Mellissa Fung is a Canadian journalist based in London, and the author of Between Good and Evil: The Stolen Girls of Boko Haram.
The questions came at me with wide-eyed concern and innocent curiosity.
“Did they tie you up?”
“What did they feed you?”
“Where you scared?”
Ever since I was kidnapped in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2008 while reporting on the plight of refugees on the outskirts of Kabul, I had sensed that friends, family and reporters wanted to ask me these difficult questions. But no one ever did – at least, not directly. I understand the impulse, even if it’s impolite, to ask about someone’s trauma; we want to understand the world better, and that includes understanding the most awful parts of the human experience. That instinct is at the heart of journalism, too, but it can be unwittingly cruel that way – sometimes even intentionally exploitive. Journalists often ask someone to revisit some of the worst moments of their lives and then move on when the interview is over, leaving the subjects alone with the memories of their ordeal after the cameras and tape recorders are off. As the late writer Janet Malcolm once said, a journalist can be “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
But these questions didn’t feel prying. It was 2016, and they were coming at me from three young women, ages 14 to 17, in a small, stuffy hotel room in Yola, in northeastern Nigeria. They were asking me these questions – in their Hausa language, through a translator – because they truly understood what I went through.
I had come to Nigeria to talk to survivors of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, more than two years after the world had been introduced to its brand of violent terror when fighters brazenly kidnapped 276 girls from their school in the town of Chibok in 2014 and took them to their camps deep in the vast Sambisa Forest. The social-media campaign #BringBackOurGirls quickly became a worldwide crusade, particularly among celebrities and influencers who had suddenly become alive to the crisis. Even former first lady Michelle Obama posted a selfie with the hashtag. It prompted calls for the international community to intervene – not just to bring those girls back, but to mount a rescue operation.
But the Chibok kidnapping was only the group’s boldest act of terror to that point. In August, 2011, Boko Haram insurgents sent a car bomb to the United Nations headquarters in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, killing more than 20 people. For years, the group had been attacking defenceless villages with near impunity, wantonly shooting, beheading, stoning, drowning and burning civilians; just two months before the Chibok girls were taken, the terrorists had massacred 59 schoolboys. The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag was actually started by Nigerian activists who were furious about long-time government inaction on the mass destruction and disruption that Boko Haram had wrought since its founding in 2002.
While many of the 276 Chibok girls escaped or were eventually released through government negotiations with Boko Haram, more than 100 are believed to still be missing. And thousands more Nigerian women and girls have been lost, too – brutally kidnapped, regularly beaten, and forced to marry soldiers or face hard labour – robbing a generation of girls of their education and their futures. While Boko Haram’s violence has spread throughout the Lake Chad region, which includes Cameroon, Niger and Chad, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated last year that more than 25,000 people have been registered as missing in Nigeria alone, most of them women and girls. And the United Nations estimates the violent conflict has displaced more than three million Nigerians. And yet, even though Boko Haram continues to perpetrate heinous acts against innocent lives, the world has looked away. It feels like a scandalous failure.
I will admit that my own experience as a hostage informed much of my outrage about what was happening in Nigeria. I knew what happened to me in Afghanistan wasn’t comparable to what Boko Haram’s captives experienced; their captivity was much worse.
I was lucky enough to have had access to the best trauma therapists in the world; they did not. So I couldn’t help but wonder and worry about how they were dealing with the aftermath, knowing that the scars that trauma leaves are deep and life-changing.
Still, I was reluctant to ask the three girls in Yola about their experiences. But when they started asking me their own tough questions, I surprised myself by responding to them honestly.
Yes, I was held in a hole in the ground. Yes, I was tied up for some of it. Yes, they fed me, but only cookies and sweet juices. Was I scared? I think I must have been, at some level, but I was maybe too scared to be scared.
“Me too,” Zara said, through our translator, a wonderful Nigerian journalist named Kabir Anwar. “I should have been scared, but I was too scared.”
“We never got cookies,” Gambo said. “We had to cook for them.”
“Did they hurt you?” Asma’u asked.
Yes, I nodded. I pulled the neckline of my shirt to show them my right shoulder and the scar left by the knife that one of my kidnappers had used to stab me. The girls leaned in and gasped. Then I showed them the other scar, on the back of my right hand. I told them that they had stabbed me there after I punched one of them.
Zara’s eyes grew wide. “You hit them?” It was when they were taking me and putting me in the car, I explained.
“Didn’t they have guns?” “Was it a big car?” “How many men were there?” Kabir could barely keep up with their questions.
“There were so many men. They just forced us into their car,” Gambo told me about her kidnapping. “I would have hit them if I could.”
“They all had guns, and they pointed them at us,” Zara added. I nodded with solemn familiarity. My kidnappers had guns too, and they pointed them at me, I said. I gestured toward my temple.
