By Bailey Marsheck
Earlier this month, after two and a half years of grief and uncertainty, 21 Nigerian families were reunited with their long-lost daughters. An agreement was reached with the militant Islamic terrorist organization, Boko Haram on October 16 which placed the girls into the hands of the Nigerian government for a brief evaluation before they were finally allowed to reconnect with their loved ones. Despite the encouraging appearance of this development on the surface, there are still 197 other families who are waiting in anguish to discover the fate of their kidnapped daughters.
The ordeal started in April 2014 when 276 teenage girls were staying at a government boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria in preparation for their final science exam of the academic year. During the middle of the night, members of Boko Haram razed the town, abducted its female students and loaded them onto trucks. Some were able to escape in transit by jumping off the vehicles but the majority of the girls still remain missing over two years later. Heart-wrenching stories told by parents who desperately trailed their kidnapped daughters in hopes of recovery suggest that they were taken to Boko Haram’s unknown base secluded deep somewhere within the 120 square kilometers that make up the Sambisa Forest. The fate of the remaining Chibok girls remains uncertain due to inner turmoil within the ranks of Boko Haram as well as the various challenges presented by the natural geography of the Sambisa Forest.
The terrorist organization was originally founded in 2003 by Mohammed Yusuf as a religious movement in response to the divergence between Nigeria’s Christian south and Muslim north. The group first came into conflict with the Nigerian government in 2009 when the movement transformed into a violent uprising. Boko Haram continued to become more radical and anti-government as Yusuf’s followers grew. Eventually, a police operation led to the arrest of prominent members of the organization for possession of bomb-making equipment and other weapons. Yusuf was imprisoned and died in jail which aggravated the group’s anti-government philosophies beyond their breaking point. Boko Haram’s actions have only escalated since then, resulting in suicide bombings on government installations, kidnappings of both locals and foreigners, and allying themselves with the extremist group ISIS.
Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is to end the country’s religious division by creating a purely Islamic state. Their name translates from the Nigerian dialect of Hausa to mean “western education is forbidden,” but applies generally to include hatred for western culture and religion as a whole. The group rejects the notion of allowing women any form of education and made a conscious decision to abduct and transport the female students instead of simply killing them. In a message to the media, Yuusuf’s successor Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the Chibok attack and encouraged girls to leave school to marry while additionally informing the public that the captured girls would be sold as slave brides. Captives who managed to escape have reported that many girls were in fact married off to the group’s soldiers and were forced to convert to Islam under the threat of physical and psychological abuse.
Despite conflicting sources regarding the agreement, the release of the 21 girls was confirmed to be facilitated by both the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Reports outlined payments ranging from cash sums to the release of Boko Haram commanders, the latter of which the Nigerian government vehemently denies. This negotiation seems to have opened up the possibility of future talks with Boko Haram, or at least with the faction responsible for the deal. The terrorist group underwent a complicated split in August, with a portion siding with original leader Abubakar Shekau while the other fraction opted to follow ISIS-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the first son of Muhammed Yusuf. The dissonance is suspected to be over Shekau’s willingness to murder Muslims in pursuit of his end goals.
The release was negotiated with the ISIS-aligned faction, which has been much more willing to enter into talks regarding the release of prisoners since the two groups split. Since then, there have been efforts to expedite a proposed swap of 83 more girls. However, doubts remain about whether the group is in control of the additional 100 missing girls as it is likely that the captives were split between the two factions. A further uncertainty in the situation persists over whether the remaining prisoners might be reluctant to return home in shame of their assumed forced marriages and potential pregnancies.
These diplomatic challenges are met by geographic ones too, as the Sambisa Forest serves as the last logistical obstacle to the rescue of the remaining girls. Boko Haram’s forces operate under the cover of brush so dense that it cannot be detected by aerial surveillance. Regular patrols by militants coupled with a minefield of Improvised Explosive Devices make penetrating the forest on foot a logistical nightmare. The Chibok abduction occurred near the height of Boko Haram’s power in 2014 and since then the Nigerian army has been reclaiming territory in the surrounding state of Borno city-by-city in a tiresome campaign that is only further prolonged by the sect’s propensity for guerilla tactics. The army has started pushing their forces into the forest in an attempt to oust Boko Haram from their final major Nigerian stronghold. Yet, progress is slow and has been further impaired as the group’s camps are often found already abandoned. On October 2, the Nigerian military launched “Operation Forest Storm” which was an airstrike offensive meant to cripple key bases within the forest. While this increased the possibility of collateral damage, the ground assault has simply taken too long and been ineffective. Nigeria’s government and citizens at large have grown increasingly eager to end Boko Haram’s harmful influence on the country and move past the years of armed conflict.
But questions still remain. Where are the remaining Chibok girls located within the vast Sambisa forest? Are they with the Shekau-aligned portion of Boko Haram or the ISIS faction? Are they still alive? Have they been radicalized? Have they stealthily been whisked to another hidden location? Will a second deal for the additional 83 girls come to fruition, and if so, in what terms?
While the return of the initial 21 girls may have ended this tragic saga for a few, many more families are left to wait without answers. The only way to discover the true fate of the Chibok girls is to penetrate into Sambisa and retrieve Boko Haram’s secrets from within the darkness of Nigeria’s forbidden forest and cast them into the light.
Image by Michael Fleshman