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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

She was kidnapped a decade ago with 275 girls. Finally, she escaped.

Saratu Dauda, one of the 276 girls abducted from the Chibok school a decade ago, now free and living in Maiduguri, Nigeria, on April 11, 2024. Their capture set off a global campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls.” But many are still missing, and kidnappings in Nigeria have proliferated. (Taiwo Aina/New York Times)

By Ismail Alfa and Ruth Maclean

Saratu Dauda had been kidnapped. It was 2014, she was 16, and she was in a truck packed with her classmates heading into the bush in northeastern Nigeria, a member of terrorist group Boko Haram at the wheel. The girls’ boarding school in Chibok, miles behind them, had been set on fire.

Then she noticed that some girls were jumping off the back of the truck, she said, some alone, others in pairs, holding hands. They ran and hid in the scrub as the truck trundled on.

But before Dauda could jump, she said, one girl raised the alarm, shouting that others were “dropping and running.” Their abductors stopped, secured the truck and continued toward what, for Dauda, would prove a life-changing nine years in captivity.

“If she hadn’t shouted that, we would have all escaped,” Dauda said in a series of interviews last week in the city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram’s violent insurgency.

Kidnapped from their dormitory exactly 10 years ago, the 276 captives known as the Chibok Girls were catapulted to fame by Michelle Obama, by churches that took up the mostly Christian students’ cause and by campaigners using the slogan “Bring Back Our Girls.”

“The only crime of these girls was to go to school,” said Allen Manasseh, a youth leader from Chibok who has spent years pushing for their release.

Their lives have taken wildly different turns since the abduction. Some escaped almost immediately; 103 were released a few years later after negotiations. A dozen or so now live abroad, including in the United States. As many as 82 are still missing, perhaps killed or still held hostage.

Chibok was the first mass kidnapping from a school in Nigeria — but far from the last. Today, kidnapping — including of large groups of children — has become a business across the West African country, with ransom payments the main motivation.

Before she was abducted, Dauda said, she was a happy teenager in a large, close-knit Christian family. She loved playing with dolls and dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. She was her father’s pet and adored her mother.

For months after being captured, Dauda said, the girls slept outside in the Sambisa forest, Boko Haram’s hideout, listened to a steady stream of Islamic preachers and fought over limited water supplies. When two girls tried to escape, she said, they were whipped in front of the others.

Then, she said, they were given a choice: Get married or become a slave who could be summoned for housework or sex.

Dauda chose marriage, converted to Islam and changed her first name to Aisha. She was presented with a man in his late 20s whose job was to shoot video of Boko Haram’s battles. Hours after they met, they were married.

He was not cruel to her, she said, but after a few months, he came home one day and found her playing with a doll she had fashioned out of clay and had made a dress for.

“You’re playing with idols? You want to cause me problems?” she remembered him saying. She got angry and left their home, staying with another girl from Chibok. When he realized she was not returning, she said, he divorced her.

She soon married another Boko Haram fighter, Mohamed Musa, a welder who made weapons, and over time, they had three children. Although she was still a hostage of Boko Haram’s murderous leader, Abubakar Shekau, and his henchmen, she said that they were given everything they needed, surrounded by people “who cared about each other like a family,” and that she was happy.

As the years went by, Dauda kept track of the friends from Chibok who died. Sixteen in air raids and bomb attacks. Two in childbirth. One as a suicide bomber, coerced by Boko Haram. One of sickness, and one of snakebite. She noticed that it was mostly women and children dying in the air raids and wondered when it would be her turn.

And life became harder. When Boko Haram’s leader died and its powerful offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, took over in the Sambisa forest, Dauda and her husband found themselves on the wrong side, she said, and under suspicion. They worried they would be made slaves. Late at night, in whispers, they talked about escape. But Dauda wanted to act faster than her husband and decided to go ahead. He refused to let her take the children, saying he would follow with them later.

At 3 a.m. one day, she made a little bundle of food, looked at the faces of her sleeping daughters and said a short prayer for their protection. She ducked out of their home. She waited under a tree, checking that nobody had seen her. Then she walked for days through the bush, going from village to village, telling people she was on her way to visit friends and always leaving during morning prayer, when the men would be in the mosque and not see her going.

She met up with other fleeing women on the way, and last May, they handed themselves over to the military together. She had heard on the radio that the Chibok Girls had become a cause celebre, and finally she experienced it.

After surrendering, Dauda was taken to Maiduguri and enrolled in the government rehabilitation program, for counseling and deradicalization. A few months later, she got word that her husband had escaped with their three daughters, and they were all reunited.

She said she had dreamed of seeing her parents again, holding them, feeling their warmth. One day, she was allowed out of the government facility with her children, to visit them in their village, Mbalala.

She hugged her father and her mother.

“She was crying, and I was crying,” Dauda said.

Her father offered her and her husband a place to stay if they became Christians, she said. But she refused, saying she had become a Muslim freely and wanted to stay one, even if many people thought that she and other escapees were victims of Boko Haram’s indoctrination.

“I was not brainwashed,” she said. “I was convinced by what was explained to me.”

Two of her daughters are named for her friends from Chibok. Zannira, 7, was named for a girl who escaped. Five-year-old Sa’adatu is named for one still in captivity.

Recently, she said, her husband gave their girls a doll.

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