Alexis Okeowo at the New Yorker blog on the kidnapped schoolgirls in Borno, Nigeria.
“I thought it was the end of my life,” Deborah Sanya told me by phone on Monday from Chibok, a tiny town of farmers in northeastern Nigeria. “There were many, many of them.” Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, kidnapped Sanya and at least two hundred of her classmates from a girls’ secondary school in Chibok more than two weeks ago. Sanya, along with two friends, escaped. So did forty others. The rest have vanished, and their families have not heard any word of them since.
Sanya is eighteen years old and was taking her final exams before graduation. Many of the schools in towns around Chibok, in the state of Borno, had been shuttered. Boko Haram attacks at other schools—like a recent massacre of fifty-nine schoolboys in neighboring Yobe state—had prompted the mass closure. But local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school for exams. On the night of the abduction, militants showed up at the boarding school dressed in Nigerian military uniforms. They told the girls that they were there to take them to safety. “They said, ‘Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you,’ ” Sanya told me. The men took food and other supplies from the school and then set the building on fire. They herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles. At first, the girls, while alarmed and nervous, believed that they were in safe hands. When the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting “Allahu Akbar,” Sanya told me, she realized that the men were not who they said they were. She started begging God for help; she watched several girls jump out of the truck that they were in.
It was noon when her group reached the terrorists’ camp. She had been taken not far from Chibok, a couple of remote villages away in the bush. The militants forced her classmates to cook; Sanya couldn’t eat. Two hours later, she pulled two friends close and told them that they should run. One of them hesitated, and said that they should wait to escape at night. Sanya insisted, and they fled behind some trees. The guards spotted them and called out for them to return, but the girls kept running. They reached a village late at night, slept at a friendly stranger’s home, and, the next day, called their families.
She couldn’t tell him any more than that. She’s not doing well. Nobody there is. Her father isn’t; the other parents aren’t.
Sanya’s father, a primary-school teacher named Ishaya Sanya, is struggling with conflicting emotions: gratitude that his daughter has returned to him; guilt that the daughters of his siblings, friends, and neighbors are still somewhere in the bush; and an angry frustration that there seemed to be no effort to rescue the girls.
“We don’t know where they are up until now, and we have not heard anything from the government,” he told me. “Every house in Chibok has been affected by the kidnapping.” The only information that the families had been able to gather about the kidnapped girls, he went on, was from the girls who had escaped.
He remembers the exact time that Deborah appeared in front of him after her escape—4:30 P.M.—and how he felt: “very happy.” But his despair soon returned. “Our area has been affected very seriously,” he told me. Parents had fallen physically ill, and some were “going mad.”
There are no signs of progress in rescuing the girls.
In the meantime, as in so many other ways in Nigeria, each community has to fend for itself. For a while after the abduction, girls trickled back into town—some rolled off trucks, some snuck away while fetching water. That trickle has stopped. “Nobody rescued them,” a government official in Chibok said of the girls who made it back. “I want you to stress this point. Nobody rescued them. They escaped on their accord. This is painful.”
A pastor in Chibok whose daughter is missing told me that he set out with friends on the morning after the abduction to find the girls. “I was forced to come home empty-handed,” he told me by phone. “I just don’t know what the federal government is doing about it. And there is no security here that will defend us. You have to do what you can do to escape for your life.”
I asked the pastor about rumors that Boko Haram has taken the girls outside of Nigeria’s borders, into Cameroon and Chad, and forcibly married them. He paused, and then said, “How will I be happy? How will I be happy?”
How will his daughter? How will any of the girls? How will any of their parents? How will they be happy? How will they be happy?