Chibok girls: Waiting for 1,000 days

Over 30 months after the abduction of more than 200 girls from a government secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, an incident which earned Nigeria one of its most popular recognitions in international spotlight, albeit infamous, Rita Okonoboh chronicles efforts made so far to rescue the girls, psychological implications of such abduction, and moves to ensure that those rescued and yet to be rescued are properly reintegrated into society.

“You’re only coming to school for prostitution. Boko [Western education] is haram [forbidden] so what are you doing in school?”

The above statement, an excerpt of the account of one of the Chibok girls who escaped, was narrated to the BBC Hausa Service as being stated by the militants who had kidnapped them.

For students of any boarding school, senior secondary school examination is a period of mixed feelings. Thoughts of graduation, further education (if possible), marriage plans, among others take over the mind of many Northern school girls.

Various thoughts must have crossed their minds as they turned in on April 13th, 2014, with absolutely no inkling that within the next 24 hours, they would become famous on a global scale, and for the worst reasons imaginable.

On April 14th, 2014, as the over 200 girls of a government secondary school, Chibok, Borno State, were abducted, not many Nigerians had the faintest idea that anything major had happened, not with the terrorist attacks that  had come to become a regular feature of the Nigerian space, so much that it seemed that it had almost become normal.

Following escalating terror attacks, many schools in the Northern region had shut down. According to a report by the BBC, Chibok had not been attacked before, so it was felt safe to use the school for the final year exams. Many of the pupils were Christians. The gunmen were said to have stormed the school and loaded over 250 girls onto lorries. While a few escaped during the movement, the number of girls who were kidnapped still amounted to over 200.

Barely weeks after, Nigeria gained global recognition with the launch of the #BringBackOurGirls twitter campaign. Protests were held in various parts of the country; there were press conferences; foundations were launched to raise money for rehabilitating the girls, among other efforts.

A report by Associated Press tells the story of Amina Ali Nkeki, who was first of the Chibok girls to escape on her own.

According to the report, “she was found wandering in a forest. That was in May. Since then, Amina Ali Nkeki has been sequestered by Nigeria’s intelligence agency, embraced just once by her family months ago. Some say Nigeria’s government is keeping the young woman silent because it doesn’t want her telling the world about military blunders in the fight against the Islamic extremist group, and about her desire to be reunited with the father of her child — a detained former Boko Haram commander.

‘“I worry, sometimes, that I don’t know if she is alive or dead,” her mother, Binta Ali Nkeki, sobbed during an exclusive telephone interview with The Associated Press from her remote northeastern village of Mbalala. She said she hasn’t seen her daughter since July.

“In December, when Amina’s mother heard that “freed” Chibok girls would be allowed to come home for Christmas, she borrowed money for transport to reach the town where the girls were kidnapped from a government boarding school in April 2014. When Binta reached Chibok, she was welcomed by the 21 girls, who tried to reassure her that her daughter was “fine, in good health,” even though she had not been allowed to accompany them.

“People who have spoken to the freed girls say they have stories that the government does not want told, including one claiming three Chibok girls were killed last year in Nigerian Air Force bombings of Boko Haram camps. Amina has said she wants to be home with her mother, and she has insisted that the father of her child is a victim, like herself, who was kidnapped by Boko Haram and forced to fight for the insurgents.”

According to AP, human rights groups and lawyers have criticized Nigeria’s treatment of the freed girls, who are held in Abuja, the capital, nearly 900 kilometers (560 miles) from Chibok. The government says the girls are getting medical attention, trauma counseling and rehabilitation.

However, following the recent major military raid on Sambisa forest, where the abducted Chibok girls were supposedly being held, with over 100 girls still in captivity, 1,000 days after they were forcefully taken from safety, many questions on rehabilitation, psychological implications and hope for the girls still in captivity come to the fore.

From information available on the #BringBackOurGirls campaign website, the organisation that has come to represent the voice of some stakeholders involved in seeing to it that government does not relent in its efforts at ensuring that all the girls are brought home safe and sound, a five-point demand is clearly stated, aimed at making sure “that the 219 Chibok schoolgirls abducted on April 14, 2014 be rescued by the government and improving government’s accountability to Nigerians on security issues, particularly in the northeast.”

According to the #BBOG campaign group, they aim to promote “improved communications on Nigerian security happenings with daily briefings on the rescue of the abducted girls; create communication channels that help inform the public on safety measures being taken to protect Nigerian citizens; provide rehabilitation services, such as counselling and healthcare, as well as witness protection, to all abducted girls who have escaped or been rescued; take measures to ensure the protection of children of school age to curb future abductions and sexual violence, and ensure passage of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill (VAPP BIll) that protects girls to ensure persecution of those responsible for sexual violence once captured.”

As part of activities to mark 1,000 days since the unfortunate incident, #BBOG movement, according to media reports, said it would resume a 24-hour daily sit-out to mark what it termed Global Week of Action. In a statement made available to newsmen in Abuja and signed by the movement’s conveners, Aisha Yesufu and Oby Ezekwesili, the organisation expressed worry over rescue efforts.

“Our movement is justifiably worried that the Nigerian government has, once again, relapsed to the same complacency, lethargy and inertia that has been recurrent on this tragedy. What else explains the fact that despite all assurances that another 83 of our Chibok girls were under negotiation for release soonest there has been no further communication on the status of their release?” the statement read.

