ABUJA, Nigeria — “One of our daughters may be returning to us.”
It was an otherwise ordinary spring evening in Abuja when the text message flashed up on Esther Yakubu’s phone, and suddenly she was filled with hope — and fear.
As she always did when she got a message like this, she ran through what it might mean: Could it be that, after two long years, she might finally hear her missing daughter’s voice again? Was Dorcas about to return to reclaim her place in the family as big sister to her five siblings? Would this bring an end to the sleepless nights spent imagining her daughter’s fate at the hands of a sect that has burned schoolchildren alive?
The message circulated on Friday, March 25, among members of the “Chibok family,” named after the northeastern Nigerian town from which 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the Islamist sect Boko Haram two years ago. The text mentioned the detention of two young female would-be suicide bombers in Limani, a market town across the border in Cameroon.
Earlier that day, civilian volunteers had noticed a young girl limping through the market in Limani alongside an older woman, a Cameroonian colonel told BuzzFeed News. He said that when they stopped her, she appeared to have been badly beaten, and had explosives strapped to her body. “They were drugged — the younger was just very highly drugged,” the colonel said. “We don’t know if she even understood what she was sent to do.”
And then came the news that members of the Chibok family so desperately wanted to hear, and to believe: The younger of the two told officials she was one of their kidnapped girls. News of the girl’s detention spread as it always does among the Chibok clan, with hopes lighting up alongside cell phone screens as the text message was relayed from one family to the next.
A familiar routine began — a flurry of calls to journalists, activists, anyone who might have confirmation. A handful of people with access to the internet scoured it for information. As always, those most desperately sought were hardest to reach: Calls to officials in the capital, Abuja, went unanswered. It was all but impossible to connect with the volunteer vigilantes who patrol the remote areas of Nigeria most threatened by Boko Haram.
For two years, relatives of the kidnapped girls have oscillated between hope and fear at hearing news — any news — about their fates. “There have been so many twists and turns that of course we’re skeptical,” said Abana Lawan, whose two nieces are among those missing.
But Yakubu was convinced otherwise, as she lay on a mattress in her house 500 miles from Chibok listening to a battery-powered radio while her husband was out working. The broadcaster’s tinny voice talking about the detained girl turned the cramped room “into heaven,” as she told it. “This has rekindled my hope. I believe I will hold my Dorcas in my arms again one day,” she said.
Despite the trauma of the past two years, Yakubu still laughs often and loudly, and wears bright clothes, the perfect opposite to her quiet husband, Yakub, a farmer who now ekes out an existence as a taxi driver. Both had always believed they were blessed, beginning with Dorcas, their firstborn; the hospital where she was born in Chibok offered only the most basic care, and it had taken what Yakubu believed was divine intervention to survive a complicated pregnancy.
They named the daughters who followed after their increasing good fortune: Happy, Marvelous, and Mercy, the youngest, who at the age of 5 has now spent almost half her life asking after her missing sister.
Yakubu still held out hope three days after the message arrived, when officials said the would-be suicide bomber in Cameroon was tentatively believed to be 12 years old at most, which would have made her too young to be in secondary school in Chibok even now, let alone two years ago, when the girls were taken. “The girl might have mistaken her age,” Yakubu said. “Maybe her mental condition isn't stable enough — don't forget she was on a suicide mission.”
The Chibok girls were all under 20 when they were abducted, and it is widely thought that Boko Haram, in its ruthless seven-year war to build an Islamic caliphate in Africa’s most populous country, has forced them to become sex slaves, foot soldiers, or suicide bombers in their continuing war.
As families around the country tried to come to terms with the possibility that one of their daughters had been found, two parents from the Chibok family were readying themselves to fly out to Cameroon after a local NGO paid their airfare. The parents would identify whether the girl was from Chibok, and whose daughter she was.
Yakubu’s voice remained bright: “I just have a feeling that she is one of our girls,” she said.
Two years on from the kidnapping, public outcry has faded; the missing daughters are no longer symbols of global solidarity but instead of impotence in the face of the unspeakable violence carried out in the name of militant Islam. Hope has turned into anger at what many parents see as missed opportunities to rescue the girls.
“We kept telling [officials], the location of these girls isn’t a secret,” recalled a relative of one of the missing schoolgirls who attended meetings with U.S. and U.K. officials shortly after their abduction. “Within the initial timeframe we knew where the girls were. We knew every day we delayed reduced the chance of getting them back,” said another parent, who asked to remain anonymous because of pressure from the government not to talk to the media.
