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As Video of Chibok Girls Gives New Hope, We Speak to Survivors of Boko Haram

Parents and friends of the 219 missing girls kidnapped from a school in northeast Nigeria two years ago today have reacted with joy to video released today appearing to show some of them alive.
Nigerians mark one year anniversary in Abuja last year. Photo via EPA

"The moment I saw them and recognized their faces — Saratu Ayuba, Jummai Mutah, and Kwazigu Hamman — I started crying, with tears of joy rolling down from my eyes, thanking God for their lives," said Saa.

The young woman, who goes by a pseudonym, was one of 276 girls kidnapped from a boarding school near Chibok in northeast Nigeria two years ago today by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. She escaped by jumping off a truck and hiding in nearby forest until daybreak.


Alongside Saa, 56 girls managed to escape, but 219 remain in captivity and nothing has been heard of them until today — when a "proof of life" video emerged showing 15 of the kidnapped girls standing against a wall and speaking to the camera to confirm their names, where they were taken from, and that they were well.

The video, which appears to have been filmed last December and was reportedly sent by Boko Haram militants to the negotiators attempting to secure the girls' release, is "amazing," said Saa, who was later given the opportunity to go to the United States to continue her education.

"Seeing them has given me more courage not to give up," she said. "Seeing them gives me the courage to tell the world today that we should not lose hope."

She appealed to anyone listening: "Let's keep praying and campaigning [to] bring back our girls. I want the world to raise their voice. Let's not stop until the government hears us and does something about it. We need to raise our voices together because one or two people cannot do it."

The video has brought hope to the parents of the missing girls, some of whom recognized their children when they saw the images. Hundreds of parents and supporters are due to hold a march in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on Thursday to demand the government do more to find the girls. Others are due to hold a prayer vigil at their children's former school.

When the kidnapping took place, it took two weeks and a wave of global outrage before the Nigerian government publicly recognized it had even happened. The admission followed pressure from thousands of protesters involved in the "Bring Back Our Girls" awareness campaign, which began in Nigeria's capital Abuja and quickly spread across the globe. While Boko Haram — the Islamic militant group's local moniker, which roughly translates as "Western Education is Forbidden" — has long been known for its barbaric and often indiscriminate attacks, the Chibok mass kidnapping took their international profile to a new level. Outrage was not just directed towards the Islamic militant group, but also the state and its abject inability to protect its citizens.


Related: A Battle of Two Schoolhouses in Nigeria's War Against Boko Haram

While Thursday's video provides a small glimmer of hope, at least for the friends and relatives of the Chibok girls, the teenagers who appear in it represent just a tiny fraction of the women and children who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.

Thousands have been taken in recent years to be raped, forced into marriage or servitude, or deployed as suicide bombers, with little international attention paid to them. There has even been a mass kidnapping of even greater magnitude than Chibok, with 400 women and children abducted from the northeast Nigerian town of Damasak in March 2015.

Apart from the recent video, a shocking lack of concrete information exists about what has happened to the Chibok girls since they were taken, though rumors abound. Whatever their fates are, they contrast markedly with those of the girls who managed to escape. While some of the escapees have left education, others are continuing their schooling in Nigeria or abroad. In January, Saa hit the milestone of beginning college in the United States.

* * *

Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian international human rights lawyer living in Washington DC, has been involved in bringing 10 of the escaped Chibok schoolgirls to the United States to continue their education at a boarding school. When VICE News spoke to him two weeks ago, the girls had just finished spring break.


Some of his charges have moved on and are able to talk about the kidnappings without any emotional reaction, he said, but they remain vulnerable.

"The only recent trigger we had was during the Christmas/New Year holiday, some fireworks set someone off because it kind of reminded them of the guns of that night. So we've learned that loud banging sounds, fireworks, are not a good thing around them," he said.

Related: The Girls Who Escaped: One Year After the Boko Haram Kidnapping, Some Chibok Schoolgirls Have Left Nigeria

He also said the group are benefiting by being able to talk more frequently to their families back home in Borno State, where the Nigerian army's gains mean telecommunications have been improved — Boko Haram are known for knocking down mobile phone masts to stop targeted communities from calling for help. "This time last year was brutal, they would go for months without communication but now communication has improved remarkably," he said, "I think because of the military successes."

Contemplating what lies ahead for the teenagers, Ogebe said they almost all now saw their futures in the United States. "There are some who feel scared about going back [to Nigeria] and there are others who miss home and would like to visit. But pretty much everyone is unanimous about wanting to stay here in America."

* * *

In a cafe in Nigerian capital Abuja last week, I drank coffee with 28-year-old Heriju Gadzama, a lecturer at the University of Jos, central Nigeria, and an advocate with Education Must Continue — an NGO set up as a response to the Boko Haram kidnappings.


