How the faith of the Chibok girls sustained them


A new book, Bring Back Our Girlsby journalists Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, is based on hundreds of interviews with the students kidnapped in northern Nigeria in April 2014. In the following extracts, a little of how the faith of some of the girls enabled them to resist pressure to convert to Islam – even under the threat of death – is revealed. But we begin as the kidnappings themselves are taking place…

PROLOGUE – 2014

Michelle Obama was upstairs in the White House residential quarters, watching the morning news report a story of suffering and social media and wondering whether to Tweet. It was 7 May 2014, an overcast Wednesday in Washington, and all the major breakfast shows were leading with the same harrowing tale. Thousands of miles away, in a remote Nigerian town called Chibok, 276 schoolgirls had been kidnapped from their dormitory on the night before their final exams. They’d been dozing on bunk beds, studying notes, or reading the Bible by torch. They were high-school seniors, a few hours of test questions from graduating as some of the only educated young women in an impoverished region where most girls never learned to read. Then a group of militants barged in, bundled them onto trucks, and sped into the forest. The students had become captives of a little-known terrorist group called Boko Haram, which filled its ranks by abducting children. Now these girls were trapped in a ghastly, faintly understood conflict far away, hostage to unambiguous evil.

A DAY SHORT OF THREE YEARS LATER – 2017

The lawyer entered the first car of a convoy that rattled north over a dusty road, passing deserted farmland and the charred mudbrick walls of villages whose few remaining residents were too old to leave. Outside the window lay fallow fields, overlain with discarded tools and an upside-down rust-coated wheelbarrow.

The area was notorious for land mines and roadside bombs. Each driver steered carefully into the tread marks left by the car in front, their bumpers mounted with fluttering Red Cross flags. The lawyer told himself there was nothing to fear: ‘The prayers of the orphans will protect you.’ His car halted, and its flashing brake lights signalled the convoy behind to stop. Fighters in fatigues, their heads wrapped in turbans, were gathered on the other side of the dirt road, standing alert beside waist-high grass. In the branches of acacia trees, and crouching behind bushes, the lawyer could see other figures, training their rifles. He held his list, the silence broken by the warning chime of a Toyota door left ajar. In the distance he could see a snaking line of silhouettes, dozens of women wrapped in dark, floor-length hooded shrouds billowing in the breeze. They were stepping through long grasses flanked by armed men. The figures looked exhausted, each trudging awkwardly toward him. Two of them were walking on crutches, and one was missing her left leg below the knee. Another had her arm draped in a sling. One carried a baby boy on her back. These were the students that millions had Tweeted about, then forgotten, but none of them had any idea about the social media campaign, and they lacked the faintest notion that anybody except their parents had been advocating for their release. These schoolgirls, almost all Christians, had come of age in captivity. To keep their friendships and faith, they had whispered prayers together at night, or into cups of water, and memorised Bible passages in secret. At risk of beatings and torture, they had softly sung gospel songs, fortifying each other with a hymn from Chibok: ‘We, the children of Israel, will not bow.’

The women, 82 in all, walked onto the road and halted opposite the lawyer, huddling into two lines, staring ahead with their eyes fixed. Some linked arms, others squeezed hands, their baggy clothes concealing the few possessions they’d managed to accumulate, strips of coloured fabric and small twigs for pinning their hair. One of the women was trailing behind, dressed in a grey shroud and walking with a slight hunch. Tied around her thigh, hidden from view, was something the men with guns had never found, an article of defiance. It was a secret diary, filling three notebooks, a firsthand record of the women’s ordeal. Her name was Naomi Adamu. It was her 1,118th morning in captivity.

CHIBOK – THREE YEARS EARLIER, 14 APRIL 2014

The class of 2014 at the Chibok Government Secondary School for Girls were only four weeks from finishing senior year when almost 300 of them were seized by armed men and packed onto pickup trucks that disappeared into the night.

At 24, Naomi Adamu was one of the oldest, a student who had prayed and fasted more times than she could count to get through high school. Petite, with a teardrop-shaped face and slender arched eyebrows she liked to outline with an angled brush, she was known to her younger classmates as Maman Mu, Our Mother.

NORTHEAST NIGERIA – 15 APRIL 2014, A FEW HOURS INTO CAPTIVITY

Jammed into the middle of a truck bed close to the front of a large convoy, Naomi could see the faces of her captors only when the headlight beams caught their features. There were dozens of gunmen perched on the front and sides of each vehicle, holding rifles.

The men wore musty, mismatched uniforms—military camouflage shirts, police-unit trousers—some with turbans covering their faces, others with nothing more than ordinary clothes and a gun. Many of them appeared to be boys, barely teenagers, wiry and sporting wispy attempts at facial hair. The acrid smell of body odour hung over the truck. There are so many, you couldn’t spit without hitting one, Naomi thought.