The days following the kidnapping were fraught with false claims and false reports — the military initially said all the girls had been rescued, before admitting that none, in fact, had been. Fifty-seven have so far escaped — but all did so within two days of the kidnapping, and dozens of potential leads as to the girls’ whereabouts since then have yielded nothing.
“We never needed intelligence on [their location] — what we actually need is rescue assistance, because we want to avoid collateral damage,” the father of four told BuzzFeed News. Some parents wonder if they missed a transformative moment by not channeling the world’s attention onto the fact that the girls' whereabouts were actually known.
Some of the families were initially hopeful for a change in government strategy after President Muhammadu Buhari took power in April 2015. Reverend Enoch Mark, whose daughters Monica and Sarah were kidnapped, was among a group of parents who visited the presidential villa at Aso Rock. They listened as Buhari said he couldn’t guarantee where the girls were, or whether they were alive — the president nonetheless assured them: "I go to bed and wake up every day with the Chibok girls on my mind."
Mark, a soft-spoken pastor with a penchant for biblical metaphors, said he liked the president’s honesty. But after he used the last of that week’s savings to pay for a bus fare to the meeting, the message he took away was clear: “The government is saying there is no money, and there is no help.”
Like many of the parents, he sometimes wonders if all the early publicity might have come back to bite them — following all the coverage, the teenagers would doubtlessly be tightly guarded by Boko Haram. They could also become a potent new tool in the sect’s murderous ideology: Sending one of the Chibok girls to strike as a suicide bomber would further spread the militants' psychological propaganda.
For some parents, the wait has raised an equally painful specter: that even if their loved ones were to return, it would be as brainwashed suicide bombers. “We know our girls have stayed with Boko Haram so long they’re no longer the person they used to be,” said Lawan, the uncle of two missing girls.
Lately, 5-year-old Mercy Yakubu has been asking her parents difficult questions. She wants to know why the sky is blue, which is the biggest country in the world, and whether her eldest sister has become a suicide bomber.
When Dorcas first disappeared, Mercy was 3. All she knew was that the big sister who often fried noodles and eggs for her had suddenly stopped coming home, and that it happened around the time Chibok’s dusty streets suddenly filled with soldiers. Mercy began asking her family why soldiers had “stolen” Dorcas.
“She didn’t understand. She used to say, ‘How come the soldiers took Dorcas away?’” her mother said.
Finding the right way to tell her youngest child was a battle Yakubu faced alone. Her husband can no longer bear to speak of Dorcas. “He can’t handle it,” she said.
So one afternoon this February, Yakubu sat down with Mercy. She told her that “bad” people — Boko Haram — took Dorcas, and the “good” people — the soldiers — were the ones who came afterwards to stop them.
The explanation was for Mercy but, in a more complicated way, for herself too. Because in fact no soldiers had come to the rescue when Dorcas was rounded up at gunpoint. No soldiers had responded to the distress calls from dozens of parents that night. And it wasn’t the Nigerian army that went after the gunmen the following day but the girls’ male relatives, following them deep into militant territory, turning back only after locals warned them their cutlasses would be no match for Boko Haram’s AK-47s.
It may have taken more than two years, but Yakubu now thinks she sees things clearly: “We are alone.”
All kinds of regrets have crept into Yakubu’s mind since her daughter was kidnapped. In hindsight, she finds herself wondering, should the family have left Chibok sooner? Back when Boko Haram first started encircling Chibok three years ago, it didn’t occur to Yakubu or her husband to flee the village where they had been born, the only place they knew. They were happy there; he earned enough money as a farmer to support their five-bedroom household and send their children to school, and Yakubu enjoyed her work as a civil servant.
Now she feels that happiness was complacency. Like the other villages targeted by Boko Haram, Chibok was an easy target: The nearest police station was miles away down a rutted path, and approaching vehicles often sank into the sand. Insurgents could easily dissolve into the surrounding canopy of baobab trees in which they’d set up forest base camps. She wondered, should they have taken the threat more seriously?
It’s a question that also preys on Mark, the pastor, who is known to foster children orphaned by Boko Haram.
Mark wasn’t born in Chibok, but he’d felt at home there from the time he took up his posting as the local pastor, in the village’s white-brick church in January 2013. When Boko Haram gunmen stormed into town a few months after that, they spared his church, but torched the police station, a symbol of the state they rejected. “I was inside the church ministering. I could hear the explosions,” he said. “God spared me.”
