Crushed hopes over Nigeria's missing girls

Crushed hopes over Nigeria's missing girls

(CNN) -- For weeks, Nigerian officials said that more than 200 Nigerian school girls would finally be freed. When it fell apart, there was nothing but devastation.


Over and over, sources told CNN's Isha Sesay that negotiations between the government and Boko Haram, the group that snatched the girls in April, were getting somewhere. The journalist was assured that the Islamist terror group had agreed to a cease-fire, and as part of that deal, the girls would be able to return to their families.

For once, Sesay allowed herself to feel optimistic.

A native of Sierra Leone, the journalist was personally drawn to the tragedy that inspired the global campaign "Bring Back Our Girls."

"Those girls were poor, from a remote part of Nigeria," in Chibok in Borno State, Sesay said.

The area has been long ignored, and the people there have gotten by on very little, she said.

The girls were kidnapped while they were at school.

"They were just trying to get an education," Sesay said. "But for the grace of God, I come from an educated family and my life has been different. It's the power of education that has allowed me to become a CNN anchor. These girls were in school to change their circumstances."

Sesay got on a plane to Nigeria days ago as sources told her that the girls' freedom was imminent.

When she landed she started to hear more from journalists who have extensively covered Boko Haram, and from those who knew how the terror group operated.

They were suspicious, and doubted that the government was really in talks with the terrorists.

There were other red flags. No one from Boko said anything about the supposed cease-fire. In fact, members remained active in northeastern Nigeria, and actually carried out more attacks and child abductions.

Sesay and her CNN crew kept hoping. Maybe it was simple banditry in the north, she reasoned. It was hard to bear the idea that the girls wouldn't be freed.

"We wanted to believe," she said. "We gave (Nigerian officials) the benefit of the doubt, I suppose."

A crushing video

On November 1, a video appeared of Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau saying no cease-fire been reached. The girls were not going to be released, he said, laughing.

They had converted to Islam and were married off.

"They are," he said, "in the marital homes."

It was a crushing blow.

"It was like he was saying, 'This is done,' " Sesay recalled.

After the video was released, Nigeria's government asserted that negotiations had happened, and Shekau had gone back on promises he'd made during those talks.

"We've heard about the video, and we can say the road to peace is bumpy -- and you cannot expect otherwise," a spokesman said. "Nigeria has been fighting a war, and wars don't end overnight."

In late October, Human Rights Watch released a report on Boko Haram violence against women and girls in Nigeria. The group interviewed kidnap victims including a dozen of the Chibok girls who escaped. The girls had been imprisoned in eight Boko Haram camps in the Sambisa Forest Reserve, the report said.

The women and girls who refused to convert to Islam were physically and sexually assaulted, HRW said, and some were forced to marry their captors.

Men and boys who were abducted, the report says, were given the choice of joining the group or being murdered.

'How could they do this?'

Before she left Nigeria, Sesay called Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian government official and one of the leaders of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

"She sounded sick with grief when she answered the phone," Sesay recalled. "I said ... 'Are you OK?' which is ... so stupid. She was just -- her voice was hoarse with pain. She said, 'How could they do this?' "

Ezekwesili said she wasn't sure if the parents of the girls would recover.

Sesay said she is committed to continue to tell the girls' stories. Each is a person. Each deserves to live out their unique passions and paths.

"We have to keep asking questions," she said. "We have set expectations low in terms of getting meaningful answers. That can't continue."


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