Typically, the international media often tires of a crisis after a few months and departs the scene, leaving the rest of us to scan more local outlets to find out what happened to the victims.
But the story of more than 100 Nigerian school girls kidnapped in February by a terrorist group is different. Not only were nearly all these girls returned a few months later, there was one left behind. This was one Christian girl who refused to convert to Islam in exchange for her freedom. Not surprisingly, her plight has caught the attention of many.
Including the U.S. president. According to Vanguard Media, a Nigerian outlet, we learn that Leah’s captivity was discussed in talks between Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and President Donald Trump when the former was in Washington this month.
Meanwhile, CNN was the lone U.S. network to send a reporter to Nigeria to find out who is this 15-year-old girl who defied a terrorist army. She may pay for her bravery with her life. Their story begins thus:
Dapchi, Nigeria (CNN) - Under normal circumstances, Leah Sharibu would have shared a special birthday meal with her family under the bamboo covering protecting them from the Sahara desert dust swirling around them at their home in northeast Nigeria.
At some point during the celebration, they would have bowed their heads in prayer, asking God to bless Leah on her birthday and to make her dreams come true.
But this birthday, her 15th, was different and her family spent the day crying and fervently praying. They don't know where she is.
Leah was one of the 110 schoolgirls kidnapped by members of the terrorist group Boko Haram in February from their school in Dapchi, in northeast Nigeria.
All the other kidnapped schoolgirls from Dapchi have been freed -- except Leah who her friends say refused to renounce her Christian faith to Boko Haram.
Where is Leah exactly?
No one will say although the guess is she's far to the north in Chad. The article adds that 1,000 children have been kidnapped by Boko Haram (most of whom never got any publicity), including 300 girls from a school in Chibok. Despite all the coverage from that Chibok event in 2014, more than 100 are still with their captors. One wonders if this will be Leah’s fate.
The reporter took the trouble to search out Rebecca, Leah’s 45-year-old mother. Leah also has a brother.
Ten days ago, I visited Rebecca in Dapchi. Rebecca says no other journalist had ever come to see her, so she was surprised when I showed up at her doorstep and even more surprised when she learned I had traveled more than 2,000 miles from Senegal to see her…
It is obvious from looking at Rebecca that she is still not fully healthy, physically nor mentally.
Her eyes were in a daze, surrounded by drooping skin and deeply-etched lines. Her breaths came in haggard waves. She twisted the corners of her mouth downwards in a permanent frown…
Rebecca said no official from the Nigerian government has even visited her.
"Only Christian organizations have been coming to see us. No one from government. We are on our own," she said.
When CNN contacted Nigerian presidential aide Femi Adesina about her comments, he referred CNN to the Yobe State governor office. The state office in turn referred us to speak with the federal government about the family's concerns when they were contacted by CNN.
Don’t hold your breath for any help from that quarter. ChristianToday, a British outlet, reported more details about Leah refusing to recant her faith and asked sharp questions about why security forces were mysteriously absent the day Boko Haram showed up to do the kidnapping.
It was known that Boko Haram was heading for Dapchi, according to Amnesty International so the military’s inaction to protect the girls was deliberate. It was also known where Boko Haram was headed post-kidnapping and a quick military response could have saved the girls. But there was none.
The question of what kind of country allows its children to be kidnapped by an international Islamic cartel deserves a separate article. Back to the CNN piece: After interviewing the mother, the reporter then walked to the scene of the crime.
The Dapchi school was established nearly 40 years ago. The classrooms are in poor shape, with gaping holes in the tiled floors and broken windows everywhere. There's not much running water and the dorms where the female students live don't even have beds.
It is hard to comprehend that more than 900 young girls were learning in these dire conditions.
For more details, one must turn to more local media.
Pulse, a Nigerian web site, reports that most of the returned girls aren’t returning to the school, either because of their fears or those of their parents. Some have found out-of-town boarding schools to attend but six have been married off, I assume unwillingly. The Nigerian site doesn’t explain why the girls have to be married off right away but the article merely says the parents “lost interest in sending them to school.” Which tells you something about the value of a girl in that society.
Pulse also reported the mother having a dream about her missing daughter and that -– similar to what she said to CNN –- no government or school officials have contacted her since the kidnapping. It said:
She said her daughter appeared to her at midnight, in a red dress and hugged her while smiling from ear to ear.
Rebecca said Leah narrated her ordeal in captivity.
“I finally got my freedom Mama,” Rebecca quoted Leah to have said in the dream.
“Mama, I really suffered in [Boko Haram’s] hands. We sleep on leaves and barely take baths, but they fed me well.”
Now red is the color of martyrs, so I’m hoping Leah’s description of “freedom” isn’t signifying her death.
What is also haunting is that five students died during the kidnapping and one hardly reads about their families. All the girls were packed into some kind of truck and five of them -– who were unlucky enough to have fallen during the melee -- ended up being trampled to death.
The whole story of the now-15-year-old Christian girl who’s holding out, under great pressure, against her captors is compelling. This March 30 story from the Guardian, tells how Leah, plus two other girls, actually escaped for three days until some local Fulani tribesmen turned them back into their kidnappers.
From that story, we learn the girls were taken on a long march up to the Lake Chad region near the border of Chad and Cameroon.
TheCable, another Nigerian outlet, talks about a possible Christian-Muslim religious war if Leah isn’t freed, so the issue is definitely on the top burner in the home country. Still, why have so few journalists visited Rebecca Sharibu?
Why wasn’t the Amnesty International report, which was released March 20, written about more widely? No U.S. media picked that up.
My one (small) problem with the CNN story is that it doesn’t mention Leah’s father, Nathan, who earlier said –- upon hearing of his daughter’s refusal to renounce her faith –- that he was proud of her. Was he simply not in town or did he not wish to talk?
It’s a tribute to CNN that it spent the time and money to send Chika Oduah, a Nigerian-American journalist (who is a Medill School of Journalism grad) to search out Leah’s family. I hope other media outlets from around the world send their best reporters into northern Nigeria as well. The more light shown on the collusion between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, the better. There’s way too many helpless Leahs out there who are their victims.