After the girls were abducted, he visited other parents and tried to bring some consolation. When the girls’ mothers began dying — of high blood pressure, according to official diagnoses, though the villagers put it down to broken hearts — he carried out condolence visits, too.
Exactly seven months after the abduction, when Mark finally knew he had to flee Boko Haram’s relentless attacks on the town, he took with him seven orphans who had been abandoned.
In the blur of the following months, while the family moved around trying to find somewhere beyond Boko Haram’s reach and earn a living, Mark couldn’t bear to even pay attention to news from outside of Nigeria. But one day he heard about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the flight that vanished mid-journey in April 2014, with all 238 people on board missing and presumed dead.
“I was thinking, those parents will understand my trauma,” he said one recent afternoon in Abuja, where he settled with his family and the seven orphans he had adopted. “Now anytime I pray that God will continue to encourage those still in trauma, I remember them.”
These days, he tracks the news of what’s happening 6,500 miles away in Malaysia as closely as he can. Mainly, though, he searches for answers in the Bible. And in the immensity of his grief, he sometimes fears he might lose sight of God.
He recalled waking after dreaming that he had died, terrified to find himself wishing the dream hadn’t ended.
Mark acknowledges the irony in his thinking. If Boko Haram has its way, his daughter, or a young woman like her, might be sent as a suicide bomber to kill him. It is a dark, relentless thought that has long since stopped being a metaphor — some days it clouds his mind to the point that he can barely make it out of bed, he said.
But he does, because who else can look after the children?
Another night, and Yakubu is up late waiting for a phone call — the one she’s sure will tell her the girl detained in Cameroon is Dorcas. She eats dinner and thinks about the feast she will cook for Dorcas’s return: rice, and yams and chicken, plantain and especially noodles in chicken broth and scrambled eggs, the way her daughter used to do so often for her. She tries not to think about the last time she saw her daughter, at a funeral that Dorcas came home from boarding school to attend.
In bed that night, eight days after hearing the radio broadcast, Yakubu looks at the few pictures she has of Dorcas. They are formal studio portraits: Dorcas on her first birthday; another of her aged 3 months, surrounded by a flowery border; one with her wearing purple, her favorite color. It is the same color as the headscarf in the headshot through which the world now knows her. But, Yakubu said, these photos don’t capture what her child was really like.
Another dawn breaks. For the first time since last month when the text message came carrying the possibility Dorcas had been found, Yakubu’s voice sounds small. “Even if it turns out that she isn’t [Dorcas], it’s still good to recover one of them,” she says quietly, “because she can help us recover the remaining ones.”
There was one thing Yakubu and Mark didn't know — for reasons that were never made public, the two members of the Chibok family who were supposed to go to Cameroon to identify the girl never went. Instead they were just shown photographs, from which they concluded it wasn’t a Chibok girl.
Pastor Mark eventually made another round of calls himself. Someone who knew someone working on the case told him the girl from Cameroon couldn't read or write — so she could not be one of the Chibok girls, who were targeted in part because of their defiance of Boko Haram’s edicts against Western education. Mark called a few other parents, who then called others, and that’s how the news eventually filtered to Yakubu. She suddenly felt it was last May all over again, when the Chibok parents were told, falsely, that their children had been rescued. It reminded her, too, of June, in the first year, when they still had the energy to storm a hospital where they’d heard their girls were being hidden. And all the other times she was sure Dorcas would come back, but she didn’t.
“Officially there is still no news” is how Mark put it.
But a few nights ago he fell asleep and had a dream so vivid he’s convinced it was prophetic.
In the dream, he saw his daughter Monica, dressed in pure white.
“There was a ladder going straight to heaven and she was marching on, step by step. The ladder was not shaking at all. One by one, she was stepping up. Her back was turned to me — but she was going to heaven.”
The vision soothed him. “I have been asking God, let him give me the correct interpretation of this dream, but up until now he doesn’t, so I give myself my own interpretation.”
His newfound certainty helped him push aside dark thoughts and concentrate on the business of living. He ran through a list of other things on his mind: “My problem is the younger ones — they are idle because they can’t go to school.” He doesn’t have the 15,000 naira ($75) needed for their annual school fees. The two oldest ones also need money for university books.
He was hopeful, though. “Some nights ago we slept without food, so I spent the night on my knees. And from nowhere, God always sends somebody who helps me.” A neighbor sent the family a bag of rice, he said.
“Really, people can be very kind,” he said. “As a man of God, I can never lose hope.”