And there’s a chance their horror can still turn into a dream come true.
They are the families of the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls who were surreptitiously stolen by Boko Haram militants in the middle of the night exactly two years ago Thursday — a stunning act of terror that quickly moved the world to demand, “Bring Back Our Girls.”
After midnight on April 14, 2014, dozens of militants stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in the northeastern town of Chibok and rousted 276 teenage girls from their sleep. The girls, most of whom were Christian, were kidnapped and forced to adapt to a life of radical Islam.
Boko Haram, which fancies itself as an African offshoot of the Islamic State, had struck in a way no one expected.
Fifty seven of the girls were rescued within months of the mass abduction, but 219 are still missing. And now, after about two years of silence, the families of those girls have found new hope that they could soon be coming home.
A New Lifeline
In an exclusive story Wednesday, CNN published newly-obtained video of several of the missing girls that was apparently taken by the kidnappers and sent to the Nigerian government — as a “proof of life” tool to broker negotiations for the schoolgirls’ return.
Although the video appears to have been shot in December, only now are the missing girls’ families hearing about it. Contributors to CNN’s report also arranged for three of the mothers to view it in Maiduguri, about 75 miles northeast of Chibok.
“I felt like removing her from the screen,” Rifkatu Ayuba, whose 15-year-old girl Saratu is among the missing, said. Upon seeing her daughter, now 17, in the video, she exclaimed, “My Saratu!”
Only 15 girls are seen in the video, wearing Islamic dress and calmly asking with the Nigerian government to work to secure their release.
“I am speaking on 25 December 2015, on behalf of the all the Chibok girls and we are all well,” a girl identified as Naomi Zakaria, another abductee, says.
The mothers who viewed the video watched and rewatched, through tear-filled eyes, as their children remained largely motionless throughout the two-minute video, speaking only when asked about their name and where they are from.
Bring Back Our Girls
CNN’s report cites a claim by the Nigerian government that it is working to free the girls, as well as authenticating the video. A Nigerian senator, though, has stated that the video is credible, the report said.
“We have heard a lot of stories before but this video confirms that they are alive. The government should negotiate with Boko Haram,” said Yana Galang, mother to a missing girl not shown in the video. “I didn’t see my daughter but I now have more hope that she is alive.”
If authentic, the video might provide the best evidence yet that perhaps all 219 girls are safe, and that they might soon be returned home.
After the girls’ abductions in 2014, citizens, politicians and celebrities around the world spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign online — perhaps most ardent among them, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“Access to education is a basic right & an unconscionable reason to target innocent girls. We must stand up to terrorism,” Clinton tweeted in May 2014, punctuating her feeling with the rallying cry, “#BringBackOurGirls.”
“Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families,” Obama said in a tweet, which included a photo of a melancholy first lady holding a sign that read, “#BringBackOurGirls”.
Another Chibok in Damasak
What is perhaps most surprising about the April 2014 kidnappings, though, may be that it wasn’t an isolated incident.
Not even eight months had passed by the time hundreds more were abducted in a similar sweep by Boko Haram militants in the town of Damasak, about 200 miles north of Chibok near the nation’s border with Niger.
Many of those taken in Damasak were also children, and like those from Chibok, many remain missing. But in that case, the Nigerian government has done little to find the victims — apparently still reeling from the heat they took for Chibok, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.
In fact, officials were reportedly so fearful of more negative publicity that they even initially denied news reports of the Damasak abductions.
“We kept quiet about the kidnapping for fear of drawing the wrath of the government, which was grappling with the embarrassment of the kidnap of the Chibok schoolgirls,” a local official told the Times. “We got the message clearly. The government didn’t want the news out and whoever leaked it would have himself to blame.”
By all accounts, the assault in Damasak was even more violent than Chibok’s. Upon the militants’ arrival, townspeople looked for any escape — some even jumping in the river with their children, hoping to swim to safety in neighboring Niger.
Some drowned. Most were shot. Authorities reportedly found nearly 500 bodies in makeshift graves in the aftermath of the assault. And none of the missing children have yet been found.
“They went on a killing spree,” one Damasak official told the Times in a phone interview. “I was among those who returned and buried over 200 dead bodies in mass graves.”
A Trend of Escalating Violence
Amnesty International reported last month that more than 2,000 women alone were taken by Boko Haram in 2015 and 2016, and a UNICEF report released Tuesday said many of the missing Nigerian children, including some as young as 8, have been forced to carry out “suicide” bombings.
UNICEF’s report, titled “Beyond Chibok”, said four children were used in suicide attacks in 2014, but that number skyrocketed to 44 in 2015.
“Let us be clear: these children are victims, not perpetrators,” Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, said. “Deceiving children and forcing them to carry out deadly acts has been one of the most horrific aspects of the violence in Nigeria and in neighboring countries.”
Boko Haram is most active in a grouping of four countries in central Africa: Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the report states — each showing its own alarming rise in child-involved violence.
Nearly one in five suicide bombings over the last two years involved a child, and three quarters of those children were girls — while children were used in 50 percent of all militant attacks in Cameroon in 2015.
UNICEF officials say the increased violence involving children has created one unexpected and tragic consequence.
“As ‘suicide’ attacks involving children become commonplace, some communities are starting to see children as threats to their safety,” Fontaine said. “This suspicion towards children can have destructive consequences.
“How can a community rebuild itself when it is casting out its own sisters, daughters and mothers?”
As the region attempts to cope with such a nightmarish reality, it remains to be seen what fates await the families of Chibok — who are still deeply wounded, but perhaps more hopeful than ever that their children will return safe.
“You can see what is yours on the
screen but you can’t get it,” Galang said of seeing the newly found footage of the missing schoolgirls.
“All we want is our daughters.”
Just as the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign sought to raise awareness to the 2014 kidnappings, the families of the missing girls have inspired two new hashtags on this second anniversary — “2 Years On” and “Hope Endures.”
The tags are being featured in many commemorations of the two-year anniversary — which is also being marked by a new outpouring of emotion by the girls’ mothers, three of whom have written heartfelt letters to their lost girls and posted them to a photo essay page on the website of the Pathfinders Justice Initiative, a women’s and girls advocacy group.
One mother, Esther Yokubu, also delivered her message and an accompanying video to the official #BringBackOurGirls Facebook page.
The new hashtags punctuate Yokubu’s letter, but it begins with, “Dear Maida, It is has been long [since] I heard from you…”
While 2014 and 2015 were undoubtedly heartbreaking years for the families of Chibok and Damasak, it is certain that 2016 is the year they all hope their children will finally be returned to them.