just so she could show them to the world. She also held on to her cell phone. Even though there was no phone signal to call or send texts, she would type out messages to her Mom that she knew would not reach her. She also managed to take a group photo of them in secret.

We talked to a psychologist who [explained] that what gives people hope is the element of control, being able to claim the truth about themselves. They are being told [by the Boko Haram] you are evil, but keeping the record cuts through the lies they are being told.

Have others who were imprisoned or held hostage done something similar?

Parkinson: The psychologist also talked about political prisoners like Nelson Mandela who wrote his memoirs on toilet paper. This is about reclaiming the truth, creating a historical record and also gaining agency even while others are trying to whittle away your identity and retrain you.

[The kidnapped girls] would also sing and recite Bible verses. At first, they were just mouthing the words silently or reciting a verse while they were drinking from a cup with their mouth hidden. One of the girls had also saved a Bible and they would pass that around copying passages and verses.

And so the diaries and the cell phone — which was old and not in good shape even before the girls were kidnapped — all survived, too?

Parkinson: Naomi showed us all the things she smuggled out of captivity, and you could tell the diaries had been in the forest for years, decomposing. They looked like papyrus, stitched together with blue cotton torn off from the garments they had been given to wear. The cell phone should be in a museum, the numbers had been rubbed off and were no longer even visible.

What did the kidnapped girls write about in the diaries?

Hinshaw: Everything. The diaries provided them a space to be teen-agers. They would write songs about their crushes from before they were kidnapped. They would write letters to their moms or their parents, not knowing that they would ever be able to see them again.

Two of the diaries were written on exercise books that they were given to take notes on the lessons on Islam they had to attend. You would find pages of Islamic script and then they would be surreptitiously writing for themselves. Naomi had illustrated one with hearts in honor of her love for her mother.

How about Naomi's unsent text messages?

Parkinson: Naomi was typing out text messages to her mother to feel connected to her. It was also a way of talking to herself. An actual text read, "Be patient ...Pray that God shall touch the heart of Boko Haram terrorists so we can be set free." She had saved all these drafts on her phone.

How are these young women doing now?

Parkinson: They were all offered scholarships to Nigeria's American University. Some have flourished, with one of the girls we interviewed now an A student. But it is a long mental and interpersonal transition.

Hinshaw: There is a range in how different individuals are recovering and responding. Some have gone home to be with family, and a few have started families of their own now. April is traditionally a month of weddings in Chibok and from what I understand, several big weddings are currently scheduled.

Do we have clues about the whereabouts of the remaining hostages? Has there been confirmation of recent stories reporting that at least one additional former hostage has been released or escaped,

Parkinson: There have been reports of phone calls from one of them to her father, and having not heard her voice since 2014, the family is over the moon simply to know she is alive. But it is unclear where she is currently.

Hinshaw: The uncertainty is something that the parents [whose daughter have not escaped] live with to this day: Are their daughters alive? Are they coming home? Is there a chance?

Diane Cole writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Jewish Week, and is book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker. She is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.

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Diane Cole