 

We haven’t relented in providing adequate support —NUT President

Speaking on efforts of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) since the incident took place, President of the NUT, Michael Alogba-Olukoya, in a chat with Sunday Tribune, stated that “The NUT at the national and state level, that is, the Borno State wing, have collaborated with the state government in the rescue efforts. We have been engaged in advocacy and have never relented in crying out to the entire world about the plight of the Chibok girls. The NUT also went to Brussels at the Education International headquarters to speak and garner worldwide support in the campaign for the release of the abducted girls.

“We have visited the school and have suggested ways security should be guaranteed in our schools, especially in the affected zone. We have visited the Borno State governor and we are on the same page with regards to the efforts of the state government. Concerning the rescued girls, as soon as they finish their rehabilitation, we have always impressed it on the government that they should go back to schools. Let me equally commend the efforts of the Federal Government, state government and other concerned world bodies for granting scholarships and other benefits for the girls.”

 

Govt must provide psychological experts and counsellors to help with trauma management —Prof. Aremu

There is no doubt that the psychological implications on the abducted girls, rescued and otherwise, are immense according to a don of Counselling and Criminal Justice of the University of Ibadan, Oyo State.

According to Professor Oyesoji Aremu, “beyond the psychological effects of the abduction, we must also consider the physical impact on the kidnapped girls. Before the first major rescue, parents whose children were victims of the incident all suffered the same fate. However, the moment the first set of girls were rescued, those parents who still had girls with the insurgents, who would have earlier rejoiced with the other parents, would, afterwards, feel a sense of humiliation and dejection. With the recent report that the Nigerian Army had overrun Sambisa forest, it becomes even more traumatic because the parents seem to have lost all hope. What they will be banking on now is a last-minute miracle because the assumption was that the remaining girls were at Sambisa forest.

“For the girls, it will not be possible that all of them will return; return in the sense that they will return as a whole. For instance, some of the rescued girls were found with children. Some of them would not be the same. We also heard reports that some of the girls were used by the terrorists as human shields. We pray that the remaining girls return. For those still in captivity, the experience is better imagined. There are many unanswered questions – with the raid on Sambisa forest, where are the girls? We hope that they will return.”

In his advice for government on how to ensure that the girls are reintegrated properly into society, Professor Aremu stated that “It is hoped that while rescue efforts were ongoing, government had arrangement to manage the post-traumatic experience of the girls. Government should have a team of psychologists and counsellors to help them manage their trauma. Reintegrating them into society would be challenging because these girls will still entertain certain fears of even participating in school activities. There would be fear of trusting others too. They would need reorientation cognitively as well in order to fit into society properly. If possible, I would suggest that they are all taken outside the country for further education. There, they would enjoy some form of security, especially as it would be living with those who would not be constant reminders of the terrible experience.”

He urged members of the Chibok community to provide adequate support, stating that “they have to see the girls as their children and see them as any other girl in the community. For the fact that the experience has brought Chibok international recognition, it is the duty of the community to ensure that they set a good example by giving them support so they would not be discriminated against. For those who would remain in their home communities, when the time comes for them to settle down, traces of their experience in captivity should not count against them in form of subtle reminders of any sort.  They should see them as members of their immediate society.”

 

‘Parents still have hope’

Reverend Fr Gideon Obasogie, the Director of Communications, Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri, “The Chibok community is less than two hours from Maiduguri. We were here when it happened and we have been close to the heart of the situation. Definitely, people will always have hope. The parents of the girls are still very hopeful that someday their daughters would come back. It would interest you to know that there are certain parents that have two or three children as part of the victims, Some have got one or two girls back. So, there are a lot of mixed feelings. See what happened when the 21 Chibok girls were rescued months ago. Some of the parents who went to identify their children came back with more pain than they left because their children were not among those rescued.

“I would, however, encourage the parents to continue to hope and pray. They should also pray for their military so that they can do their best. They should also pray for those in government so that they can keep propaganda aside and do what they can to bring lasting peace and security. For those who have been found, they would still carry traumatic experience in their minds. They should also continue to pray for their sisters and friends who are still in captivity. Generally, the mood in Maiduguri is one of hope. To be realistic, we can see God at work, especially as the spate of terror attacks has been drastically reduced. Imagine after 5 years, we are celebrating Christmas without bomb blasts. I think it is a positive sign and we must give kudos to the military and the present administration, while we continue to pray that this comes to an end.

Continuing, the cleric stated that “there are questions on where the girls are, in spite of the raid on Sambisa forest. While we applaud the military, we call on them to do more and we call on Nigerians to continue to pray for them. We want peace in Nigeria.

While there have been accusations and counter-accusations on the real situation of things, it must be remembered that there are parents who are in misery over the unknown whereabouts of their children, parents whose children have been found but who are not the same, rescued girls who may never understand why it is their lot to be subjected to rape, torture and the most dehumanising conditions imagined, girls still in captivity who are gradually losing hope of ever coming home and those who have said their harried goodbyes to earth, long before they would ever have thought.

The Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, in a recent media report, was said to have called on the public to refrain from making reckless comments on the Chibok girls. According to him, “there are many reckless analysts and commentators who are not helping the situation. We still have many of our children in captivity. Therefore, we have to be careful with the kind of comments that we make. We must not make comments that will make the release of these girls difficult or impossible,” he stated.