Review: Vivien Horler
Bring Back Our Girls – The astonishing survival and rescue of Nigeria’s missing schoolgirls, by Joe Parkinson & Drew Hinshaw (Swift)
On March 2 this year the New York Times reported: “Hundreds of girls who were abducted last week from their boarding school in Nigeria by a group of armed men have been released…”
In a piece about the same event, the BBC reported: “Such kidnappings are carried out for ransom and are common in the north of the country.”
These kidnappings might be common now, and get only the briefest of mentions in international news stories, but the kidnapping carried out by Boko Haram on girls from the Chibok Government Secondary School for Girls on April 14, 2014 became not just a major news event but a movement.
Two weeks later American influencer Russell Simmons read of the kidnapping and tweeted: “234 Nigerian girls have gone missing and no one is talking about it… Please RT! #BringBackOurGirls.” In fact it was 276 girls, but that wasn’t the point.
Within hours Mary J Blige, queen of hip-hop soul, told her 20 million followers: “It’s been two weeks since the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian girls and they still aren’t home #bringbackourgirls”.
Wall Street Journal foreign correspondents Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw write how these tweets catapulted the #BringBackOurGirls “from a distant campaign about a forgotten war to the very pinnacle of American cultural and political power”.
Celebrities and even Michelle Obama were photographed holding up placards reading: “#Bring back our girls”.
The authors believe that the fame of the campaign might not have been to the girls’ benefit: their international renown made them more valuable to their kidnappers as bartering chips.
And in fact it would appear the Boko Haram gunmen had no intention of kidnapping anyone – they had assumed that when they arrived on a pillaging mission just before midnight the Chibok schook would be empty. What they were really after was a brick-making machine stored at the school. They also looted the school cafeteria for food and cooking oil, and then, more or less as an afterthought, decided to take the hostel girls too.
It was the beginning of three long years of captivity for most of them, held in remote bush camps in and around north-east Nigeria’s dense Sambisa Forest, and home of Boko Haram.
By May 2017, 164 of the 276 girls had been freed while 112 are still missing. Many of them chose to marry Boko Haram fighters in a bid for better food and treatment. At least 40 have died.
The authors have told a moving and fascinating story of the girls and what happened to them, based on hours of interviews with many of them and the secret diaries that a couple of them kept. At the heart of the book is Naomi Adamu, one of the diarists who managed to keep the notebooks – given to them by their Islam instructors – strapped to her leg under her hijab.
At the time they were abducted, she was 24, and in the middle of writing her final school exams. She was – and presumably is – a devout Christian, and became one of the leaders of the group, determined not to convert to Islam.
Their captors told them those who converted could marry fighters and would no longer be treated as captives, while those who refused to convert or marry would be treated as slaves. Those who married were promised an easier life, although it is questionable if that was in fact the case.
The girls, like Naomi, who did not convert – and that was most of them – suffered terrible beatings, near-starvation, months sleeping under trees, death threats, and the relentless uncertainty of not know if they would ever go home.
This impressive piece of investigative journalism is also based on hundreds of interviews with people who were working to free the girls, including an activist who held almost daily protests on their behalf outside the presidential palace in Abuja, a shadowy Swiss organisation and a Nigerian lawyer who also ran an orphanage for some of the thousands of children who had lost their families in the war with Boko Haram, in which more than 30 000 people have died.
And it describes the military efforts of the Americans, the Europeans, and even a group of South Africa mercenaries who were drawn into the task of finding the girls, once the hashtag BringBackOur Girls had elevated them to an international cause.
American drones and foreign fighter jets are still there, operating from air bases in Chad, Cameroon and Niger, as the war drags on.
Although Nigeria refuses to admit it paid a multi-million euro ransom for the girls, the authors point out that in the months after they were freed, the shadowy leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau sent more than a hundred girls in suicide vests – girls from other kidnappings – into public places. They say it is impossible to know if this cash injection helped fund the seven-fold spike in bombings that followed the Chibok girls’ release.
This is a gripping read about horror and indomitable courage.