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Nigeria girls who fled Boko Haram look to brighter future

By Ben Simon

Picture taken on May 5, 2014 shows Chibok school girls who escaped from the Boko Haram Islamists gathering to receive information from officials


Lagos (AFP) – A typical day for Deborah includes classes on a manicured university campus and exercise in the evening — basketball, volleyball or aerobics. On weekends, she studies, swims or just relaxes.

But the teenager’s life now is one that was unimaginable 12 months ago.

On April 14 last year, she was in a packed dormitory at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, seeking a night’s sleep before writing end-of-term exams.

Boko Haram fighters stormed the school after sundown, kidnapping 276 girls.

The mass abduction provoked global outrage and brought unprecedented attention to an insurgency that has devastated northern Nigeria since 2009.

Deborah was one of 57 girls who escaped within hours of the attack. Her life has changed but for the other 219 hostages still being held and for families desperate for news, the nightmare continues.

Despite promises from the government and military that the release or rescue of the hostages was at hand, there has been no credible information concerning their whereabouts in months.

Picture taken on April 30, 2014 shows former Nigerian …

Picture taken on April 30, 2014 shows former Nigerian education minister and Vice-President of the BBOG

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau vowed to sell the girls as “slaves” and later said they had been “married off”. Experts say both are possible and they are unlikely to still be all together.

– ‘Blessing in disguise’ –

Deborah and 20 other girls from Chibok who escaped Boko Haram captivity are now studying at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in the northeastern city of Yola.

The privately-funded AUN does not look like other Nigerian universities and certainly bears little resemblance to Chibok, which even before the Islamist uprising began was a deeply impoverished town with poor roads and limited electricity supply.

Spread across a vast stretch of land on the outskirts of Yola, the campus includes an immaculate hotel, with a restaurant overlooking a pool that serves burgers and pizza, where faculty, including visiting Western professors, share sodas with their students.

“It is a beautiful environment,” Deborah told AFP via university staff in an email exchange.

A sign bearing the name of one of the Chibok schoolgirls …

A sign bearing the name of one of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, Naomi Zakaria, han …

The Chibok girls at AUN are studying a curriculum aimed at preparing them to start a four-year undergraduate programme next year.

Deborah said her dream is to work at the United Nations “to help my community in Chibok, Nigeria and the world”.

Others talk of becoming doctors or lawyers. All stress the importance of education. With degrees from the well-regarded AUN those dreams may come true.

But among the 21, the prospects feel bittersweet, as international attention returns to the plight of those still being held one year on.

Thoughts of their missing classmates are never far away and in their prayers daily, they said.

“We feel sad with the advantages we have now because so many from our hometown do not have these advantages,” they added.

Supporters of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign hold …

Supporters of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign hold a placard as policewomen block supporters of the  …

They also acknowledged they would almost certainly not be studying at the university had they not been kidnapped.

Mary put this conflict in starker terms: “When the insurgency struck, I was devastated but little did I know it was going to be a blessing in disguise.”

– Horror with a purpose –

The Chibok girls at AUN felt united in a common goal to ensure that some good must come from last year’s tragedy.

“It has been a horrible journey yet we believe that coming to AUN is for a purpose, which is to be an instrument of positive change in our hometown,” Sarah said.

“We have not been broken by the attack. We see ourselves as the people who have been chosen to make positive future changes not just in Chibok, but in our country and the world,” she added.

President Goodluck Jonathan’s handling of the hostage crisis was heavily criticised, especially over his administration’s failure to immediately recognise the severity of the attack and to swiftly launch a major rescue effort.

Jonathan’s defeat in last month’s general election to challenger Muhammadu Buhari may have partly been caused by his inability to contain the Islamist violence.

Boko Haram, whose name loosely translates from the Hausa language widely spoken in northern Nigeria as “Western education is forbidden”, had already been suspected of committing crimes against humanity before the Chibok mass abduction focused global outrage.

But the girls studying at AUN suggested the Islamist foot-soldiers who carried out the kidnappings ultimately deserve mercy.

Northeastern Nigeria provides few opportunities and little hope of employment for young men, making them vulnerable to radicalisation, they said.

“I forgive Boko Haram for what they have done and I pray God forgives them too,” Blessing said.

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