Lit Thursday: A Chibok Schoolgirl Who Escaped Boko Haram Tells Her Story

An excerpt from Alexis Okeowo's new book A Moonless, Starless Sky.

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When Rebecca Ishaku was a young girl in Chibok, her favorite game was called saraya: You had to play it with a group of other children, and as everyone sang, you gathered together and tossed one person high in the air, catching her as she came back down to the ground. Another of her favorite games was bulubu, where you attached a string to an object to throw it as far as you could. She relished the act of release, freedom from all restraints, and then the fall to safety.

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Rebecca liked to wear her hair in a tumble of tiny braids, usually under a head scarf made of a bright ankara fabric, sometimes decorated with hearts and polka dots, that matched her dress or skirt and blouse. She was slender, shy but luminous, with high cheekbones and a disarming smile. When I first met her in 2015, she was nineteen and her voice barely went higher than a whisper; later it began to rise and boom with the energy of a teenage girl who had a lot to say, and not many people to say it to.

Rebecca was the third youngest of eleven siblings, four sisters and seven brothers. They shared everything among them. They even took in her four cousins after Rebecca's uncle died. Some slept on mattresses, others on sheets on the floor. They invented games, sang and danced to drums they played, helped each other with homework — especially math times tables — and prayed together.

Her mother, Saratu, and her father, Ishaku, both worked as farmers, and they grew enough food for the family to live on, but not much more than that. Her community was intimately connected. If a family didn't have enough food, their neighbors would help them until the next harvest brought more to eat. All the children ran in and out of everyone's homes in Chibok, and all the parents knew the other parents. Even before she started school, Rebecca wanted to help the people in her area, to become someone of importance. But the rule in Chibok was that you couldn't enter school until you stood taller than the height of a man's arm when he stuck it straight out. So she didn't start school until she was ten.

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Maybe because she had entered school later than her classmates, she seemed a little young for her age, the dreamy, innocent one content to gather her best friends Comfort and Sarah in the shade of a tree, and tell them stories as they made up their own world.

***

On the morning of April 14, 2014, Rebecca woke up at six. She went to the showers, dressed, walked to the common hall for breakfast, and then to her art class to take her final exam.

Later that afternoon, some girls settled into their desks to study, and Rebecca went to pray with the Fellowship of Christian Students. On the way back to the dorm with her friend Saraye, the girls took turns quizzing each other for their government exam. That evening, she slid into her bed with her government book in her hands. In her half-asleep haze, she could hear her roommates laughing at the sight of her clutching the textbook as she slept.

She dreamed that she was in a car with one of her brothers, and they were driving on a bad road through the bush. Rebecca shouted in her sleep. Her roommates leaned into her bed, grabbing her and asking what happened. Before she could answer, they heard more shouts from outside. Rebecca looked out the window. There were dozens of men, young, rough in appearance, wild-eyed. They were wearing military uniforms, but as they came closer, she saw them carrying heavy weapons. They didn't look like normal soldiers.

"You people come outside! Come outside!" she heard them shout.

It was late, around ten at night. A few guards had been stationed in front of the school, but Rebecca could no longer see them. The men were breaking into the dorm. The ones not in uniform wore black shirts and covered their faces with cloth. One entered their room and stood between the beds. He ordered the girls to gather their things and come with him. Rebecca was in a stunned daze. While the others went outside, she packed a bag. Her brother had just given her beautiful black fabric that he had bought in Lagos, and that she hadn't even had tailored yet. She put that and some clothes in the bag. She slipped on sandals. "I didn't know what was happening," she recalled. When she and the other remaining girl finally went outside, a man was standing in front of the dorm waiting for them. He was holding a grenade. "You want to go with a bag?" he asked her incredulously. "Okay." He took it from her.

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A realization was edging to the surface.When the men began shouting "Allahu Akbar," she was sure. They were Boko Haram. The man holding the grenade told her everyone else had gathered at another point, and then led the two girls to where more than 300 of their classmates shivered under trees in front of the school. Some of the men went inside to loot supplies. As the other girls cried, fighting to breathe, Rebecca couldn't move or feel anything. One of the men approached her and put a gun to her head. He said her time had finished. She responded, still in a daze, that if God wanted her time to be finished, then so be it. If not, then she would live. The man lowered the gun and asked where the storeroom was located. As Rebecca and another girl led him to the room, he asked them why they had come to school.

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"We are here for studying," she told him.

"Which studying?" he said dismissively. Rebecca kept quiet. "You know this studying you are doing is forbidden," he said. "We will burn your entire school." The two girls begged him to spare their lives, and to just destroy the school.

"You are deceiving yourselves. You don't know that you are pagan?" he asked.

The girls didn't say anything. "Do you repent?" he demanded. They remained silent.

She felt like she could burst into a million pieces right then, collapse on the floor in tears and never get back up.

Back outside, gunmen took the food — macaroni, noodles, spaghetti, rice, yams, and flour — to load onto their pickup trucks. When the last men emerged from the red-roofed cream buildings, they lit them on fire. The men then threw the girls' belongings into the flames.

As the girls listened, the militants began to debate about what to do with them. Rebecca had imagined herself getting away, all the girls running into their parents' houses again. She saw now there was no chance of that happening. One man said they should finish the girls, just kill them. Another one suggested killing them one by one. Yet another said that their religion did not allow them to kill women. As the men argued, some of the girls were sending pleas for mercy into the silent sky. Rebecca had no tears. "My mind wasn't for that place," she said. "I told them crying wouldn't help, that it was better to pray. Maybe God would save us." Finally, it was decided: All of the girls would go with the men.

