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Seven years ago, #BringBackOurGirls was a global campaign. What happened?

A compelling book details the story of Nigeria’s kidnapped Chibok girls

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In April 2014, members of the armed group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 seniors at the Chibok Government Secondary School for Girls in northeast Nigeria. Within weeks, their plight had become a hashtag, growing from a Twitter movement initiated by a Nigerian activist to thousands of Facebook posts, to pop stars, actors, rappers and the first lady of the United States tweeting to mobilize their followers to demand their safe return.

In response, the United States and several European governments mobilized resources to assist in the search. But it would be more than three years before many of the schoolgirls — now young women — were freed from captivity in a negotiated settlement with paid ransom. Seven years later, 112 others remain missing.

Did a social media campaign help to save the schoolgirls of Chibok? Who was the campaign about, exactly? And what does it mean that this particular kidnapping — of high school girls and young women ages 16 to 24 — got international attention and assistance while so many others do not? These are the questions journalists Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw wrestle with in their extraordinary new book named after that hashtag, “Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls.”

In doing so, they weave together a page-turner of a narrative; one that I found difficult to put down, even though I knew the eventual outcome before picking up the text. Their skill as writers builds suspense and conveys the sense of utter terror and despair the Chibok girls felt as they endured the unthinkable. At the same time, they never lose respect for their subjects, treating their stories with compassion and care.

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The authors tell the story in two alternating streams: one narrative of the girls’ experience and another of the multiple, often confused and conflicting, efforts to rescue them. In the first narrative, they draw on the verbal testimony and a remarkable diary kept by two of the students to explain what they survived. Naomi Adamu, the oldest of the Chibok “girls” at 24, was freed after more than 1,000 days in captivity. She and Lydia John, tagged as “troublesome” captives who refused to convert to Islam or marry, faced starvation. Near the end of Naomi’s captivity, Lydia finally agreed to a coerced marriage to a Boko Haram soldier and disappeared into the movement’s ranks. She is still missing.

The specifics Naomi, Lydia and their fellow captives recorded, of hunger, abuse, beatings and other maltreatment are extraordinarily detailed — and frightening. They meet the movement’s leader, Abubakar Shekau; are threatened with beheading; and memorize page after page of sacred Islamic texts, all while continuing to secretly practice their Christian faith.

The role of faith as a sustaining force is a recurring theme throughout the book. Whether they would quietly hum hymns and gospel songs together or record memorized Bible verses in their diaries to pass on, the girls found ways to stick together and rely on their faith as a means of holding on to hope.

Occasionally, a girl would hear a story about their plight on an unattended radio tuned to the BBC’s Hausa service. Through those broadcasts, they learned that the world had not forgotten them and that their parents were still in agony and praying for their return. The account leaves the reader in awe of the girls’ courage throughout their ordeal.

The rescue efforts that Parkinson and Hinshaw describe are as compelling as they are haphazard. The narrative is filled with shady characters previously unknown to all but the most inside of observers. The Nigerian government decides to trust an exiled journalist from northeast Nigeria with negotiations, then backs away from him, then trusts him again, then renounces him again, all the while failing in the primary objective of getting the girls back.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan suspected that the whole situation had been faked and/or was a plot by northerners to undermine his rule. He lost his reelection bid in 2015 to northerner Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari’s increasingly fragile health situation makes getting approval to undertake negotiations difficult.

In one particularly tragic episode, the Nigerian Air Force bombs a Boko Haram camp at which the girls are being held, killing at least 10 and injuring more than 30.

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Perhaps the most remarkable part of “Bring Back Our Girls” is the inside access Parkinson and Hinshaw had to understand what led to the freeing of 103 girls. A mediation team assembled by the Swiss Embassy in Abuja worked tirelessly for three years to find a way to free the Chibok girls, operating almost entirely in secrecy. Those efforts were led by a Nigerian lawyer who would eventually directly participate in retrieving the girls from Boko Haram, trading prisoners to the movement, and handing off the ransom payment.

The reporting for this book is incredibly detailed. Underlying all the tidbits of information and quotes from anonymous observers, however, are some difficult questions. As the authors note in the postscript, “Had the hashtag helped or hindered the efforts to free them? Was the West’s adoption of #BringBackOurGirls good for the girls?” These questions belie easy answers. While the hashtag certainly drew attention and resources to help the Chibok girls, that attention also made them a valuable asset to Boko Haram, one it was not willing to give up without significant ransom payments and prisoner releases.

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Likewise, the Chibok campaign did little to help victims of other kidnappings in the region, whose situations didn’t show up on international radar. What does it say about our society that our attention span is so short? After all, there is virtually no movement today to find the rest of the Chibok girls, most of whom were married off to Boko Haram fighters to bear children and live difficult lives in the forest. Why don’t we, as a society, still care?

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