17-year-old Boko Haram captive now bound for US university, tells her story of fear to fame
She was 17 when she and 274 other girls were abducted from a school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria in 2014.
“They came in the night. They shot sporadically into the air. They gathered us together. They threatened to kill us if we didn’t do what they said. They quarreled among themselves. At the end, they decided to take us away,” Nkeki said.
She was sexually assaulted and faced other abuse at the hands of the Islamic State-linked militants before she managed to escape last year.
“I never thought I would live to see another day,” she said. “That I am alive today is a miracle.”
Now she is preparing for another miracle. An American church has agreed to send Nkeki and four other young women who escaped from the clutches of Boko Haram to a Christian school in Southern California — Hope International University.
The costs for the women’s travel expenses, plus tuition and housing that could amount to more than $30,000 a year will be paid by the Church of the Servant King in Gardena, Calif.
The church sponsored 35 Cambodians in the 1980s. Congregants decided it was time to reach out again to someone overseas, said Rich Read, the senior pastor. “For us, faith is action,” he said.
Nkeki is currently studying at the American University in Nigeria, a private school unaffiliated with the U.S. government. When she learned about the church’s offer this year, she instantly knew that forgetting her traumatic experience would be easier in the United States.
“I just couldn’t believe my ears,” Nkeki said. “I just can’t find words to describe how I felt. It was a message of a new life.”
Most of the captured Chibok girls have escaped, but more than 100 are still missing. Despite the success of the #BringBackOurGirls movement to highlight the plight of the students, their parents are at wits’ end.
“We have been trying to appeal to our local leaders, but no one seems interested in briefing us about any effort or action by the federal government to secure the release of our daughters,” a group of parents wrote to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in a recent open letter. “We feel neglected.”
Since Boko Haram launched its military offensive in 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million others displaced by the terror group in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon and Niger, according a recent United Nations report.
Boko Haram insurgents still run rampant throughout the northeastern reaches of this West African country. But Nigerian forces have tightened their noose around the group, recently announcing that the militants had been eliminated throughout Borno State.
That’s cold comfort to Nkeki, who hasn’t been able to let go of her memories. The Boko Haram soldiers forced her to march for three days to Mbula, a remote town under their control.
“They burned down the school library and carted out our food supplies,” she continued, recalling the first night she was held hostage. “Boko Haram forced us to trek for over two hours and to sleep under a tamarind tree inside the Sambisa Forest.”
The Boko Haram men then asked the girls to convert to Islam, she said. “They threatened to kill all of us if we refused,” said Nkeki, who is Christian. “After they left we got together. Since there was nothing we could do, we decided to go along in order to save our lives.”
Despite the threats from Boko Haram, several girls who were Christian or practiced local religions refused to convert.
“They gathered us together one Tuesday afternoon,” said Nkeki, who refused to convert. “They expressed satisfaction that we have all converted to Islam. They asked us if marriage in Islam is good or not. We told them there was no way we could get married without the consent of our parents. We told them our religion does not allow such marriages.”
Punishment then followed.
“For us who refused to marry, they detailed us to do menial jobs in their homes — sweeping, washing clothes and doing dishes,” Nkeki said. “They said as their slaves they can choose to sleep with us. They were passing us around among themselves. We saw it was even better to get married, because only one person would be sleeping with us.”
As a result, Nkeki was forced to marry Mohammed Hayyatu to avoid being passed around. Hayyatu, the son of a Muslim cleric, was disillusioned with his life of violence under Boko Haram and confided to her that he was fed up with the group.
He planned to escape. They got their chance after the Nigerian military sacked Njimiya, a Boko Haram stronghold. “The Boko Haram were running away for safety,” she said. “My husband and I saw our opportunity to escape.”
The couple eventually fell in love, but her parents strongly objected to Hayyatu after their escape, claiming he had abducted their daughter. Her parents eventually relented because she had a baby with him while still in captivity.
Read, the pastor, said his church is planning to help the women and their children come to the United States — but not the husbands immediately — by organizing a fundraising drive.
He said the church and the women found each other. Providence would do the rest.
“We think there is help that comes from places that we don’t know about,” he said. “Amazing things can happen.”
Specially reported for USAToday.