Five years since the 14 April 2014 abduction of approximately 230 girls by Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria, parents whose daughters have not yet returned say it still feels like a “fresh wound” but refuse to give up hope for their return.
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“Any time I speak about Rifkatu, I feel so much pain in my heart,” said Yana Gana, one of the mothers who has been supported by Open Doors since the kidnapping of her daughter. She has counted 1,825 days since the last day she saw her.
Following the abduction of the girls on 14 April 2014 from the Government Secondary School, 103 of them have been released in two batches in October 2016 and May 2017, but Rifkatu was not among them. Since the second release, there has been speculation, but no verified information about the location of over 110 girls still in captivity. It is not known how many of them remain alive.
“When she was kidnapped, laughter ceased in my house,” Yana Gana told Open Doors. “Everybody was filled with pain, especially me, because I gave birth to her… but Rifkatu’s immediate younger sister has been more traumatised than I have been. They were so close. They wore the same clothes, the same shoes… even tied their headscarves the same way.”
Despite all of the doubt, Rifkatu’s mother lives with the hope for “God’s miracle” which will bring her daughter home. “Even after 10 years I will never lose hope because she was kidnapped alive,” Yana Gana said. "If they have killed her and show me her body, then I will stop hoping for her return. Until then, we will wait for her to come back. No matter how long it takes.”
Another mother, Hannatu Dauda, whose daughter Saratu likewise remains in captivity, says that whenever she holds her daughter’s picture, she imagines that Saratu is with her. Hannatu also preserves strong hope that her daughter is alive.
“I usually tell my other children: ‘Even if I die today, don’t lose hope that Saratu will come back.” Open Doors has been supporting the families of the abducted girls through emergency relief in the form of food and medicine, and through presence ministry, prayer and trauma care. Open Doors has also been providing help to wider Christian communities in Nigeria, assisting women who are doubly vulnerable to persecution for their gender and their Christian faith. Every £42 could provide food and housing for a woman and child for two months, as well as education for the child. It costs £288 to provide trauma healing in all areas of the life of a woman who has been the victim of persecution.
Those girls who have been more fortunate than Rifkatu and Saratu and escaped their captivity through the efforts of the Nigerian government, have been living under government protection and enrolled in a private American university in Yola, Adamawa state. They have been provided with a dedicated principal, psychologist and pastor.
“They've seen hell together,” their psychologist told Open Doors. Testimony they gave following their release included periods of hunger, slavery, rape, lashing and battle injuries – even a part of one girl’s leg amputated. They had seen many people, including children, die.
Now the girls are striving as a group to succeed in their studies and to recover from their trauma. However, since they arrived in Yola in September 2017, their immediate environment has been tightly controlled for their safety: they cannot leave the campus without an escort or receive visitors without permission. The girls see their families rarely, visiting Chibok, a four-hour drive away, only twice per year.
The abduction and aftermath
In the night of 14 April 2014, members of Boko Haram drove into the predominantly-Christian town of Chibok in seven Hilux Toyota pick-up trucks and broke into the state secondary school.
In the months leading up to the attack, the armed militant group had already started attacks on the Christian communities in that region and most state schools had been shut due to fear of attacks.
Setting the administrative block and the classrooms ablaze, Boko Haram militants told the girls staying in the dormitory that the school was under attack and that they were the military protecting them. Over 270 girls aged between 16 and 20 were herded into the trucks to be driven to a camp in the nearby Sambisa Forest. According to the Christian Association of Nigeria, at least 165 of the kidnapped girls were Christian and belonged to the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria.
Over 40 girls were able to escape – some of them during the attack, others on the way to the forest or shortly afterwards. An eighteen-year-old girl escaped her kidnappers by jumping off the truck and later described her experience at the Summit of Human Rights and Democracy in Geneva.
In February 2015, the first of the babies of the captured girls were born. The girls who had managed to escape Boko Haram camps reported that rape was part of the captives’ daily life. Those who did not obey the militants or refused to renounce their Christian faith were punished severely.
In June 2015, reports emerged that some of the Chibok girls were forced to become Boko Haram fighters and commit murders for the Islamist group. There were speculations that the girls were being used for suicide bombings.
On 18 May 2016, one of the missing Chibok girls, nineteen-year-old Christian Amina Ali Nkeki was found in the Sambisa forest near the border with Cameroon, by Nigerian soldiers. She was with her four-month-old baby and her husband, a Boko Haram fighter who had decided to escape with her. Amina reported that she knew of six Chibok girls that died in captivity. She said she had seen the dreadful killing of a girl who refused to convert to Islam: the girl was buried waist-deep in the ground and the other captives were forced to hit her with stones until she was dead.
On 13 October 2016, Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok girls, following negotiations with the Nigerian government, brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government.
On 5 November 2016, the Nigerian government announced that another Chibok girl was found by soldiers in the Sambisa forest. Maryam Ali Maiyanga was carrying a ten-month-old baby.
On 7 May 2017, the Nigerian government announced that it had secured the release of 82 Chibok girls in exchange for captured members of the Islamist group. The number of the exchanged Boko Haram fighters remained undisclosed. By the time of the release of that group of girls, 23 of the parents of Chibok girls had died since their abduction from stress-related illnesses.
A week later, Boko Haram released a video in which it claimed some of the Chibok girls refused to be rescued and preferred to stay with them. A girl holding a gun and dressed in veil said in the video she was Maida Yakubu, one of the 276 abducted girls. Three others in veils appeared in the video as well.
In July 2017, 42 of the girls who had escaped Boko Haram captivity, graduated from secondary school. The girls studied in private schools in Borno, Katsina and Plateau states, sponsored by the government and a non-profit organisation. Four of the released girls then started university in the US, some others at the American University in Yola.
On 5 January 2018, the Nigerian Army said it had rescued one more Chibok girl who was found in Bulka, Borno state. The girl was identified as Salomi Pogu.
In October 2018, the Chairman of the Chibok Girls Parents Association, Yakubu Nkenke, told media that some women, who had been held with the girls and managed to escape, said that the girls were now in two villages, Garin Magaji and Garin Mallam, in northern Cameroon, living with their husbands and children.
Nigeria is number 12 on the 2019 World Watch List, Open Doors’ annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. Open Doors partners with the local church to strengthen and equip persecuted Christians in northern Nigeria through training, education for children, care and discipleship training for new Christians, community development projects, legal assistance, emergency relief and trauma counselling.