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The Continued Suffering of 219 Schoolgirls Still Held by Nigeria's Radical Islamic Insurgency
Cameron Thomas, Regional Manager for Africa
International Christian Concern
For six months, an estimated 219 schoolgirls have suffered captivity at the hands of radical Islamic militants in Nigeria's vast Sambisa forest. Abducted at gun-point on the night of April 14, more than 260 girls (ages 14 to 19) were ripped from their families, homes and communities and have yet to be restored to the life they once knew and the people they so love and miss.
Packed into military-grade vehicles and carried deep into the Sambisa, less than 50 escaped on-foot the night of the abduction. Risking life and limb, some jumped out as the trucks slowed at bends in the narrow jungle roads. Others, like the three brave, young survivors ICC spoke with here in Washington, prayed "God be with us" before darting between the trees, pained by the thought of having to leave friends, neighbors and classmates behind for an opportunity to escape.
Racked with grief, parents, family and friends of the abducted joined hands with activists Tuesday to demand their safe return. Frustrated with the Nigerian state's inability to effectively combat Boko Haram, which has gained control of vast swathes of northeast Nigeria in recent months, #BringBackOurGirls-a quasi-political advocacy group built in response to the mass-abduction-has threatened to vote incumbent Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan out of office should he fail to secure the girls' freedom.
According to the International Red Cross, talks of a prisoner swap to secure the release of those abducted, which began in July of this year, continue as government officials and senior Boko Haram commanders negotiate terms of a possible exchange. Noting the insurgency's natural distrust of government following the extrajudicial killing of its founding member, Mohammed Yusuf, in 2007, experts attribute little significance to the ongoing talks.
Stained with tears and garbed in red, the 60 protesters that exchanged words in front of the presidential palace before meeting with Nigerian Minister of Lands and Housing, Akon Eyakeny, contrasted starkly with the recent lack of international attention paid to the girls' ongoing suffering following the rise of the Islamic State.
Immortalized for its brutal treatment of women-videotaped beheadings of foreigners and forced departure from the al-Qaeda network-the Islamic State pulled the attention of pundits and politicians from Boko Haram's decade-long campaign of terror just weeks after repeated calls for the immediate and safe return of "the Chibok girls" were made by world leaders. Overshadowed by the declaration of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram launched its most aggressive offensive yet, taking control of more than two dozen towns and villages across northeast Nigeria, destroying 185 churches and declaring an Islamic state of its own.
Having proven its inability to combat Boko Haram's guerilla warfare tactics, curb the recruitment of disenfranchised youths or secure the safe return of the abducted, the Nigerian state stands in desperate need of international support.
In the immediate aftermath of the mass-kidnapping, several western nations pledged to extend informational and logistical support to the ill-equipped Nigerian military. In an unparalleled display of assistance, President Obama tasked 100 U.S. military personnel to conduct search and rescue drone flights over the Lake Chad region in search of those abducted in addition to sending a task force of military and law enforcement personnel and experts in hostage negotiations, strategic communications, civilian security, and intelligence. Following the wane of public interest in the girls' plight, though, no update as to the status of those operations has been made public, nor has the intended length of stay for deployed personnel been announced.
Despite a loss of global interest, advocates across the world have remained dedicated to demanding world leaders and the Nigerian state ensure the Chibok girls' safe return. Protests were held in Abuja, London, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington in solemn commemoration of the girls' 100th day in captivity. Articles detailing the experiences of those who have escaped have been published by major and minor news outlets worldwide and congressmen have taken the time to hear the first-hand accounts of survivors. Scholarships have been granted for some of those abducted to study in the United States, and the University of Abuja has initiated a program guaranteeing a free education to more than 40 of those that escaped on the night of the abduction.
Inspired by the courage of these schoolgirls willing to speak on the behalf of their still-suffering classmates, concerned citizens across the globe are demanding an end to Boko Haram. Known for its lethal bombings, village massacres, toll booths for terrorism and abduction of foreigners (including two Italian priests and a nun from neighboring Cameroon) for financial gain, Boko Haram made a statement in abducting more than 300 innocent schoolgirls that night in April: nothing and no one is off-limits.
Dedicated, for years, to a policy of gender-based violence against men, Boko Haram historically has left the wives and children of its victims to wallow in grief and poverty.
Following the girls' mass-abduction, Boko Haram has perpetrated an indiscriminate campaign of terror against men, women, children, the elderly and the disabled in a no-holds-barred pursuit of a separate Islamic state to be ruled by Sharia law.
Reportedly supported by the Islamic State, Boko Haram has advanced on the Borno State capital, Maiduguri, with little push back from the Nigerian military. Overwhelmed by more than 650,000 Nigerians displaced from their homes, communities and livelihoods by years of Boko Haram violence, experts fear Maiduguri is in no position to protect itself from Boko Haram's front lines, looming less than 30 miles from the city's limits.
Stronger than it has ever been, Boko Haram poses a significant threat to the region's stability and, thereby, to international security. Having celebrated the abduction, forced conversion to Islam and sale of some of those abducted as child brides to their militant captors, Boko Haram has placed itself at odds with the values of the United States and of the international community. Action can and must be taken to return the more than 200 stolen daughters and sisters to their grieving families, friends and communities. Furthermore, action must be taken to degrade, and ultimately destroy, Boko Haram, so that no Nigerian, male, female, old, young or disabled should ever again suffer the violence and intimidation Boko Haram has inflicted on so many for so long.
In meeting protesters Tuesday, Eyakeny assured all those gathered that, "by the grace of God the girls will be brought back home." With prayer and petition, every concerned citizen can play a part in bringing about that reality.
Learn everything you need to know about Boko Haram's heinous schoolgirl abduction, here.
For interviews, contact Cameron Thomas, Regional Manager for Africa: RM-Africa@persecution.org
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