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When Boko Haram Knocks, The Incredible Story of Deborah Peter
A 15-year-old Survivor Stands in Solidarity with Victims of Boko Haram's Campaign of Gender-based Terror
Cameron Thomas, Regional Manager for Africa
International Christian Concern
It was a relatively normal day for Borno State, a poverty-ridden, Islamic extremist stronghold then unknown to the outside world. Deborah Peters, then 12, and her brother, Caleb, were home from school, waiting for their father, a local pastor, to join them for the evening. He was working late at the construction site when shots began to ring in the distance; a common occurrence in Nigeria's battle-torn northeast.
For years, Islamic insurgency and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) Boko Haram has been waging war against the Nigerian Army and growing vigilante militias in hopes of establishing a separate Islamic state to be ruled by the group's particularly harsh interpretation of Sharia law. It was these clashes between militants and military that so often left Deborah and Caleb gripped with anxiety over theirs and their loved one's safety.
Caleb jumped on the phone to warn their father, "They're fighting, again." It was a warning he chose not to heed. He'd worked a hard day and just wanted to cool off at home, with his kids.
Deborah was relieved when he strolled through the door, like he did every night: hot, tired, and ready to jump in the shower. Just like that, the night was normal again, the shooting had ceased, the air was still, and the soft sound of splashing water drifted across the room.
Caleb, wary of his sister's safety, answered a rap on the door to three men, dressed in camouflage, adorned with lethality. In that moment, it was clear: Boko Haram had finally come knocking on the Peter's door.
The stories of Boko Haram's victims have largely avoided attention by mass Western medias, excepting those of its particularly egregious attacks: the 2011 bombing of the U.N. compound in Abuja; the bombing of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in Jos, an unnamed church in Gadaka, and the St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla onChristmas Day 2012; and, most recently, the bombing of the Nyanya bus terminal in April of this year.
But, on May 13, 2014, Deborah Peter, now 15, took the brave step of choosing to raise her voice, to share her story so the world can know the oppression Christians in Nigeria's lawless northeast suffer at the hands of a Boko Haram incited by a culture of impunity and emboldened by a largely incapacitated Nigerian security apparatus.
Addressing a packed conference room at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., Deborah, with the support of Nina Shea, Director for Hudson's Center for Religious Freedom, and Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian national, human rights lawyer, and affiliate of the Jubilee Campaign and Justice for Jos, hailed back to the day she joined hundreds of thousands of others also victimized by Boko Haram.
"Where is your dad?" The three men asked Caleb. "He told them that my dad is in the bathroom taking a shower."
Pledging to wait for him, little more than a few minutes passed before the men grew impatient. "They said that he's wasting their time because they don't have any other, like, time to wait for him."
Frustrated, the men barged into the bathroom to drag Deborah's father into the living room, standing him up naked, lathered in soapy froth, exposed to his children in his own home.
"They told him that he should deny his faith. And, I told them that he can't deny his faith. So, they told him that they [were] going to kill him if he didn't deny his faith. But, he told them that he should rather die than to go to Hell fire.... Then [he] told them that God said 'anyone that denied Him, He's going to deny them in the presence of His dad in Heaven.'
"So my dad refused to deny his faith." Without hesitation, the men raised their arms, infuriated by his boldness to preach to them when his life was in their hands.
"...And then they shoot him with the gun, three times in his chest."
Visibly pained by the memory, Deborah continued, "My brother was in shock, and he said, 'What did my dad do to you? Why did you kill him?'" The militants instructed him to be quiet, or they would kill him too.
"There were three Boko Harams that came in on that night," Deborah explained, "one is the leader; one is, like, the person close to the leader, like second to the leader; and the other one is just a servant."
The servant then turned to the leader to assure him that if they did not kill Deborah's brother, he would grow up to replace his father as the local church's pastor.
"But," according to Deborah, "the one close to the leader told him, 'No, we should not kill him because he's too young.'"
