Published:  12:40 AM, 31 October 2017

18 Escaped Girls, 18 Interviews

18 Escaped Girls, 18 Interviews

I was driving down the street in Maiduguri, Nigeria, not long ago when a billboard caught my eye. It was an image of a wild-eyed girl with explosives strapped to her chest and a plume of black smoke in the background."Stop terrorism," was printed in red over the girl's head.The city was reeling from a recent epidemic of suicide bombings, many carried out by teenage girls. The military and government were warning citizens to be on the lookout for bombers like the girl on the billboard, which portrayed her as a monster.

Boko Haram's conscription of children has been one of the defining hallmarks of the long and vicious war militants have waged on northeast Nigeria and bordering regions.In my two years of reporting on the war as the paper's West Africa bureau chief, I have explored the blurry space between the labels of attacker and victim. I have talked with boys and girls who were taken hostage by Boko Haram and then in turn forced to kidnap other children. I have spent time with women and girls who had become insurgents' wives. And I have interviewed women whom Boko Haram trained as suicide bombers.

Since the start of the year, the rash of bombings in Maiduguri - of mosques, of camps for people fleeing the war, of the university - has been relentless. Dozens have died, and dozens more have been wounded. Many people are living in fear ... of young girls.As I passed the billboard, I wondered how little girls could be turned into murderers. It seemed like there was more to this narrative. I decided to learn as many as possible of the stories of the girls who had been sent on suicide missions and then found a way out. I interviewed 18 of them for Thursday's article, with photos of the girls by Adam Ferguson.

Boko Haram strapped suicide bombs to them. Somehow these teenage girls survived.My amazing fixer and I consulted aid workers and security forces, who helped us locate the girls during two separate reporting trips to Maiduguri. Finding a safe place to interview and photograph them would be a challenge regardless of the topic. Maiduguri is a bustling city - full of teahouses, meat stalls and busy people going about their day - that feels a lot safer than it probably is. And foreign journalists draw a lot of attention.

We were at risk, but we were especially worried about the girls. If Boko Haram found out these girls had failed to detonate their bombs, they could possibly be killed. And if regular people discovered they had spent time with Boko Haram, even as hostages, they could be stigmatized as sympathizers. We settled on a quiet park, a hotel room, an empty restaurant.

Adam's job was particularly difficult. Imagine being tasked with taking portraits of girls whose faces, we felt, should not be shown?

The girls did not request anonymity, but based on the advice of our local fixer, we obscured their faces and did not use their full names. The girls seemed relieved to have the chance to tell their stories.I knew from my experience reporting on the insurgency that these girls had been through a string of horrible circumstances, beginning with their capture. Some had family members killed before their eyes. Fighters stuck one girl in a room with corpses, and when militants asked about her strength, she presumed they wanted her to clear the bodies. But they wanted her to carry a bomb.

Far from willing participants, each girl said that the armed militants had forcibly tied the bombs to them - many times after they had refused to have sex with their captors.I tried to get the girls to explain their suicide missions. "What happened when Boko Haram told you to carry a bomb?" I asked. Their stories flowed.

Every one of the 18 had a narrative worthy of a dissertation on the horrors of war. Some of the girls cried as they recalled their terror. Some told their stories in squeaky voices that revealed their young age. Others were fierce, proud of how they had saved lives by not carrying out their missions.

As a reporter, my job isn't to take sides. But I couldn't stop myself from believing these girls were heroes. Think of the lives they saved by not detonating a hidden bomb at a crowded marketplace or manned checkpoint as they had been ordered to do.I asked the Nigerian military whether bomber girls who surrender themselves are rewarded. Why not give them cash? Why not offer scholarships?

A military spokesman said girls who surrender their bombs are celebrated. But that wasn't the case for any of the girls with whom I talked. After they surrendered, each had been detained, some for months, while officials tried to determine whether they were loyal to Boko Haram. I asked each girl at the end of her interview what she wanted to be when she grew up.

They were still mostly children, after all, and I thought that ending with a question that focused them on the future might leave them with a sense of hope. One of the girls told me she was desperate to go back to school; the war had interrupted her education. Eventually, she wants to become a lawyer. "I want to fight for people's rights," she said.


The writer is an investigative reporter of The Wall Street Journal.

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