On May 18, 2016, the world received with astonishment and joy the news that one of the 219 Chibok Girls who had been held in the grips of the world’s deadliest terror group, Boko Haram, had been recovered. Although there appears to be some dispute over whether the now 19 year old Amina Ali was rescued by the Nigerian government or found wandering on the outskirts of the Sambisa Forest by a local vigilante group, the undisputed fact remains that her rescue followed 764 days in captivity post the infamous kidnapping of the 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria on April 14, 2014.
As an activist who works with survivors of sex trafficking and rape and as one who has advocated for the rescue and rehabilitation of the Chibok Girls, I also was elated. Amina’s rescue represented a window of possibility; a window of renewed hope for the remaining 218 Chibok Girls and thousands of others who remain in the hands of savages who force grown men to swallow bullets for breakfast and force young boys to watch their mothers raped and violated.
As quickly as my heart swelled with joy, it was also haunted by the reality that Amina’s time in captivity came at an insurmountable cost; a cost that we may never know or ever be entitled to know. Her eyes bore the piercing pain of terror and innocence lost, while her arms carried a four or five month old nursing baby, presumably the result of a forced marriage and rape. By her side stood a man who referred to himself as her “husband,” a man who the majority believe is a Boko Haram fighter masking himself as one who was also a prisoner of war. As a woman, a mother and an advocate for women and girls, all my fears were realized in Amina’s story.
Within hours, Amina’s face and the face of her baby girl were paraded across multiple media outlets worldwide. In light of the overwhelming stigma that has flanked other survivors of the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, this should never have been. Her name was suddenly trending on Twitter, while she was being whisked off to meet Nigeria’s President to “celebrate” Nigeria’s alleged recovery of the first Chibok Girl. Both her dignity and privacy were stripped in a matter of seconds because we live in a world that demands that we prioritize “breaking news” over broken hearts and the scars that they bear. Amina Ali is entitled to and deserves privacy following what we all know has been a traumatizing two years in captivity. The hope is that she will ultimately serve as a resource of intelligence to assist in the recovery of the remaining 218 girls and an advocate for their cause if she chooses, but the priority for now should be on her recovery, reunification with her family members and assimilation back into her community.
But there is a further cost to the Boko Haram insurgency that we often do not hear of or ascribe enough dignity to. It is the cost that lies in the sunken faces of the family members of the Chibok Girls. We must continue to remember the far reaching implications of the Boko Haram insurgency on those surviving through the stress of losing their daughters. They too are living with trauma, high blood pressure and other anxiety related illnesses resulting directly from the abduction of their children and the Boko Haram insurgency that has ravaged North-East Nigeria over what is approaching a decade. 19 parents of the Chibok Girls have, in fact, died. Amina Ali’s father is reportedly one of them. In our work with some of these families, one father told me when I called to encourage him after hearing the news, that his ailing body had ultimately succumbed to a stroke and yet he lacked the resources to secure even the most basic treatment. He was holding the phone with his right hand, as he could no longer feel his left. His stroke follows his wife’s constant bouts with high blood pressure which developed following the abduction of their daughter in April 2014 as well as their forced displacement into a life of abject poverty. Hundreds of other family members share the same heinous plight, while their daughters, their children, remain in captivity. Their cries to #BringBackOurGirls is now a prayer directed at God and not humanity.
So what can we, as advocates, who share in the joy of Amina’s recovery do?
We can rejoice because the agony of one of the 219 families has come to an end. But anyone who has survived trauma knows that Amina’s journey to shalom is just now beginning. We must support her healing and walk with her to ensure that she receives the psycho-social support that she needs to regain her identity and dignity. As a friend of mine so poignantly put it, the world owes her a debt that we can never repay.
We must continue to demand the rescue and rehabilitation of the remaining 218 Chibok Girls, as well as thousands of others, who remain in captivity. We cannot, we must not, relent. The world is watching Nigeria and the international community and more needs to be done to ensure that no child ever has to choose between her life and her education. Ever.
We must support the Chibok families whose emotions vacillate daily between hope and fear. The agony of not knowing if or when their daughters will be rescued is heart-wrenching and debilitating, I was told by another mother who would rather be comforted by death. We must hold that space for them while they attempt to hold their minds together.
We can support the 57 girls who escaped in the early hours and days of the April 14, 2014 abduction. That we can do.
Amina Ali’s story represents hope, but it also serves to remind us that so much more needs to be done. 218 Chibok Girls and thousands of unnamed others remain in captivity. 2.1 million people are displaced across Nigeria and 180,000+ bear refugee status in neighboring countries. Innocent children are increasingly being used as human bombs to detonate their lives and the lives of others.
It is much easier to sit for nothing than to stand for something. We must act and act with a sense of urgency. We must act as if each girl were our own daughter because she is and the cost of doing nothing is insurmountably high.