Maria (right) and Janada (left) with Fr Joseph attend the weekly General Audience on 8 March 2023 Maria (right) and Janada (left) with Fr Joseph attend the weekly General Audience on 8 March 2023  (ANSA)

Boko Haram survivors: The courage to tell one's story

Janada Markus and Maria Joseph, victims of Boko Haram, tell their stories, raising awareness of the devastating reality so many women and girls face in Nigeria and worldwide.

By Francesca Merlo

Women’s day. The eighth of March, is a chance to give volume to the voices that are often ignored, forgotten and drowned out by the flurry of our daily lives. Ironically, these are the voices that we should be listening to the most, their stories a witness to the terrible realities so many of us are sheltered from.

The importance of speaking out

On this 8th of March the voices we hear are those of Maria Joseph and Janada Markus, and, in a way, of the thousands of girls and women who they are representing as they bravely tell the story of their kidnappings and detentions by the violent men of Boko Haram. They brought this same testimony to Pope Francis on Wednesday morning.

Maria, who after living nine years in the captivity of Boko Haram, prefers to be called Maryamu, speaks only Hausa. She was kidnapped at the age of ten and released last August, aged 19.

Janada is slightly older than Maria, 22 years old, and though her captivity was shorter than her friend’s, she was kidnapped four times, and feels no less pain.

The two girls on Tuesday afternoon met with journalists at the Aid to the Church in Need headquarters in Rome. They sat side by side and took it in turn telling their stories. Janada began, and through the encouragement of Fr Joseph Fidelis who runs the trauma centre in Maiduguri diocese where the girls are looked after, she chooses to speak English, which she has recently been learning at school.

The two girls and Fr Joseph meeting with journalists at ACN, Rome
The two girls and Fr Joseph meeting with journalists at ACN, Rome

Janada’s story

Janada has survived four attacks by Boko Haram. Her whole family managed to escape the first, in 2011, when the terrorists set fire to their home in Baga. When the same thing happened just three years later in their new house in Askira Uba, in Borno state some family members did not make it. However, it is in recounting the third attack, on 28 October 2018, that Janada’s eyes fill with tears and she takes a moment to cry. “It is difficult for her”, Fr Joseph steps in addressing the journalists in Italian on her behalf. “That is the day they killed her father”. Janada was only seventeen years old when her father was decapitated in front of her. Once more, two years later, Janada came face to face with the men who killed her father, kidnapping her from the hospital bed where she was recovering from a small operation. They held her hostage for six days, during which time she was tortured emotionally, physically and mentally.

Janada receiving a blessing from Pope Francis
Janada receiving a blessing from Pope Francis

Maria’s story

Maria has a very different story. She was kidnapped at the age of 9 and lived under Boko Haram for over ten years. Maria, or Maryamu, talks about being kept in a cage, about being shot in one leg as she attempted to escape, about being promised in marriage to a man, much older than she was. Unlike Janada, Maria doesn’t cry, but she, too, eventually stops talking, and Fr Joseph continues for her, telling us that she lives in Abuja with her aunt because she wasn’t able to live with her mother, who had long considered her dead. “That area brings back bad memories”, he says. “Maria for a year could not even be around men, let alone look them in the eyes”. In her nine years of slavery, Maria was held hostage, for some time, with some of the almost 300 girls who were kidnapped from a school in Chibok in 2014, the same ones for whom the slogan “bring back our girls” was created.

Maria receiving a blessing from Pope Francis
Maria receiving a blessing from Pope Francis

But despite efforts accompanying that slogan, Maria’s brother, who is still in captivity, has not been brought back. Nor will they bring back her other brother, killed, just as Janada’s father was. And there are still thousands of victims of Boko Haram across Nigeria.

How things should be...

But there is hope for the girls. Janada is living back at home with her mother and siblings, she is studying tropical medicine, following in the footsteps of her father. Maria is at school, learning to read and write. Both were welcomed by Fr Joseph in his trauma centre. Over 300 women have benefitted from treatment at the centre, funded by Aid to the Church in Need. The centre, with its consultants, experts in the physical, medical, psychological, sociological and educational fields, helps victims of violence reintegrate into society, giving them hope and showing them how life should be, for every single woman, everywhere.

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08 March 2023, 15:01