She came up onstage wearing a wig and sunglasses. I sat there stunned, slightly shivering, because the 18-year-old girl in front of us could have been anywhere but here at that moment had she not made one of the most fearless decisions anyone could ever make.
Her name is Saa (changed for her safety), and she told her story to 90 of us in a room at the ONE Campaign’s AYA Summit in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. I’m sharing her story (with permission) because the resilience of the human spirit is incredible, and courage often comes in small packages. Plus, we cannot forget these girls just because the cries of #BringBackOurGirls have died down on social media.
On the night of April 14, 2014, around 11:30 p.m., the girls of Chibok Government Secondary School in Borno State, Nigeria, were in bed when they were awakened by gunshots outside. Saa called her father on her cellphone, and he told her to pray and not leave that school. The girls got out of bed and congregated in their hostel’s common area when they heard their teachers’ motorcycles get closer.
The people who entered were not their teachers, who had apparently scattered, leaving their students to fend for themselves, but men dressed in military uniforms. They were hostile and asked the girls, “Where are the boys?” The girls answered that the boys did not sleep at the school—only girls did. The men threatened to shoot everyone if they were not told the truth.
When the girls insisted that it was true, the men moved on to their next demand. “Where do you store your food?” Two of the girls showed them the food storage.
The students of the Chibok school didn’t know that their captors were part of Boko Haram until the men holding them at gunpoint said they were the ones responsible for the kidnapping of 35 girls from a town named Konduga in 2013.
The girls were surrounded by the Boko Haram members and told not to cause any commotion or everyone would be killed. They were ordered out the building onto a dirt road and made to stand under a giant tree while the men burned their school buildings and hostels. Saa said they burned everything to the ground.
The girls watched as their food was loaded onto a huge, 18-wheeler truck. Throughout all of this, Saa and her friends were holding hands and saying silent prayers. Since they were standing close to bushes, some of the girls were able to slip into the forest and run away.
After loading the food onto the truck, the Boko Haram members gave the girls two options: Get in or die. Without much of a choice, the girls climbed in and sat anywhere there was room. They had to sit on each other’s lap to fit, and three girls were left standing outside.
Saa recounted how Boko Haram asked each of the three girls, “Are you Muslim or Christian?” One said she was Muslim (true), the second said she was Muslim (false, but she wanted to protect herself) and the third admitted that she was Christian. One of the men drew his gun and said he was going to kill her, but one of his compadres told him to leave her alone. All three girls were told to run away and were warned that if they dared to look back, they’d all be shot dead.
Saa was sitting next to her friend Leme on the truck as they drove down dusty roads. As they journeyed on and made several stops, she began to think about escaping. Several girls had already jumped off, but it was a scary thought because the 18-wheeler was followed by cars and motorbikes driven by Boko Haram men.
She said, “I would rather die than be held by Boko Haram.” So she told Leme that on their next stop, she was jumping down. When it was nighttime again and the convoy stopped, Saa jumped off and her friend followed her. Unfortunately, Leme landed on a rock and sprained her ankle. They made it into the forest, but they could not go much farther because of Leme’s injury, so they sat in the bushes and waited until daybreak.
Around 6 a.m. Saa went looking for help and came across a herdsman. She begged him to help her and her friend who had escaped Boko Haram, but he was scared at first. To help them was to put himself in jeopardy, but he did it anyway. He put Leme on a bicycle and they rode to the girls’ hometown, where they found their parents and family members sobbing.
As Saa told her story, I felt myself holding my breath. I am not sure why I thought my breathing would affect what she was saying, but I think I was just bracing myself for the worst.
She spoke about how all she wanted was to get her education so she could become a doctor. She said she wanted to go back one day and help Chibok and Borno State prosper. But for now she was happy to be in the United States because she felt safe at school.
I spoke with Saa one-on-one afterward and asked her how she was adjusting to life in the United States. I told her that I was born and raised in Nigeria, so I knew how the culture shock could be. Her smile was very warm and she laughed easily. I didn't take a picture with her or of her because it just didn't feel right for me to do so, and I didn’t want her to feel even more vulnerable than she already might feel.
I cannot imagine the trauma of being kidnapped by the most notorious terrorists in Nigeria. I cannot even fathom how she could process how close to harm she was. She used to wake up from nightmares screaming. She is finally feeling safe again.
Saa is one of four kidnapped girls who escaped their captors and have been brought to the United States to continue their education under the Jubilee Campaign’s Education After Escape Fund. Although getting them here has not been easy, more of them will be brought soon (visa and financial issues have slowed down the process). You can help bring more of the girls here by donating to the campaign.
Almost 300 girls were kidnapped in Chibok, and only 57 were able to escape. #BringBackOurGirls; bring back the daughters; bring back the sisters who just wanted to learn and ended up in the hands of devils.
This girl, who just six months ago was kidnapped at gunpoint with her friends, had the strength and courage to share her story with us, and that was the most powerful thing I’ve ever witnessed.
Thank you, Saa.
Luvvie Ajayi is an award-winning writer who thrives at the intersection of comedy, technology and activism. She’s the serial ranter behind the hilarious Awesomely Luvvie, the geek behind Awesomely Techie and executive director of the Red Pump Project. You can follow her on Twitter.