”Of course there is hope”, says Gerida, a UNICEF public health specialists in Nigeria.
“One day all of this will be over and in the meantime it’s our job to keep these girls alive and make sure they are prepared for life when peace sets in”, she continues determined.
I’m in Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s hometown in Nigeria. There are roughly 20 camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) in this area. Everyone living in these camps has fled from this organization which terrorizes the northeastern parts of the country. In total 1,4 million children are either IDPs or are refugees in neighboring countries.
In one of the camps I meet 14-year-old Sarah. That is not her real name, but due to her safety I can’t use her real name or show pictures of her face. The slender girl is gazing down in shyness fiddling with her skirt. But when she looks at me I notice the energy in her eyes and her smile can enthrall even the hardest rock.
Explaining how Boko Haram came to her village half a year ago, she turns down her gaze again. I am told that we shouldn’t use the group’s full name talking in the camp; code words like “The Boys” or “BH” are used not to attract unnecessary attention.
“They announced their arrival by shooting up in the air, I could hear the gun shots”, says Sarah.
“Then, they gathered people and killed them. The ones trying to escape jumping the fence was shot immediately.”
Two of the people shot that day were her stepfather and a younger brother. Her mother was nowhere to be found. Sarah tried to escape jumping dead bodies, women and children. But it didn’t take long before “BH” caught up with her and took her back to the village and placed her in a house with other young women. All of the girls were raped.
“My heart stops every time I’m thinking of it. I was sure they were going to kill me. We prayed”.
The second night in the house “the boys” forgot to lock the doors and a group of girls and young women managed to escape. “We climbed over the fence as fast as we could” Sarah explains while lifting up her skirt to show me the scar on her leg from that night.
The group spent three days of walking through the jungle in the heat with no food. They drank water with their hands only when passing a stream or a puddle. Hungry, thirsty and exhausted Sarah and the others arrived in Maiduguri. They started looking for other IDPs from Bama and in one of the camps she found her mother.
“I cried and she cried. It was tears of joy”, Sarah explains smiling and adding that it was in this camp she felt safe for the first time.
But feeling safe is only relative in this part of Nigeria. During my visit Boko Haram attacked four spots in Maiduguri killing more than a hundred people. I talked to several girls during my visit and they all have similar stories. Sarah managed to escape, others were taken by force to bases in the forest. They were immediately married off to members of Boko Haram and raped every night until the Nigerian army came and released them.
It is very hard to listen to stories like this but it is our responsibility to listen and to make sure the voices of Sarah and others are heard, and to help them cope with their traumas. And UNICEF is doing exactly that through psychosocial support and education in the camps. Going to school enables the children to work on what will be their foundation for the future and at the same time have a break from the memories haunting them. UNICEF is also providing basic services such as clean water, sanitation and hygiene to prevent diseases.
Sarah and I play around with a Polaroid camera I brought to make sure she had a few memories from the visit. We take pictures of each other, she teaches her friend how to aim and shoot and we try to do a few selfies – but we end up with only half of our faces in the photos.
“Hopefully their past will only be a bad memory and not something which defines their lives”, says Gerida. “In order for that to happen we need to replace old memories with new and fond ones”.
Helene Sandbu Ryeng is a Communication Specialist working with UNICEF Norway.