Five months ago, Boko Haram kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls. Four weeks later, the terrorists let the girls go. But for many of them, a self-determined and normal life seems out of reach. A report by Adrian Kriesch.
Aisha and her sister Falmata sit in front of their family’s house in Dapchi. 15-year-old Falmata is wearing a red hijab. She says she would like to become a lawyer, to help people in trouble. Her 14-year-old sister, clad in a green hijab, smiles. She hopes to become a doctor.
Just just two teenagers dreaming about the future, a normal occurrence anywhere in the world, you might think. Except that, contrary to other teenagers around the world, they are not at school. Why? Aisha seems embarrassed by the question. “I don’t know. Our parents told us to wait for a while,” she says.
‘Ready for marriage’
Just as we turn to their mother to ask about this, their father Zanna Zakaria arrives home from Friday prayers at the mosque. Everybody falls silent. Zakaria has two wives and six children. School is out the question now, he says. He has already arranged to marry both daughters off. “Look at them, they are mature enough to move into the homes of their husbands,” the father says. The girls and their mother lower their eyes and stare at the ground.. “They can’t stay here, it’s against our tradition. They will marry and then their husbands will decide if they can go back to school. It’s out of my hands now,” Zakaria tells DW.
A few months ago, Falmata and Aisha were taken hostage by Boko Haram. In February, the Islamist terrorist group attacked their boarding school and took away more than 100 schoolgirls. They were freed a month later, after negotiations with the government. The girls do not want to talk about their time as hostages. None of the kidnapped pupils have so far received any psychological assistance to help to them deal with their experience.
Few girls back in school
Another girl, Falmatu, is one of the few who are willing to talk about what happened. She was among the 900 pupils attending the boarding school when it was attacked. Classes have started again, but only a third of the kidnapped girls have returned. Sitting in front of one of the dilapidated classrooms of the boarding school in her pink uniform, Falmatu tells her classmates about the most horrific month of her life: The one she spent as a hostage of Boko Haram.
They were constantly on the move, crossing rivers, and often fighter jets would fly overhead. The terrified girls hid beneath the trees. Falmatu and eight friends once tried to escape. But after a few hours they were found by the wives of the Boko Haram fighters, who took them back. They were caned as punishment, she said.
Shortly before setting the girls free, the terrorists threatened them: “Don’t dare to go back to school. We will kidnap you again.” Falmatu was afraid to go back, but her parents pushed her. “My father said: ‘Why did I spend so much money on your education, if you quit now?'” she said. Falmatu once ran away from school back to her parents. But her father convinced her she should think about her future. “So I decided to go back to school.”
Is Dapchi safe now?
Several girls didn’t dare go back to their old school. Some say they wouldn’t mind going to school in another town. But that would be too expensive. Twenty girls were lucky and won a scholarship to attend a Turkish school two hours drive away. Modu Ma’aji Ajiri from the Yobe state education ministry told DW that the school in Dapchi is safe. A couple of soldiers have been posted in front of the gates. There are checkpoints on the roads accessing the village. “Parents who don’t send their children to school have given in to the terrorists,” Ajiri said. “We are calling on them not to that. Ignorance must not triumph.”
According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, 10.5 million Nigerian children don’t go to school. The situation is especially dire in the northeast since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency. In the last couple of years the terrorist group have destroyed more than 1,400 schools and killed some 2,300 teachers.
Dreaming of a self-determined life
Florence Ozor, who leads the strategy team of the BringBackOurGirls group, says the government has once again abandoned the kidnap victims and their parents to their fate. “You really can’t expect them to immediately recover from such a trauma. There has to be some rehabilitation and some psycho-social therapy for them,” she said. “The girls have to go through a systematic long recovery process which needs to be carefully planned.” And that is something the government didn’t do, Ozor concluded.
The right to education and a self-determined life looks like remaining an unfulfilled dream for the sisters Falmata and Aisha. Their father seems to think it is more important to get the bride price of between €50 ($59) and €120 for each girl. That is a lot of money in one of Nigeria’s poorest regions. But even Falmatu, who has gone back to school, does not know what will happen next. It’s her last year at school and soon she’ll be sitting her exams. She hopes that someone in her family willl come up with enough money to enable her to study further, away from Dapchi.