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Opinion In search of the Chibok girls and the meaning of their kidnapping

A government official, center, welcomes some of the 21 recently freed Chibok schoolgirls at the State House in Abuja, Nigeria, in October. (Sunday Aghaeze/Nigeria State House via AP)

Jenny Rogers is an assistant editor for Outlook at The Washington Post.

The release of nearly two dozen Nigerian girls last fall seemed a rare flash of good news in the saga of the 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings, when 276 schoolgirls were snatched from the town of Chibok by the Islamic terrorist group. But after the 21 girls were freed, the BBC reported that the former captives weren't allowed to return to their families for Christmas and instead were forced to stay at a Ni­ger­ian politician's house until after the holiday. The government's meddling in — and bungling of — the girls' return outraged the families. What should have been a moment of joy instead provoked new anguish and further fed the narrative that the Ni­ger­ian government is not up to the task of handling the crisis.

Ni­ger­ian poet Helon Habila's tale of the kidnappings, "The Chibok Girls," arrived too early to capture this latest development, but the botched release of the girls serves as a fitting epilogue to a book focused on the agony of the country and its people in the face of this 1,000-days-and-counting abduction.

When Habila traveled to Chibok to meet girls who had earlier escaped their kidnappers, he and his travel companions came upon a terrible bus accident that left a man in a blood-soaked shirt screaming for help. The travelers stopped, and their driver transported several victims to a hospital, forcing Habila to catch a ride in another car to complete his journey.

At first, the incident seems out of place in a text about the Chibok kidnappings and Islamist militancy. But Habila’s book isn’t a news account or a history; his slim volume reads more like a novel that moves through his home country, introducing characters and scenes that don’t appear to advance the story of the missing girls. A fatal bus accident, in its randomness and tragedy, doesn’t tell us about terrorism, but it does tell us something about Nigeria.

The narrative weaves and wanders its way to Chibok, both structurally and literally: The author has to take a 500-mile detour to get to the town because the most direct route is under Boko Haram control. After numerous checkpoints (which appear to be more about extorting money from travelers than ensuring their safety), Habila arrives in Chibok, but the few girls who had escaped are away at school.

As the poet awaits his encounter with the girls, he ponders his country, the most populous and one of the most educated in Africa. He writes about the Harmattan, a wind that draws Saharan sand into the nostrils and cracks the lips; about Nigerian parents who, less hung up on gender norms than their American counterparts, wrap their baby boys in pink blankets; and about the golden age of Nigeria, the cash-flush 1970s, when education was free and all graduates were guaranteed a job, before the descent into kleptocracy.

Habila doesn't blame anyone in particular for the violence and disarray that have roiled Nigeria, though he takes a dim view of the past and current presidents, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, who have ignored or bungled the response to Boko Haram and the Chibok kidnappings. In 2015, new President Buhari declared victory, "technically," over the terrorist group on the BBC; his information minister led 33 journalists to areas retaken by the military, boasting that Boko Haram had been so diminished by military might "that the terrorists can no longer hold on to any territory just as they can no longer carry out any spectacular attack." Days later, Boko Haram countered with suicide bombings in Madagali and Maiduguri that killed dozens and injured more than 100.

Habila offers a short history of Boko Haram, illuminating the regional, religious and ethnic divisions that help explain its rise. But the author is most concerned with the pain the terrorist organization has inflicted on the country. Chibok, a poor place made miserable by Boko Haram, lacks electricity and running water; soldiers dominate the marketplace, and the town is a target for suicide bombings. The staff of the girls’ school has been questioned by authorities and even accused in editorials of conspiring with the kidnappers. Grief hangs in the air. “It was like going to Hamelin and feeling the weight of the absent boys taken by the Pied Piper,” Habila writes.

The terrorist devastation extends far beyond Chibok. Habila passes through ghost towns of burned schools, destroyed bridges and roofless houses with nothing inside but tall grass. He reflects on the 2009 Boko Haram uprising in Maiduguri that left “so many bodies in the streets they had to be brought by dumpster trucks to the mortuary.” When the mortuary was filled, the dead were piled up in the yard. “The decomposing bodies smelled so bad,” Habila writes, “that people in the neighborhood deserted their homes.”

The roundup of the Chibok girls has had a profound psychological impact on the community. Since the kidnappings, at least 18 parents have died of stress-related illnesses. A local woman tells Habila that one father said he couldn’t live anymore, knowing that his daughter was a Boko Haram prisoner; he died soon after of heart failure. Another father went missing and was found days later, wandering in the hills, shouting his daughter’s name. The woman tells Habila that the parents walk through the village “as if there was no blood in their bodies.”

Near the end of the book, Habila finally meets with a few of the escapees. But the conversations, which were anticipated through the entire story, leave the tragedy unresolved. If we hoped to discover the meaning of their country’s ordeal, we can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. The girls, who have told their stories many times, recount their escape in unremarkable, matter-of-fact language. They just decided to leap from a truck after their abduction. They avoided a life of forced marriage and managed not to be recaptured only by sheer luck. Surely, Habila writes, “there had to be something more, some individual act of valor, some unique observation? But there wasn’t. The shocking banality of it.”

Perhaps making sense of these horrific kidnappings is just as futile as trying to understand a random, fatal bus crash. The best Habila can offer us is his compelling portrait of a troubled land.

The Chibok Girls

The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria

By Helon Habila

Columbia Global Reports. 123 pp. $12.99 paperback