Nigerian girls’ release answers Brethren prayers

Aid from U.S. is ongoing as violence has uprooted the lives of many Brethren in Nigeria’s conflict zone

May 15, 2017 by and

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Heartened by the release of 82 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants three years ago, the Church of the Brethren continues to support thousands of its members affected by the insurgent group’s violence.

Most of the kidnapped girls are associated with Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), which has been working with the U.S. Church of the Brethren to respond to widespread devastation.

The girls were exchanged May 6 for five suspects associated with Boko Haram, an extremist Islamist group whose April 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 girls in a nighttime attack on a school at Chibok was one of the high-profile incidents of a reign of terror in Nigeria’s northeast, where many of EYN’s roughly 1 million members live.

People gather at a relocation center sponsored by the Church of the Brethren in Yola, Nigeria. The Church of the Brethren’s Nigeria Crisis Response has funded three relocation camps for people who still haven’t been able to return home. — Roy Winter

People gather at a relocation center sponsored by the Church of the Brethren in Yola, Nigeria. The Church of the Brethren’s Nigeria Crisis Response has funded three relocation camps for people who still haven’t been able to return home. — Roy Winter

Over the course of an eight-year insurgency seeking to create an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram militants have killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million.

In 2016, EYN reported 1,668 churches were burned or abandoned, more than 10,000 members murdered by Boko Haram and almost 1,400 pastors displaced from their homes without incomes and churches to serve.

Over the past two and a half years, the U.S. Church of the Brethren’s Nigeria Crisis Response has raised about $5 million to assist Boko Haram’s victims in a variety of ways. Coordinator Roxanne Hill said the initial response included food and household donations, along with building a temporary headquarters for the denomination.

“As things got better, they moved back. We repaired things that were damaged, so they’re back in their original headquarters,” she said. “We haven’t done much with pastors because the need is just too large.”

The crisis response funded three relocation camps for people who still haven’t been able to return home, even purchasing land around the camps for agricultural income.

“Their homes are still in what they call ‘Nigeria no-go zones,’ ” she said. “Our work has been trauma healing and awareness of that . . . and training other trainers so we can multiply that.”

Some schools, like the Chibok school, have been closed for two years, so education programs are part of the response. Seeds and farm equipment were purchased, but it’s an uphill effort. In some places, Boko Haram has burned crops the past two Novembers.

“The problem is, every sector of their life is uprooted,” Hill said. “They ran for a whole year. There are burnt wells, destroyed crops. People took over their land while they were gone.

“We have so many widows now. The education and medical systems were disrupted. Roads and bridges were destroyed.”

EYN created a disaster team to coordinate relief efforts for everyone in the community, even members of other churches and Muslims. While giving was robust two years ago, Hill said donations have slowed recently.

Nigeria Crisis Response has about $750,000 at the moment, and the Church of the Brethren website still offers a channel for giving.

Released, but not home

About 90 percent of the kidnapped schoolgirls are from EYN congregations. Neither the recently released 82 girls nor 21 girls released in October have gone home. Others have escaped or been rescued, but about 113 are believed to be still in captivity.

Hill said the girls released in October are still being kept in the capital of Abuja.

“At Christmas they were promised they could go home,” she said. “Through a lot of debate, they could go to a government official’s house, and families were allowed to visit them at that compound, but as soon as that 10 days was over they were taken back to Abuja.”

No reason has been given for remaining in what the BBC reported is “a military reintegration program.”

“The whole Chibok incident is an embarrassment for the government, some people say,” Hill said. “Maybe they don’t want them to be kidnapped again, because Chibok is near Sambisa Forest, which is dangerous territory. Perhaps they have secrets or knowledge of things that the government doesn’t want out there.”

But not every girl wants to go home. Lawyer Zannah Musta­pha, who mediated between the government and Boko Haram, told Reuters there is speculation some are ashamed to return or may have been radicalized.

A girl kidnapped from a location other than Chibok told the BBC she was stigmatized, shunned and called a Boko Haram bride upon her return because she was pregnant.

“I think the [EYN] church itself is willing to embrace them, and I’ve heard mothers from the Chibok area say we will bring back the girls,” Hill said. “Out of those 21 girls, I think 10 were baptized by representatives of our church” in October.

About half of the 21 Chibok girls released in October were baptized Oct. 30 into the EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria. The government has not allowed them to return to their families. — Roxanne Hill

About half of the 21 Chibok girls released in October were baptized Oct. 30 into the EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria. The government has not allowed them to return to their families. — Roxanne Hill

Religion News Service reported a military source said the more recent group of 82 girls had medical checks before being airlifted to Abuja.

Though the girls’ names were put online by the Nigerian president’s office, the BBC reported May 8 that parents were having difficulties learning if their children were among those released, and even parents in Abuja were waiting to see if they could be reunited with their daughters.

Esther Yakubu told the BBC that even if her daughter isn’t among the freed girls, she is very happy.

“I have never been happy in my life like today,” she said. “I am a mother. I accept any child that is back. My baby will be back soon, if she is among them or if she isn’t.”

After the 219 Chibok girls were kidnapped in April of 2014, the U.S. Church of the Brethren gave each of its congregations the name of a girl to pray for.

“When we find out anything, we try to let them know,” she said.


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