When 276 girls were forced at gunpoint from their dormitory beds at a school in Chibok, Nigeria, on April 12, 2014, it sparked the creation of #BringBackOurGirls. The campaign, originating in Nigeria, became a global sensation as it pressured the Nigerian government and world leaders to rescue the girls from their Boko Haram kidnappers.
In the first hours after the kidnapping, a few dozen girls escaped, but 219 girls in their teens essentially disappeared. Two years later, the world’s attention has waned. The kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls are still missing, with no indication of where they are or even how many are still alive.
What if by some miracle the girls were brought back? You’d expect them to be welcomed with open arms, with love and support.
In fact, there are some victims of Boko Haram abductions who have returned to freedom. A February 2016 report by UNICEF and International Alert, a global peace-building organization, estimates that Boko Haram has kidnapped as many as 2,000 women and girls since 2012. Some of them have been rescued by military operations. Others waited for opportunities, screwed up their courage and ran. “There’s a continuous trickle of women who have escaped on their own,” says Amy Pate, research director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.
But freedom does not mean an end to their ordeal.
Occasionally former captives go back to their homes, but often they end up in one of 17 camps in Nigeria set up to assist the thousands of residents displaced by war and terrorism in the country. “Because of the danger of a Boko Haram attack, there hasn’t been much opportunity for media and human rights organizations to verify what’s happening,” says Adotei Akwei, managing director for government relations with Amnesty International, USA.
The UNICEF report examined attitudes toward the former kidnap victims and their children, who were born of conflict-related sexual violence. “They’ve been sexually abused, traumatized, malnourished and beaten,” says Pate. “A lot of them have had children by the men who captured them. They’re seen as damaged goods, and their families may not want them back. They’re shunned.”
The women are called “Boko Haram wives.” Within the camps, they are also called “annoba,” which means epidemic, an indication of a pervasive cultural fear that the victims’ exposure to the ideas of terrorists could become a fast-spreading plague in communities. Their children, born after rapes or forced marriages, are sometimes called “hyenas among dogs,” the report says. The babies are often perceived as having within them the bad blood of their fathers.
“A number of women who have not been able to make it to the camps might stay with relatives,” says Marco Simonetti, regional manager for West Africa of International Alert. “They are the most at risk. They don’t have income. They’re stigmatized. We know of some who have engaged in prostitution because they need food.” Often outcast by members of their families, they can be better off even as ostracized members of refugee camps.
Despite the dire straits faced by those who have returned, their fate is better than the hundreds who remain in captivity. Some were forcibly married to their captors. Many were enslaved to be cleaners and household workers for the terrorists. Some have been sold in the sex trade. Some have died. And a few have escaped.
The terrorists have begun using captured children and women as suicide bombers, according to the United Nations. And that makes things even worse for those who have gotten free of their captors.
“Everyone understands that the women are victims,” says Simonetti. “But they’re still scared of them, afraid they might be suicide bombers. People are afraid the women have been brainwashed, putting even more pressure on these girls after months or years of being abused. It’s not the end of their struggle. It starts all over again.”
The girls, women and children who escape captivity will need massive support. Their basic needs for shelter, food and medical care are, for the most part, being met.
But they have less tangible needs as well. They need to feel secure in talking about their experiences. They need to feel accepted. They need to feel their children will be accepted. They might be suffering from PTSD, or from a syndrome called trauma bonding — psychological problems that will require specialized mental health counseling.
“Trauma bonding is when an abuser, or kidnapper, offers incentives, like better food or lodging or physical security for complying with demands. And any deviation from expected behavior is harshly punished — rape, violence, withdrawing food or shelter,” says Pate. “That alternation between reward and punishment can create an emotional need for the kidnappers’ approval, even after the women are separated from them.”
Establishing peace, security and stability after kidnappings, attacks and suicide bombings is the immediate priority in Nigeria. But communities need ongoing support to understand what happened to the victims and to come up with ways to welcome them back into the fold.
The work is starting. “We’re working with a couple of organizations to establish baseline programs to work with community leaders,” says Simonetti. “We want to challenge negative impressions of the victims. We’ve had debates on the radio where religious leaders and other people phone in. We’re also working with victims themselves, helping them to resocialize and talk to others who have had similar experiences.”
The picture is bleak, and reconciliation likely will be an effort spanning a generation. Many of the returning kidnap victims were only children when they were taken. Simonetti sighs as he says: “Some of these girls were 8 or 9 years old.”