One night an armed man drags your sister from her bed, forces her into a vehicle at gunpoint and takes her away. That was two years ago and you’ve had no contact with her since. You don’t know if she’s dead or alive. You miss her terribly. Your whole family miss her. And fear for her. Has she been raped? Killed? Forcibly married to her kidnapper? Coerced into accepting his brutal world view?
But the police seem unable to do anything. The media have lost interest. People kindly suggest that it’s time to move on. But how can you move on? She’s your sister. She may still be alive. Why won’t anyone help her? Why doesn’t anyone care? “What’s so important about remembering your sister? She’s gone. Why is it so important we don’t forget her?” someone asks you. You splutter in disbelief.
Of course, I’m not really talking about your sister, at least not unless you’re the brother of one of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, seized, in their case, from their school in Nigeria on the night of April 14, 2014. But I’ve felt the same sense of incredulity whenever I’ve been asked that question, as I frequently have in the run-up to the release of my novella Someday, a retelling of the schoolgirls’ story but with the twist that the action is moved to Britain.
Because there’s a very easy way to answer the question, “Why is it important not to forget the Chibok schoolgirls?” and that is simply, as we have just done, to imagine that one’s own sister is among their number – or even to imagine that it happened right here in the UK. Instantly the question seems absurd; seems to need no answer.
It was the two-year anniversary of the kidnapping on April 14: now, it’s the two-year anniversary of the media explosion which saw the case make worldwide headlines, with 2.3 million #BringBackOurGirls tweets in May 2014. Unfortunately, despite all this, 219 of the 276 girls are still missing, and the media have largely been silent about them for more than a year.
To give credit where it’s due, there has just been a little splurge of reporting around the two-year anniversary, largely due to Boko Haram releasing an apparent “proof-of-life” video of 15 of the girls and demanding $50 million in ransom. So it seems that at least 15 of the girls are probably still alive, and are perhaps being treated comparatively well – the media explosion in 2014 having given them premium value as hostages in the eyes of their captors.
It would, of course, be perfectly fair to ask: “Why remember the Chibok girls in particular?” At their peak in 2015, Boko Haram held an estimated 2,000 women and girls captive (to say nothing of men and boys). Having recently spent over an hour and a half sticking 276 cardboard pictures of the girls to the wall for the launch of my novella – a deeply sobering experience – I find 2,000 a figure that is hard to comprehend. Thankfully more than 1,000 have now been freed – though others have been murdered by their Boko Haram “husbands” and buried in mass graves as the Nigerian army advances. But at least 1,000 still remain in captivity.
Are the Chibok girls more important than any of the others? Of course they’re not. But these other women and girls are the main reason why it is so important that we don’t forget the Chibok girls. They have come to represent, in the eyes of the world, all those women and girls seized by Boko Haram in Nigeria and surrounding countries. If we forget them, we will inevitably forget them all.
And why is it so important not to forget any of them? Because your sister is among them, remember? Many of the women and girls are our sisters in Christ, and they are all fellow children of God, each with a unique destiny and contribution to make to the world.
That is why we, as Christians, must not forget them. It may feel as if we can do little for them, and in a sense that is true. We cannot travel to Nigeria, head into the forest, Rambo-style, and lead them triumphantly to freedom. If it was that simple professional soldiers would have rescued at least 80 of them just a couple of months after the kidnapping, when they were located by an American “Eye in the Sky”. But there is something we can do.
We can pray. We can even fast or sacrifice for them, in whatever way, however small. We can support charities such as Aid to the Church in Need, which are helping women and girls who have escaped from their captors, and others threatened with Boko Haram violence.
And we can remember. We must remember them because they matter. They are not slaves. They are not “just girls”. They are not animals to be bought or sold. They are not objects to be stolen. The snatching of a single girl from her family would be considered a tragedy of unprecedented proportions in Britain. It would be. How much more so 219?
Corinna Turner is a Carnegie Medal-nominated author. The proceeds of her latest novella Someday will go to help Aid to the Church in Need’s work