Dapchi’s last captive
Leah Sharibu’s family continues to search for answers months after her kidnapping
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Daniel Auta heard gunfire and children screaming from the girls’ boarding school about five minutes away from his home in the town of Dapchi in Yobe state. Boko Haram militants had descended on the school, launching on Feb. 19 the group’s second mass school kidnapping in northeast Nigeria. Auta, pastor of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Dapchi, knew instantly his community would long feel the impact of the attack.
In her home about 20 minutes away, Rebecca Sharibu received word that the militants were invading the school where her daughter, Leah, attended. She rushed to the school along with several other parents to search for their children.
“Some of the women found their children, but me, I didn’t see Leah. I was crying.”
Boko Haram kidnapped 110 girls from the school. The group later released 104 of them after five others died in captivity. Now, more than two months later, Leah—the only Christian among the girls—remains the lone captive from Dapchi, held for refusing to renounce her faith. The 15-year-old’s courageous stance drew international admiration, but her family increasingly grows worried for her safety, afraid she has been forgotten, as they receive no word from the government on her rescue.
On the morning of the attack, the militants asked for directions to the Government Girls Science and Technical College as soon as they arrived in Dapchi. “In the town, they didn’t touch anybody. Their purpose was to take away the girls,” said Auta, who is the pastor to Leah and her family.
The militants opened fire on the school’s compound, sending the girls fleeing for shelter. Some jumped over the fence and went to hide in the surrounding bush. Several others ran out through the school’s main gate and into some of the waiting militants, who took them.
Many parents in the town waited for their children, hoping they would emerge from hiding in the coming days. Rebecca said she waited three days, hoping that Leah was not among the abducted girls. “Up till now I haven’t seen Leah,” she said.
A month after taking the girls, the militants drove back into Dapchi on March 21 in a convoy and returned 104 of them. Videos from the village showed ecstatic villagers thanking and shaking hands with the militants for returning the girls. The insurgents said they returned the girls after discovering they were Muslim, and warned the villagers not to return their children to school. The name Boko Haram loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden.”
Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed later said the government neither paid ransom nor swapped prisoners with the extremist group to ensure the girls’ safe return. He claimed the government reached an unconditional agreement for their release, since the abduction breached ongoing cease-fire talks. “When the girls were being brought back, an operational pause was observed in certain areas to ensure free passage and prevent loss of lives.”
But five of the captured girls died in captivity, their deaths witnessed and confirmed by their classmates who were released. Auta said the girls informed the community that Leah remained with the militants because she refused to convert to Islam.
Aisha Wali, deputy director of the Yobe state Women Affairs Ministry, said the girls revealed in their meetings that they tried to protect Leah, the only Christian among them. “The students said they were calling her Ladi and they gave her a hijab to wear, but she refused.”
Her mother fainted upon hearing the news, and she had to be hospitalized.
Rebecca’s husband, Nathan, who works as a policeman in northeast Adamawa state, told reporters he was happy Leah stood for her faith. “As a father, I wish she returned home as the rest,” he said, “but God is in control.”
AT THE TIME OF HER ABDUCTION, Leah was a 10th-grade student who dreamed of becoming a nurse. Her decision to stand for her faith drew widespread support and commendation.
The Christian Association of Nigeria declared a day of prayer for her release. ECWA Nigeria President Jeremiah Gado called on congregants nationwide to pray and fast from April 27 to 29 for “God’s intervention toward freeing Leah.” In Dapchi, Auta said some mosques joined the Christians to pray for Leah’s release during their Friday prayers.
Auta has known the Sharibu family for more than three years and watched the family attend Sunday services, Wednesday prayer meetings, and other church events. Leah’s stance is a great encouragement, he said: “This is how I taught my members, and they went back and taught their children to hold Jesus Christ firmly and not to deviate from His teaching.”
At the family home, several Christians continue to visit with gifts and prayers. Leah’s 13-year-old brother, Donald, who learned about Leah’s kidnapping from teachers at his own school, said, “We are very happy because she defended our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But the family continues to struggle. Following the release of the kidnapped girls, the government vowed that Leah “will not be abandoned.” But since then, Rebecca Sharibu told me in mid-April, no government official has briefed the family on its efforts to rescue Leah. “As they brought the other ones safely, let them bring my daughter safely,” she said. “That’s what I want from the government.” (The Sharibus’ pastor confirmed on May 4 the government still had not provided any update.)
Following an April meeting with Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in a statement said the government would continue to handle Leah’s case quietly because “making noise would not help.”
But Buhari insists the government isn’t ignoring it: “We are collecting as much intelligence as possible, working with the Red Cross and other international organizations.”
TAKING AN UNDERSTATED APPROACH won’t quell fears, though: The Dapchi kidnapping is the largest since Boko Haram militants in April 2014 kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok in Borno state.
Boko Haram launched its insurgency in Nigeria in 2009 with bomb attacks and killings in the country’s northeast. In 2011, the extremist group extended its reach to Abuja, where it staged attacks on police headquarters and on a United Nations building. Nigerian authorities in 2016 regained control of Boko Haram’s stronghold in northeast Borno state, but the group continues with sporadic attacks. Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million others.
The Chibok kidnapping attracted global attention and sparked a #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign that featured first lady Michelle Obama. In Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, a group of campaigners continues to organize protests seeking the release of the remaining 112 Chibok girls. Authorities also mandated the rescued girls spend at least nine months at a reintegration center.
After militants released the Dapchi girls to their families, officials took the survivors to Abuja. There, they met with Buhari and received medical treatment and counseling. Authorities then handed over the girls to their parents, Yobe State Police Commissioner Sunmonu Abdulmaliki confirmed.
Despite the varying lengths of abduction, girls kidnapped by Boko Haram face similar struggles to readjust. In Chibok, some of the girls who completed the mandatory reintegration program still battle with flashbacks and nightmares, said Friya Kimde Bulus, the deputy director of the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development.
Some rescued Chibok girls had narrated how the militants forcibly married off some of their classmates. Boko Haram also released multiple proof-of-life videos that showed some of the girls holding babies. Bulus said the ministry is working with other partners to provide more regular psychosocial sessions.
Wali said the state women affairs ministry in Yobe has started counseling sessions in Dapchi for the families and other community members, which has become even more necessary as the girls start to face stigmatization. “People are saying since it’s Boko Haram that took them away, they must have used them.”
The rescued girls’ families also refused to return them back to the school in Dapchi and demanded the government either tighten security or give them the option to attend as day students. School authorities transferred the grade 12 students who already registered for their national examinations to a school in another local government area.
In the meantime, the state ministry said it’s working with partners to open a safe space where the girls can partake in skill acquisition activities until they return to school. “If they’re not immediately taken back to school, they could face gender-based violence, hawking, early marriage,” Wali said.
BACK IN DAPCHI, life may appear normal, but the attack left its mark. On the bridge leading into the town, soldiers and police officials man a checkpoint. The school Leah and her classmates attended sits empty. Policemen guard the entrance. In the town’s market, traders hawk calendars with pictures of the abducted girls. Some show the released girls posing by security officials as they celebrate their return. But Leah’s picture signals the story isn’t over. In one of them, she sits beside her mother, who embraces her.
At the Sharibus’ home, Rebecca and Donald read the Bible every day at 6 o’clock in the morning and evening, then they pray for Leah’s return. Knowing Leah remains in the hands of Islamic militants, her brother said, “It encourages us so we would not be worried.”
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