Please note that this story contains graphic references to violence, rape and abuse that are disturbing.
There are mass abductions happening right now in Nigeria. Schools have become hunting grounds. And children are the targets.
Around 700 people have been abducted in Nigeria so far since December, 2020. Most of them are children. At least one abduction is happening every three weeks.
But this isn’t a new issue. Do you remember #BringBackOurGirls? About 30o schoolgirls in Chibok were kidnapped in 2014 — the first abduction of its scale — and the world used the hashtag to respond in outrage and demand action.
Now, seven years later, more than 100 girls who were abducted still haven’t returned home.
And kidnappings have only expanded since. They’ve even become something of a business — one that has no sign of slowing down. Many kidnappers aim to abduct large groups of children and demand a price for each child’s return. They’re trying to get a large number of smaller ransoms. But because many of the schoolchildren targeted don’t have families who can offer money, the girls and boys are likely to be killed.
So, who are the people behind these attacks?
Without strong policing and with easy access to guns, terrorist groups and criminal gangs are taking over. Many young people are unemployed, especially now during the pandemic, leaving them extremely vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups and forced participation in these kidnappings. Boko Haram is the group behind many of these attacks.
Translated into English, Boko Haram means “western education is forbidden.”
Over 13 million children in Nigeria are already out of school. That’s more than anywhere else in the world. While some children — especially girls — face obstacles in accessing education, many schools are shutting down because of these attacks. And because the things that happen to these girls and boys taken from their schools are so horrific, parents are now afraid to allow their children to attend.
Maimouna from Borno state was kidnapped by Boko Haram when she was 17, and was held captive for three years. Now she is living in a camp run by Plan International for internally displaced people.
Here, she tells her story.
“The day I was abducted started around 4 a.m. We heard gunshots, so we ran into the bush. They were shooting everywhere, so people just ran for cover. They bombed the shops and took the food, and they had done it before so we just thought they had come just for the food and would leave after that. So at 9 a.m., we came back because we thought they had gone — but they were still there.”
“Every day, they brought husbands for us to marry, and although I refused, they kept trying to force me until eventually me and another girl managed to escape. But, unfortunately, they caught us. Because we didn’t want to marry, they refused to give us any food … we would eat green leaves … we would take the ants’ food, wash it and eat.”
Rape and violence
“Throughout all that time, they were still trying to force me to get married, but I always refused. And then one day, I was raped. He dragged me away … and there was nothing the other two [girls] could do. So he raped me while they were watching.
“After that, when we were on the next move, they caught some women who were trying to run away and killed them right in front of us.”
Escape, reunification and stigma
“One day we saw a helicopter and so we had to start running. … We walked for days and were so nervous that if we heard any sound we would hide. But then one day we saw a man on a bicycle and stopped him to ask for his help. … He said he would contact the army and I was terrified because Boko Haram had told us that the army would kill us if they met us. But they didn’t kill us. They took us to the hospital.
“When we got there, they started to wash us, because we couldn’t wash ourselves. We had been running for over a week in the bush and were too weak to do anything at all.
“When I saw my parents again, I was so happy, but I couldn’t express it because I was overcome with tears … My parents hardly recognized me … There were a lot of gunshots [in my home village] and sometimes there were attacks and I couldn’t cope. So now I live here in this camp with my aunt.
"The only problem I face really is that if people know you have come back from Boko Haram, they often stigmatize us in the community. They won’t come close to us and they aren’t welcoming.
“I’ve lost my sense of reasoning because of what happened … I can’t do things like I could before, and I don’t think I can go back to school because I can’t learn properly anymore. If I lie down, I start thinking about what happened when I was in captivity. And at times I think that I didn’t have a life to move on with. So now, I am just trying to cope.”
Responsive governance and humanitarian assistance are critical to end the violence that is plaguing Nigeria. Plan International supports children who have been affected, works with communities to end stigma, reunites children with their families and provides accelerated learning programs. We are also working in Maiduguri’s camps to support people displaced by the conflict.
Some of the children living in the camps were forced to flee their homes because of Boko Haram attacks, leaving them with psychological scars.
Others were born in the camp after their families fled violence, and have never lived anywhere else.
Plan has set up child-friendly spaces in the camps, offering mental health support and providing children and families with hope for a better future.
Maimouna’s name has been changed to protect her identity.