Escaped Chibok Schoolgirls Will Help Boko Haram Victims Reintegrate

Women who escaped Boko Haram (AFP PHOTO/STR)

As the Nigerian government struggles to provide sustenance and treatment to the estimated 700 hostages freed from Boko Haram in early May, women who escaped the throes of the terrorist group during its raid of a girls’ school in Chibok are offering their support and empathy, having once been captives themselves.

Of the more than 200 girls and women kidnapped in Chibok in April 2014, 57 escaped during the early days of their capture; the Nigerian government has failed to locate the others. Speaking to Agence-France Presse, three of the escaped girls–identified as Deborah, Blessing, and Mary–are offering to work with the recently liberated captives who had been stowed away from the government in the dense Sambisa forest, believed to be Boko Haram’s last major stronghold. Boko Haram has since changed its name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

“We will pray together, then after praying together I will advise them to forgive the people who mistreated them because if you forgive people God also forgives you,” said Deborah, adding, “We are also in a position to help them because we were once like them.” In comments to the AFP, Deborah emphasized helping the liberated captives find peace after their ordeal, though she also noted that those freed, who are now living in refugee camps in northern Nigeria, need practical help, as well: “We want to share foodstuffs and then give them a kind of inspirational speech that will touch them because we are now people who are used to encouraging others no matter what they have been going through.”

“I think we are in a position to help them with our words,” she concluded.

Nigeria will need all the help it can get from private sources to reintegrate the captives into society. In addition to killing a large percentage, if not all, of the men in the towns they ravaged, and kidnapping the women, Boko Haram terrorists destroyed the infrastructure of most towns they captured. In Gumsuri, for example, the first town identified as a home of those initially released in the Sambisa forest raid, Boko Haram destroyed most homes and left a trail of dead bodies no one has been able to clean up since December. The location is so remote that returning to Gumsuri without a guarantee of access to food or water is out of the question for most of the women and children rescued who had been abducted from that village.

Michika, another town in northern Nigeria, has seen some of its residents return, only to find no signs of food, water, basic utilities, or medical care. Sini T-Kwagga, whom Reuters identifies as a Christian community leader, explains, “Most people coming back are in hardship because there’s no food. People are sick but there are no hospitals … no vegetables, no lemons, no bananas. … We’re not ready to go back to farming. All our machinery was burned or taken.” T-Kwagga notes the government appears not to have a presence at all in the town.

As a result of systematic rape by Boko Haram terrorists, 214 of the 234 women rescued during the second raid of the forest are pregnant. They require steady nutrition and medical care to survive. Returning to their hometowns is not an option; they remain in refugee camps.

Residents have no way of mitigating the lack of food by farming, despite the fact that it is currently planting season. “The rains may come but there’s no way to farm because we don’t have anything to cultivate,” one teenaged Michika resident told AFP.

The United Nations resident coordinator in Nigeria has “pledged the full support of UN agencies” to the government to help reintegrate the rescued captives. Reports indicate this aid has not yet reached them, however.

In addition to significant medical and humanitarian care, the women and children rescued from the Sambisa forest are in need of significant psychological aid. Most testify that they were victims of mass rape by members of the jihadist group, and some who escaped noted that, upon realizing the Nigerian army was closing in, Boko Haram members stoned to death as many of the girls and women as possible.