Gadzama detailed the beginnings of the ambitious project to move some girls to America. He says escapees were hesitant and when activists approached the very first girl she refused to leave her hometown, insisting she would never go back to school. Another parent also rejected the offer, saying it would be better for her daughter to stay and help on the family's farm.

"Some girls declined going, others took their places and replaced them," Gadzama said. "They went in batches. The first girls left in September 2014, one went [that] November, the next seven went together in December 2014."

Heriju Gadzama displaying a picture of the 10 escaped Chibok girls who are now in the US. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Gadzama is a member of the Hausa Traditional Church of the Brethern (EYN) Christian denomination, of which 176 of the kidnapped girls were also members. EYN founded the Chibok school that was attacked, though it was later taken over by the federal government. "As members of the church we feel there is a need to assist those members of our church who have been affected the most," said Gadzama.

One of their reasons for deciding to send girls to the US was the improved quality of the education system there, with Gadzama saying a "systematic deterioration of the school system" in northern Nigeria had been impacting schoolchildren even before the advent of Boko Haram. "One of the biggest challenges is that they're educationally deficient. Some of them tested in reading classes as primary 3 [usually for children aged 8 to 9], and they were supposedly in their last year of high school."


Gadzama said he believes there's a destructive cycle at play in the northeast, with a lack of education leaving young people with very few opportunities. "When there's mass poverty and unemployment it's very easy to buy the consciences of people," he said, adding that when Boko Haram first attacked Borno State capital Maiduguri several years ago, the Nigerian soldiers who repelled the assault found exactly 3,000 naira (around $15) in the pockets of many of the dead militants. "For less than $30 [each] they were able to sign up hundreds of young men to give their lives."

Gadzama said his NGO hopes to provide education to as many as one million children in the northeast of Nigeria. "If you can get the young ones now and at least give them an idea of hope and value themselves, then I guess it lets them think there can be a better future."

* * *

Last week, VICE News also met Hawwa, a woman in her 30s who escaped Boko Haram six weeks ago. She claimed she had encountered the Chibok girls in Gwoza, the former center of Boko Haram's self-declared caliphate — an area around the size of Belgium controlled by the group between August 2014 and March 2015.

Hawwa — whose full name is being withheld because of safety concerns — was abducted from Madagali, a town in Adamawa State, and held by Boko Haram for a year. I met her in her step-brother's shelter in Maiduguri, the city where Boko Haram originated and where more than half of the 1.9 million displaced by them are now staying in camps, donated shelters or even in building sites.


She said that she was made to work as a cook for the militants, and was kept in a compound with a lot of other women and children, where conditions were poor. The Chibok girls were kept separately, she said, and treated much better than the other women, "like VIPs."

Hawwa and the other women would talk to them when they went for Islamic education classes, where they recited passages of the Quran together. That was how she learned about who they were and how they were abducted.

Related: 'Boko Haram Is a Devil': Embedded with Troops in Nigeria's Ongoing Offensive

Hawwa said some of the girls had been "initiated" into Boko Haram, by converting to Islam and marrying militants, with many now having children. However, others remained "stubborn."

"There were some that did not convert to Islam," Hawwa said, now "they are living for when they will die because they are not practicing any religion there."

Hawwa also claimed that while Gwoza was under Boko Haram's control, five of the Chibok girls were killed by Nigerian military jets that flew overhead and opened fire on a crowd of women as they sat together in a compound. The Nigerian military launched a strong offensive against the group early last year — including an aggressive aerial campaign — before eventually driving them out of the area. The air force was this week bombarding Sambisa Forest, where the group is thought to be hiding out now.


The Nigerian military has also been known to kill civilians during their pursuit of Boko Haram, however VICE News has not been able to verify Hawwa's story with any other source. The Nigerian military had not responded to a request for comment by time of publication.

"The military… didn't know they were the Chibok girls," Hawwa said. "They would have seen a group of women in a compound and just fired… When it started we ran."

She said she thought the military "would have thought they were the family of the insurgents."

* * *

This week, activists who have worked tirelessly over the past two years to keep the Chibok kidnapping in the public eye are holding another series of events. On Tuesday they walked around embassies in Abuja asking each nation's representatives what they were doing to help, while on Wednesday they tied red ribbons around the city. Today they will walk to Aso Rock, the official residence of the president in the capital, where they'll hold a press conference to be broadcast around the world.

Though the Nigerian military has now regained much of the territory that was held by Boko Haram in its northeastern heartland, abductions continue. Just last month, 12 women were taken as they went to collect water, according to people occupying displacement camps in northern Nigeria who spoke to VICE News.

With the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls used millions of times on social media still proving unsuccessful, activists have begun to use another one: #HopeEndures.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

Related: Boko Haram Has Forced 1.4 Million West African Children From Their Homes