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So they trekked through the forest, past unlit villages where residents knew not to come out of their houses. The girls were careful not to trip or stumble because they knew the men would hit them if they did. The men told them not to run, or they would shoot them. When they reached a series of parked trucks, the militants pushed Rebecca and the other girls onto the truck beds. They were crammed so tightly that there was no space to sit.

The trucks began moving, trundling through the foliage, snapping leaves and crushing bushes. Tree branches whipped the girls as they passed. One girl fell, twisting her leg. Rebecca and the others held her as she moaned in pain. Rebecca whispered to her friends to stop crying. One of the men heard her and asked why she was speaking. Did they want to die now? She started praying. "You're praying to your God. You think your God will save you?" he taunted her. Rebecca prayed harder, struggling to focus on her words. She opened her eyes, and looked out of the truck with a sudden clarity. She couldn't follow these men. She didn't know where they were taking them, how long they would keep them. It scared her to think of what they would do to them.

She had to jump.

"DOES ANYONE want to follow me?" Rebecca asked the girls around her. She looked down and saw Boko Haram gunmen on foot keeping pace with the trucks. Her friend Saraye told her to be quiet, that she was being crazy. Rebecca was getting angry. Why didn't they want to go with her? How could they just stay behind for whatever fate awaited them? "If I die, at least my parents will be able to see my body," she said. Saraye said she was afraid. Rebecca faltered for a moment. She felt like she could burst into a million pieces right then, collapse on the floor in tears and never get back up. Instead, she looked at her friend and told her she would pray for her, and asked Saraye to pray for her, too. Saraye said she would.

A few minutes later, when the truck was passing another giant tree, Rebecca jumped. She fell in a tangle of branches and bushes, and then started running. Men were behind and in front of her. Several of them started shooting. She crept behind a tree and lay down on her stomach, waiting until some of them passed. She started running again. When she saw more men coming, she hid behind another tree. When they all passed, she ran through the night until daybreak. In the dark forest, the trees looked like specters, hovering, tentacled ghosts, and the bushes like waiting monsters. The ground was hard and painful. At dawn, Rebecca saw smoke curling through the trees. She felt almost sick with hope. She followed the smoke until she reached a village. The people there asked her if she was one of the students from Chibok; they had already heard about the kidnapping.

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The villagers took Rebecca home on a motorcycle. When she arrived at her house, an hour's drive from where she had found the village, her father emerged, crying. He and Rebecca cried together, holding each other.

***

For four months after her escape, Rebecca barely left the house. She was having nightmares, frightening, vivid dreams of being taken by Boko Haram again. She wondered about what had happened to her friends and her classmates, what they could be doing, how they were being treated. Had she done enough to try to convince the girls in her truck to jump with her? Gradually, her parents brought up the idea of school again. She was close to graduating; she had only two years left. They suggested that she could go to the capital, Abuja, a staid, expansive city of government buildings and planned housing estates, and stay with a cousin she grew up with while she finished there.

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When Rebecca started school in September, her first months back tortured her. If someone shouted in class, she stood up in fear. She would inexplicably cry during lessons. When her teachers spoke, she found it hard to pay attention.

Of the almost sixty girls who escaped from Boko Haram after the abduction, she kept in touch with just one. Hauwa attended school a few hours away in the city of Jos, in Nigeria's central plateau. They called each other and talked about their classes, their families, how they were doing. They didn't talk about that night. Rebecca had heard varying stories about what happened to the girls. Some said they were still alive. Others said they had been killed. She heard a girl was buried up to her neck in the dirt and stoned. That one was hard to think about. Another person told her that her classmates had been separated into groups and taken to different places in Cameroon and Chad.

***

In January 2016, I met Rebecca on a hot afternoon in Abuja at Unity Park, the site of many protests that demanded the government find the schoolgirls. Now twenty-one, Rebecca had discovered Shakespeare: Her favorite play was Othello. She constantly listened to the gospel music of Nigerian singer Solomon Lange. It had been a year and a half since she had left home; her parents wouldn't let her return because it was unsafe. Her three younger brothers called her and asked her when she would return.

Several months later, something unexpected happened. Rebecca learned of the return of twenty-two of her schoolmates. One girl named Amina was found wandering through Sambisa Forest with her infant child in May, and then Boko Haram released another twenty-one girls in October in a deal brokered by the Swiss government and the International Red Cross. In May 2017, Boko Haram released 82 more schoolgirls in exchange for the government's release of as many as six suspected members of the militant group. Still, they were a fraction of the estimated 9,000 girls and women who had been abducted by Boko Haram over the years to be their sex slaves, their cooks, and their suicide bombers.

At the end of 2016, Rebecca's parents agreed to let her visit home. She was overjoyed to be with her family, absorbing their voices and smells, memorizing the ways their faces and bodies had shifted. But her trip lasted just six days because it was still too dangerous to be there. Some nights her parents and brothers slept in the bush with other people from her area if they heard rumors of a raid coming their way. It wasn't a way to live, but it's what they had to do now.

Alexis Okeowo is a staff writer at the New Yorker and a fellow at New America. This piece was adapted from her new book A Moonless, Starless Sky, published on October 3 by Hachette Books.

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