Asma’u put her finger on the scar on the back of my hand, feeling the small bump. And then she held out her right hand. There was a similar scar on the back, higher up, closer to her delicate fingers. “They cut me there too.”
I took her hand and ran my index finger along her scar. “It’s the same,” I said. “We have the same scar.”
“I’m sorry,” Asma’u whispered.
“No,” I told her. “I’m sorrier for everything that happened to you. It’s not fair. You are so young.”
That was the first time I met the girls. But it was also the first time I had been completely comfortable talking about my experience as a hostage – even more than in my therapist’s office, or when writing my memoir. As I later found out, it was the first time the girls had shared their experience with an outsider, too. It didn’t matter that I was a much older Canadian journalist with wildly different life experiences from what they had lived through in Nigeria. We had all been captives, held against our will, subjected to abuse of all kinds – a kind of trauma, suffered by so many women in so many conflicts, that transcends all borders.
After so many years of working through trauma on my own, it was a relief to be able to speak openly about my experience, to share with others who understood completely. It was an unspoken bond that allowed us a safe place to come together. It was as if, in the moment, we stitched together a kind of community with our shared scars.
Much later, I followed Asma’u back to the tiny village she was living in with her mother, Hauwa, and her younger siblings. Hauwa wanted me to meet some of the other women living there, and so we gathered on a hot morning under the shade of a neem tree. More than two dozen women came out to speak with me – and all of them were former captives of Boko Haram.
“There are a lot of us here,” an older woman in a mauve dress told me. She pointed them out as they milled about this small hamlet, on the outskirts of Gombi, in Adamawa State: “Her. Her. Her …”
“You were all in the forest?” I asked softly. Seeing so many of them gathered together in one place, in this community of survivors who had left their homes, brought into sharp focus the enormity of the trauma Boko Haram has inflicted.
“We often sit here like this and talk about what happened to us,” another woman said.
What happened to us. Their experiences in the forest were not all the same – some spent several weeks in captivity, others a year, or even more – but still, they acknowledged their shared pain. And in some cases, they had to, in this place they made, because they had no home to return to – either because their home villages had been destroyed, or because the stigma attached to having lived with the terror group made their lives impossible.
Many of the escapees and the children they were forced to bear were ostracized by their own communities when they returned, as if they were physically marked by their kidnapping. Some of this sentiment was fuelled by the fact that the terror group had trained some girls to go back into their villages as suicide bombers, but even though the fear has proven to be largely unfounded, many of the girls have said they’ve been shunned all the same. Former neighbours stopped frequenting their shops; no one wanted to buy what they were selling. Girls and their children were met with bullying at school, and in some cases, they were even rejected by their own families. For a few, the exclusion was so bad that they went back to the Sambisa. This was an incredible and infuriating tragedy: The girls who had been brought back from the forest weren’t able to fully return.
So this small community became their safe place. And word spread among other women who had escaped or been rescued from the forest and had nowhere else to go.
“We comfort each other,” Hauwa told me. “We have all been through this pain.”
One woman, Josfin, was a recent arrival, after spending five years in the Sambisa. She left behind a child – a son she had with her Boko Haram “husband.” Her voice was as low as a whisper and her eyes watered when she talked about leaving her son in the forest.
“Many of us left children behind,” Hauwa said sympathetically. Her eldest, Binta, had been missing for more than five years at that point. She stopped to count the years on her fingers. “My daughter would be 22 now.”
Josfin looked at her and then looked down at her own hands. Other women lowered their eyes as well, silently mourning what they left behind, and what the forest took from them.
Later, I watched as the women went to draw water from the well together, whispering and laughing out loud. One of them built a fire, while another cleaned a bowl of millet. Several women were in quiet conversation under the neem tree where we had gathered earlier. I imagined they might have done some of these things together in the Sambisa.
The women in this village figured it out for themselves. Cut out by their communities, they created their own, one built on a common understanding of their trauma and the long trail it leaves behind. Here, they have made a safe space where they can support each other without judgment, share their stories freely, cry with abandon, and mourn their losses together.
In a sense, they’ve found a way to do what scars do. Scar tissue isn’t technically fresh, healthy skin; the body doesn’t try to replace what was lost. Instead, it builds something new, something protective, to make things whole again.
On a subsequent trip to Nigeria some years after our first meeting, I met up with Asma’u again. When I saw her, she took my hand and studied it, as if to make sure my scar was still there. It has faded in the decade and a half since I first got it, but it’s definitely there. I know because it damaged a nerve, and it has dulled the feeling in two of my fingers. Once, a few years ago, I cut one of those fingers while chopping carrots, leaving a gash that ran so deep I thought I might need stitches. But it did not hurt. I felt no pain.
Our scars, I told Asma’u, are a reminder that we are stronger than the men who gave them to us. They hurt us, I said, but we are not broken.
She looked at my scar, and then her own. “We are the same, Mellissa,” she said. “They did not break us.”