Boko Haram held a policy at that point in time that stipulated the young, the elderly, the disabled and women could not justifiably be killed in the pursuit of their cause. But all that's changed, contends Ogebe, who said, "Deborah dodged a bullet two years ago when Boko Haram was still operating on that rules of engagement....but now the story has changed," before warning, "...this is how this resident evil is evolving."
Noting a trend toward gender-based violence, Ogebe, alongside others, alluded to the fact that everyone and anyone in Nigeria who stands in the way of the establishment of a separate Islamic state is, in the eyes of Boko Haram, a justifiable target. And this, in a nutshell, is the relevance of a story like that of Deborah Peter: that, for years, Boko Haram has been slowly "shifting the goal posts" of how it conducts its Islamic insurgency unto the breaking point of a mass-abduction of more than 240 girls from Chibok and Warabe villages in April and May of this year, respectively.
That slow, but steady shift can be seen, according to Ogebe, in Deborah's story. With noticeable strain, Deborah continued:
"And then the leader told them that the first guy has a point, if my brother stayed, he would grow up and become a pastor like my dad.
"So, the leader told him to kill him too. So, they go ahead and they shoot him twice in his chest. So, he fall. When he fall, he started, like, moving. So they go ahead and shoot him again, in his mouth, and then he fall down and died. So..."
Deborah trailed off, drawing her hands to cover her eyes as she dropped her gaze from the on-looking entourage of press. After a moment, she collected herself and continued:
"I was in shock, I.... I didn't know what was happening. So, they put me in the middle of my dad and my brother.
"The next day, the army came and taked them to mortuary and take me to hospital."
Deborah's mother, a Muslim, was forced to move to Lagos some years ago to escape persecution. Interfaith marriages, like Deborah's parents', violate traditional Islamic law. With her father and brother dead, and her mother hundreds of miles away, the attack left Deborah practically orphaned. Empathetic Christians living near by, aware of her situation, took in Deborah following the execution of her father and brother. Shortly thereafter, Deborah made her way to the United States (U.S.) as an attendee of Tuesday's Children'sProject Common Bond, a trauma camp program specifically designed for child survivors of acts of terror.
In entering the country, Deborah's visa application was denied twice by the U.S. State Department (DoS) because she didn't "have family ties," prompting Ogebe to comment that the DoS "...essentially re-traumatized a girl whose family was exterminated by terrorists, just because she wanted to come to America for a terror-survivors camp."
Following Congressional intervention, Deborah was granted a visa to meet with peers who, just like her, were struggling to reconcile the loss of loved ones stolen from them by acts of terror, and those who perpetrate them.
Speaking out and making her story known has been a healing process for Deborah, who now resides with her host family in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area. Standing in solidarity with all those victimized by Boko Haram, however, is but a part of that ongoing process.
In her words and actions throughout the conference, Deborah made it clear that she recognizes the importance of her story as evidence of a critical shift in Boko Haram's tactics toward gender-based violence. But she also so clearly conveyed her heart for all victims of "Christian persecution," as Shea categorized it, at the hands of Boko Haram; especially the more than 240 girls abducted, who are now being forcefully converted, made "slave brides," as Ogebe put it, and sold into sexual and domestic servitude for as little as $12 USD.
In closing, Deborah said, "I hope people will understand and know more and more of what God says, and to stand strong in their faith," before timidly rising to her feet to display a white piece of paper with the hash tag #BringBackMySisters scrawled in permanent black marker.
And with that, the conference was adjourned and Deborah, winding her way through the halls of the Washington Post building, spilt back onto 15th Street where, with her sister in hand and parents flanked on both sides, she skipped to the tune of spring birds, pulling leaves from D.C. cherry trees and basking in the sunshine, like a normal, teenage girl.
For interviews, contact Cameron Thomas, Regional Manager for Africa: RM-Africa@persecution.org
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