In a small, windowless room at a Northeast D.C. public library, a young woman named Patience has finally worked up the courage to speak about the day Boko Haram came to her village. She begins with a timid curtsy, wearing sunglasses in a naive effort to conceal her identify out of fear that the extremists who haunt her dreams can still find her.
The 19-year-old is here in Washington with four other Nigerian girls to talk — or rather, attempt to talk, despite a trauma still raw — about the events of one year ago, when they managed to escape the well-armed kidnappers who hauled off more than 200 of their schoolmates.
Very few know their stories, and that’s part of the problem. The girls who escaped, among them these five and five others now also in the United States, don’t have sufficient financial or mental health support, says a small group of human rights advocates and volunteers who are trying to change that.
Millions of Americans are familiar with one thing related to the shocking mass kidnapping from the government secondary school in Chibok by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014: a Twitter hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. Celebrities embraced it, as did first lady Michelle Obama and top U.S. officials.
The girls who made it out are still living the reality behind the hashtag: memories of how they escaped the assault that day, some by jumping off the kidnappers’ open-bed trucks and fleeing into the bush. Patience barely made it after injuring her leg when she jumped, she says. Some former captives had nowhere to return to, their villages ransacked, their relatives dispersed or dead. And few outside the Nigerian community know of their struggles.
Volunteers arranged boarding schools for the 10 survivors, who are all in their teens. All received scholarships. During spring break, supporters brought them to participate in the Easter Egg Roll at the White House last week and attend presentations where the group hopes to raise money to provide for the students’ basic needs. On Tuesday they are scheduled to appear at Howard University and Bowie State University.
The whereabouts of the rest of the kidnapped schoolgirls — who number at least 220 — are unknown. There have been reports that the Islamist terrorists are sharing the girls as “wives.” While the stories of the 10 brought to America cannot be independently verified, the students are vouched for by the Nigerians helping them, including D.C.-area human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe, organizer of the cobbled-together relief effort.
Because of fear, the girls said they are reluctant to speak publicly. All five wore dark glasses in the library basement. Patience, dressed in a red outfit (the color of the #BringBackOurGirls movement), a black jacket and a gold cross necklace, mainly talked about what has happened since she has been in the States, avoiding details of the kidnapping.
After the incident, she said, volunteers asked what they could do for her. Patience said she told them, “I want to go to school.”
Arriving through what one supporter described as a sort of Underground Railroad, the girls now attend schools on the East and West coasts; their patrons did not want them identified. The advocates are still endeavoring to provide the basics for the former captives — things like clothes, shoes, toothpaste and towels — and to help pay for medical care and counseling.
Ogebe, who lives in Springfield, Va., says he stumbled into being an organizer, advocate and guardian for the Chibok girls while on a trip to Nigeria to document atrocities. A pastor there told him about a 12-year-old, Debbie, who had escaped Boko Haram and whose father and brother had been killed. The pastor, Ogebe says, told him that Debbie was in danger as long as she stayed in Nigeria. Moved by her story, he decided to help her get to the States.
“Now if you see this girl, she has no scars,” Ogebe said of Debbie, who did not come to Washington. “She actually is a very lovely young kid.
“But the terrors that she has, the psychological damage,” he said, “you could never tell just from looking at her. But at times at night when we want to pray, we ask, ‘Do you have a prayer request?’ She says, ‘Pray that I don’t have bad dreams tonight.’ ”
When Ogebe rose to recount what the girls had told him and other patrons about the kidnapping, four of the five students left the room, not wanting to hear it.
This is their account: The men with guns came in the evening and led the terrorized girls on a forced march before finally loading them onto trucks, intending to drive them far from their homes.
When the gunmen ran out of space on the vehicles, they debated what to do with the three girls who remained. They asked each whether she was a Muslim or a Christian. The Muslim student was told she would be released. One Christian girl claimed to be Muslim and was told she would be spared.
The final student admitted that she was a Christian, and the men debated whether to kill her, with one arguing that their code was not to kill women. In the end, the men relented and ordered the three girls to run and not look back. If any of them dared turn their heads, they would be shot.
In desperation, some of the girls who had been loaded onto the trucks jumped from the vehicles and ran off. One student waited until a nearby gunman had turned his back to threaten an injured girl at gunpoint, telling her that she would be killed if she didn’t stop crying.
In that moment, the student jumped and ran as fast as she could. When she couldn’t run anymore, she dropped where she was standing and slept. The next morning, she awoke to find that she had passed the night in a cemetery.
In the library basement room, only Patience had stayed to listen. When she finally spoke, Ogebe and Ezi Mecha — an American of Nigerian descent helping the girls transition into U.S. culture — stood on either side to steady and hug her.
At the end of her brief remarks, Patience delivered a message of forgiveness. The Boko Haram extremists don’t know that they are doing wrong, she said. If only they knew God, maybe that would make them stop.
So, she said, “pray for Boko Haram.”
Leiby is a freelance writer.