The fight to free Nigeria’s girls from Boko Haram must continue Gordon Brown
A year after more than 200 girls were abducted from Chibok by the boko haram group the struggle to find them must not be abandoned. Mark Enoch has been told his daughter is dead. He should grieve but he can’t because he refuses to believe it is true. So he will pray again, just like he has for the past 364 days and nights, kneeling at the side of her empty bed.
This article was published in theguardian.com
She was studying to be a doctor. On the night of 14 April 2014, she was abducted, along with more than 200 other girls from the town of Chibok in north-east Nigeria. Boko Haram terrorists rounded them up in the dead of night at gunpoint and spirited them away.
One year later, and despite worldwide outrage, their whereabouts remains unknown. The final, haunting memory is a group photograph of the girls – clad in grey and black – taken in scrubland and posted online by the kidnappers as proof of their mass abduction.
Mark, a pastor, has been told that his girl was murdered. He doesn’t know when it happened or where it happened. He was only told how it happened. Boko Haram spies spread the rumour that she refused to covert from Christianity to Islam. He has been told she was stoned and then buried alive.
We don’t mention her first name, because if she is still alive there could be repercussions. Mark told me he and his remaining family have recently had to move far from Chibok. On the day Boko Haram captured his daughter, family members almost died when bullets were fired into his home. Now, finally, their house is evacuated and they are on the move, always fearful of another attack.
Mark finds sleep difficult, and even eating – not that there is much food around without him working on nearby farms as a casual labourer. He cannot give up hope that his daughter and a girl they adopted – who was 16 and staying with the family when she too was kidnapped – survived. Mark told me: “For nearly 365 nights I have knelt and prayed for their return. We are in one house at the moment with four families in a compound. We are almost refugees in our own country. Any time I hear a noise it feels as if Boko Haram is coming for us.”
The United Nations human rights chief says Boko Haram is frequently using children as “human bombs and shields” and targeting women and girls for horrific abuse, including sexual slavery. Calling for a thorough investigation, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told a special session of the UN human rights council in Geneva this month that his office had received reports of the militants putting children forward as “expendable cannon fodder” for its first line of attack. “Bodies of children around 12 years old have been found strewn across such battlefields,” al-Hussein said.
Boko Haram has been attacking towns and villages in northern Nigeria and border regions of neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. “The group has also repeatedly used young children as human bombs, including a case of a 14-year-old girl carrying a baby on her back who detonated a bomb in a marketplace,” al-Hussein said. The council condemned “the heinous terrorist activities of Boko Haram”, including the abduction of the Chibok girls, and called for “drying up all possible sources of financing” for the group.
It is a massive challenge for Nigeria’s new president Muhammadu Buhari, who says he will “spare no effort” to wipe out Boko Haram. Nigeria and its neighbours have so far succeeded in driving the group from many of the positions they controlled earlier this year, reversing the militants’ gains that forced the country to delay its presidential election.
The campaign for the girls is the most iconic fight of a freedom struggle. It must be won soon.
Many of the retreating militants have murdered their so-called “wives” – the women and girls they held as slaves – and other captives as military offensives by Nigeria and its neighbours advanced, al-Hussein said. The world has not forgotten the girls of Chibok. A global campaign, Bring Back Our Girls, has been supported by millions. And in the past week a seven-day remembrance of the girls has included vigils, demonstrations, letter-writing, and a Global Schoolgirl March. The girls of Chibok should never be abandoned, neglected or forgotten in their greatest hour of need. We must not, cannot and will not quit on them.
For Mark Enoch, this week will reignite a spark of hope. The international community has helped, he says, with their prayers and the knowledge the parents have that their daughters are not forgotten. But the parents and families may never truly recover. They have been scattered across the country, too afraid to stay in Chibok, and moving regularly for fear that Boko Haram will find and attack their new hiding places. “I don’t think we can ever return there,” says Mark. “The village has been destroyed and it is too dangerous.”
“I also worry the education of so many children has just been ended by Boko Haram. My girl wanted to be a doctor. She studied hard and she and her brother were both interested in helping people by learning medical skills.”
The campaign for the girls – kidnapped simply because they wanted to go to school – is the most iconic fight of a freedom struggle. The fight that will be won some day. No injustice can last forever. But for the sake of these girls , it must be won soon.
Photo credit: Protestors in Abuja call for the rescue of the girls abducted by Boko Haram. Photograph: Olamikan Gbemiga/AP