After weeks of international disinterest, during which the world was preoccupied with the search for a downed plane, the story of the abducted Nigerian school girls climbed out of obscurity over the past two days to reach critical mass.
Journalists have written scores of stories, and the hashtag #bringbackourgirls, which had been relatively dormant, now pulses with fresh updates every minute. Leaders from the UK’s former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the U.S. State Department to a cadre of U.S. Senators have taken up the cause.
Kidnapping women is not new to the group Boko Haram, which most analysts agree likely took the girls on April 14. It has a long history of capturing women and girls and subjecting them to unspeakable horrors. Now, as Nigerian authorities decide how it will respond to the abductions, the outcome of previous similar situations may provide guidance as to how security forces will conduct their search for the missing 234 girls.
Six months ago, in the sand-choked Nigerian town of Benisheikh, several men hoisting guns ordered a small bus to stop. They “yelled at the men to lie down on the road, and for the women to move to one side,” a witness would later tell Human Rights Watch. “I remained on the ground for over 45 minutes. … I saw them kill many men, but the women, they took them away.”
The militants were discriminating in their selection. “They didn’t take those with children,” the man said. “Mostly, they took young women in their 20s. … They picked the fine [pretty] ones. They ordered them inside [the cars], at times pointing their guns, saying, ‘Go! Go!’ The women were crying and saying, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ as they entered the cars. None of the men dared say a word. Then [Boko Haram] drove away with [the women].”
Months passed. Commanders with a Nigerian security force said it had rescued 26 abducted women at a Boko Haram stronghold deep in the Sambisa Forest, dense with wildlife and militants. Some of the women and girls were pregnant. Others had babies. But they lived.
Today, one of the greatest challenges of the missing 234 Nigerian school girls is the delicate situation of locating them without putting them in greater danger. The search before Nigeria’s military could not be a more different than what followed the Malaysian jetliner’s disappearance. Grand, international military exercises may do more harm than good, and one wrong move could drive militants into a murderous panic, analysts say. But at the same time, inaction could abandon the children, who were reportedly sold as brides for $ 12 last weekend, to Nigeria’s ruthless human trafficking trade.
The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, which has sustained withering criticism for what critics say has been a dithering response to the crisis, hasn’t offered many updates. On Thursday, the president gave a speech on poverty in Nigeria, but didn’t mention the girls once. This apparent disregard for the girls has angered many. On Thursday, Gordon Brown announced that he plans to visit with the president in Nigeria to discuss the possibility of military assistance.
“The international community must do something to protect these girls,” Brown said. “We could provide military help to the Nigerians to track down the whereabouts of the girls before they’re dispersed throughout Africa – like air support, for example, if that was thought necessary.”
There are signs, however, that quieter work in Nigeria may be at play to recover the children. ”The girls, we believe, are alive but they have been moved from the location to which they were originally taken,” a government-appointed negotiator who’s allegedly in contact with the militants told London’s Channel 4 News, which has withheld his or her identity. “It would not be hard to engineer a deal. It looks like they want to release them.”
The robust international outcry has perhaps made Boko Haram, which hasn’t claimed responsibility for the abductions, somewhat skittish. “They want a way out,” the negotiator told Channel 4 News, adding that three of the girls have died and 18 others were sick.
Still, greater calamity may befall the girls, the negotiator who’s reportedly in regular contact with Boko Haram said, if a military operation goes wrong. That “may result in the deaths of many of the captives,” said the intermediary, who Channel 4 claims has experience dealing with Boko Haram hostage crises. “The danger now is that the military will get involved and that can only end badly.”
No one knows what these girls have endured. But if past Boko Haram abductions offer guidance, it may involve both torture and extreme sexual abuse, according to Human Rights Watch. One 18-year-old named Deborah Sanya escaped that fate. She told the New Yorker the militants arrived at the girls’ secondary school in Chibok the night of April 15 wearing Nigerian military uniforms. “They said, ‘Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you,’” she told writer Alexis Okeowo. When the men began to shout, “Allahu Akbar!” and shoot their guns into the air, the girl knew differently.
But it was too late. She was forced onto a truck, and it wasn’t until noon that she reached the terrorists’ base. They told her to cook, but she didn’t feel well enough to eat. Hours later, she fled into the bush and, despite the militants’ pursuit, escaped. “I thought it was the end of my life,” she said. “There were many, many of them.”