A HIDDEN ENCAMPMENT IN NIGERIA’S SAMBISA FOREST – LATE APRIL, ABOUT 14 DAYS INTO CAPTIVITY

A tall, muscular figure in military fatigues and a black turban stood before the Chibok girls and held up two books, a Qur’an in one hand and in the other, a Bible. This man looked different from the more bedraggled fighters who had taken them from their school. He had a lighter complexion; his beard was neatly trimmed, and the top and bottom halves of his uniform matched and appeared freshly laundered. Several fighters flanked him on each side, carrying rifles and standing beside yellow jerricans. Across his waist, he had tied a belt stuffed with bullets, and a small gun hung strapped to his thigh. He scanned the crowd, then recited the opening words of the Qur’an, his long fingers wrapped around both holy books, as if to weigh them against each other. Naomi was watching him, wedged into a throng of more than 200 classmates seated cross-legged or on their knees atop a patch of dirt. It was midmorning and the sun was burning. At first, she couldn’t follow the Arabic phrases he was reciting, but as he switched into the language of Hausa, she understood. Jesus was a prophet, the man said, but not the son of God, and to say so was a blasphemy so enormous that it made the heavens shake. He had once been a Christian himself, he explained, but had converted to Islam when he accepted that the Qur’an was the final revelation. The state of Nigeria was an abomination, he said, and Boko Haram were the only ones fighting for ‘the true Islam’, the only ones who were prepared to die to honour Allah. ‘Take a look at yourselves,’ he asked, his eyes narrowing in anger. ‘Don’t you know going to school is forbidden?’

The girls stayed silent as the man paused. He had not introduced himself, but they had been told they would be addressed by Aliyu, Shekau’s Emirul Jesh, or military chief, an extremist so fanatical he made even the other guards nervous. On YouTube, Aliyu had once appeared unmasked, executing prisoners with an axe.

Aliyu lowered his voice and addressed the young women directly. ‘I have come here to offer you a choice,’ he said. ‘You can convert to the true Islam, join us, and please God. Or you will be executed.’ The ultimatum hung heavy over the crowd of hungry, exhausted, disoriented young women. Some panicked. Naomi saw several bodies in front of her collapse and begin convulsing in a violent fit.

Aliyu was screaming now to make himself heard over the hostages, working himself into a rage. ‘If you don’t convert, you are an infidel! We will starve you, then remove your head from your body,’ he said. ‘I swear by Allah that any one of you who refused to convert to Islam, I will have her beheaded.’ One by one, students begged him: Yes! Yes, they would convert if it would spare their lives. Naomi said nothing. Then she turned to her cousin, in a whisper. ‘He is playing a game with us,’ she said. ‘We must hold our ground.’

LATE MAY 2014 – SIX WEEKS INTO CAPTIVITY

Naomi dragged herself to her feet, her clothes, hair, and skin soaked with rain, and followed her classmates as they gathered for the first of the day’s five [Islamic] prayers. It was the third week of May, and the rainy season had arrived over the Sambisa Forest.

Each day, they were learning to clean their bodies in a special sequence before worship; washing hands, mouth, noses, and arms in ablutions monitored by their guards. This was part of becoming a good Muslim, the men would say. The hostages would sit on their legs, raise their palms to the sky, then bend forward. But as she went through the motions, Naomi told herself that she wasn’t going to perform the ritual with conviction. ‘We should just pretend,’ she told her cousin Saratu. ‘Not take it for real.’

As the daily Islamiyah classes ground into their third month, Naomi had found herself sitting next to a girl she had only vaguely known … Lydia John had been such a diligent student that she would fall asleep with a book in her lap. At home, her mother, Rebecca, would check on her near midnight to turn off the lamp and close what was often a Bible. Lydia had arrived in Chibok at the start of her senior year, fleeing her hometown of Banki, near the border with Cameroon, after an attack by Boko Haram, and in her new school she immediately rose to the top of the class.

Lydia began to confide in Naomi during class and under the tamarind tree, leaning into the older classmate for moral support. The two talked about music, church, and the gospel singer Mama Agnes. Lydia told Naomi that before she moved to Chibok, she had been a prayer warrior at her church.

One day after lessons, when they were back behind the fence under the tamarind, Lydia said she wanted to tell Naomi a secret. She checked to be sure nobody was looking, then carefully opened the cover of her blue exercise book and began to slowly flick through the pages. Naomi watched as the mostly blanks toward the front gave way to pages covered in wide-looped handwritten English. She pulled the notebook from Lydia’s hands and began to read, her eyes following each curl of the hidden script. It was a written record of their ordeal, starting from the night of April 14. Lydia was writing a diary. ‘You must write one too,’ she said to Naomi.

Soon after, a small club of secret diarists began huddling together in the afternoon shade. They shared paper and pens and ideas about how to tell their story. Naomi would sometimes write and sometimes dictate her reflections to Lydia, who wrote them in her rounded handwriting …

At first they wrote about the kidnapping, disjointed and fragmented recollections from their journey into the forest and the terror of their first weeks in captivity. As weeks dragged on, however, other material went into the pages. They copied passages from a small Bible one of the teenagers had stashed in her clothing on the night of their abduction. One schoolmate would ask for permission to go to the bathroom so she could find a bush to crouch behind and copy the verses. She would return with a shorthand-replicated section. A popular choice was Luke, chapter 2, verses 1 to 20, the story of Mary giving birth. Several of the girls memorised it as a way to pass the time. They copied the Book of Job, the Biblical account of a man tested with endless suffering who refused to renounce his faith. Sometimes they wrote down psalms: ‘Oh my God, I keep calling by day and You do not answer. And by night, and there is no silence on my part.’

GWOZA, NIGERIA – THE FIRST WEEK OF AUGUST 2014, FOUR MONTHS INTO CAPTIVITY

Naomi stepped through a high-framed doorway and into the hallway of an enormous white mansion, surrounded by towering walls, and entered through a black iron gate. Dozens of her classmates were already inside, exploring the cavernous interior of an eight-bedroom villa, their flip-flops smacking against a cool tiled floor that reflected the light from a vaulted ceiling. This vast empty property, far larger than any house in Chibok, was to be the captives’ new prison. Naomi had no idea where they were or why they’d been brought to this place. In the first week of August, almost four months after their kidnapping, the Chibok students had again been spirited away by their captors. Roused before dawn under the tamarind, they had been ordered to walk for hours …

The Chibok students had been taken into what had become Boko Haram’s new capital. They were in the city of Gwoza, a centuries-old grid of low-slung homes on neem tree-shaded dirt roads centred around the ornate palace of the emir, the traditional ruler whose family had governed the town since the 1980s.

Aliyu, the militant leader who had first addressed the girls in their earliest days of captivity, threatening to decapitate unbelievers, was now seated on a chair in the living room of the mansion, giving a long speech about the evils of government schools, which he claimed taught ‘lesbianism,’ a word he said in English with emphatic disgust. As he concluded, he declared that some of the girls were already too old to remain single. It was time for these women to be married. If they agreed, they would be rewarded with a luxurious home of their own and all the meat they could eat, but if they didn’t, he warned, they would be among the first of the Chibok girls to become ‘slaves’.

SOME TIME LATER

Malam Ahmed was standing on the veranda of the … house, waiting for a conversation with Naomi. He had a proposal for her that he said she should take extremely seriously. The hostages were not going back home, ever, and the most senior of them should do the correct thing and marry. If Naomi got married, it would please Allah, help her on the road to salvation, and be an example to her younger peers. The Malam started with a sales pitch. ‘If you get married, you will have access to air-conditioned vehicles and luxury houses,’ he said. The unmarried women would become slaves, he continued, and their meagre rations would be cut even further. Naomi said nothing at first. The Malam had been smiling through stained teeth, advising her to make a decision that would ‘please God’. A refusal would have consequences, he warned, and they would be unimaginably severe. If she didn’t marry, he wouldn’t be able to protect her from the guards and their animal instincts. ‘There are seven guards … We will have to lock the gate and release them on you.’

Naomi had heard this kind of violent threat before. She could see that the Malam was struggling to find an argument that would intimidate her into submission. She responded with a suck of her teeth: ‘You can do whatever you want, since it is not with our consent.’ The body language between the two tightened. ‘Maybe you should bring 20?’ she added. Malam Ahmed pushed on, but he was losing face. He began to yell. The argument was growing louder on the veranda. A cluster of students filed over to watch as the usually composed Malam Ahmed erupted in anger at this diminutive young woman. At one point, loud enough for dozens of schoolgirls to hear, Naomi herself started to shout: ‘Even if heaven and earth come together, I will not marry!’ She clapped her hands to emphasise her resolve. But she could feel her heart galloping.

Malam Ahmed looked stunned, as if he had been slapped hard around the face. He was about to abandon his self-control. ‘I will kill you.’ he replied. ‘If you kill me, I don’t mind. No problem.’ Malam Ahmed lifted his Kalashnikov in the air and slammed it down onto Naomi’s back. The rifle butt hit the curve of her neck, lacerating the skin. Her knees buckled and her face collapsed in pain. She managed to stay on her feet, but the strike would leave a permanent scar. ‘God will judge you,’ she said. Malam Ahmed stormed off.

Reproduced with permission from Bring Back Our Girls – The Astonishing Survival and Rescue of Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls – by Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw. Published 18 March 2021, by Swift Press.

Photograph: Naomi Adamu, the Chibok student who led resistance among the women to their Boko Haram captors | photo: Mohammed Bukar