A panel including international human rights lawyer and advocate for the Chibok Girls, Emmanuel Ogebe; one of the hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram who is speaking under the pseudonym Saa; and journalist specializing in the Middle East and human rights, Tom Gross, at the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Saa: Thank you for inviting me here to share my story. The Boko Haram issues in Nigeria, especially in Borno State still continues so I would like to share my story. On 14 April 2014, around 11:34pm, the Boko Haram people attacked our school and it was nighttime. We were all sleeping when they came to the school. They didn’t come directly to the school but they came to Chibok town. So we were at school and we had the Boko Haram people shooting guns, shouting in the town, and we were all students at school and we didn’t know what to do so we all came out from our rooms and gathered ourselves together. And the Boko Haram people came to the school and went through the staff quarters where our teachers are living. So when they got there they didn’t find anybody there. The teachers were all gone and nobody had come among our teachers to tell us what to do so they took the motorcycle of our teachers and came in through the hostel where we are staying. So when we heard them coming we were thinking maybe it is the teachers and the security, maybe militaries, to come and help us. Well we didn’t even know that they were Boko Haram.
So when they came in they told us to stay together, we should not run, we were thinking maybe they were military because they were wearing military uniforms. So when they came in and they gathered us together and the time we knew that they were the Boko Haram [was when] they started asking us some questions. And the question they asked us is where is the cement block print machine. Well we didn’t know anything about the machine. The second question they ask is where are the boys. Well the boys are not staying at school; they always came to the school in the morning and they went home after classes. And the third question they asked is where are the militaries, the security that are watching us at the school and we said we don’t know where they are. Before there were the military people who were staying at school guiding us but when the time [came when]we started writing our final exam, they always came in the afternoon and left; they didn’t stay at night. So, they asked another question and said where are the stores, where our food is kept. And they point[ed] to two girls among us to go and show them where the food is kept. So, they went with the two girls and the girls showed them where the food [is] kept and they went in there. They [brought] a big truck and load[ed] up all the food on the truck. So they [told] us we should move out from the hostel and go out to the class area.
So we moved out to the class area, they didn’t allow us to take anything out from our rooms or anything. They all start bombing the school, they bomb everything, our properties, our clothe, our books, everything. After they bomb everything then they tell us that we should move out from the school premises and go out somewhere closer to the school. And they gathered all of us [together] and they brought a big and a long truck that we [should] all enter the truck. Well the truck was long and we [couldn’t] climb the truck and enter so they [brought] a small car under the truck and asked all of us to climb the small car and enter the big truck. We were scared and we didn’t even talk. They said anyone who doesn’t want to enter the truck, he should come out and they should kill him. So because we were scared and we didn’t know what to do, we all entered the truck. And the truck was not enough to carry all of us, so some of us remained outside and they said they should walk.
So we were in the truck and the rest of us were walking and we reached a small village and they asked the other girls to still enter the truck because they said we have a long journey so they can walk with their food. So all of the girls came into the truck and some of us were even sitting on someone’s leg and three girls remained outside. And the three girls that remain outside two of them were Christian and one is a Muslim. And they asked the Muslim girl if she [was] a Muslim or a Christian, and she said she was a Muslim. And they asked the Christian girl, she said she was a Muslim. They asked the third one and she said that she was a Christian, and one of them said that since she was a Christian, he’s going to kill her and some of them said no he shall not kill her, let them go home. But he said no he’s going to kill her, he was even pointing a gun at her and saying that he is going to kill her. And some of them said no, they should not kill them and they told the girls that they should turn back and run home. But they should not turn back and look at them. If they turned back they were going to kill them. So the girls run and go back home.
And they started going with us in the forest. We didn’t even know where we were going with them. So where we are going with them they have a lot of cars. Some of them were in the cars in front of us, some of them were in the back. So we were in the middle so there was a little bit of distance between us and the one that was in the back. Because we were in the middle of the forest and it was nighttime,  some of us decided to jump down out of the truck and hide somewhere so that we could find a way to escape. So two girls jumped down and I decided and said that I’m going to jump down out of the truck. I’d rather die and my parents have my cup and bury it than to go with the Boko Haram because I didn’t know where I was going. And I told one of my friends, I told her, this is my decision. And she said okay she’s going to jump with me. And I jumped down first. When I jumped down I entered the forest and hid somewhere so the one at the back had come and passed. So after they passed, we were in the forest and we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know where we were and it was nighttime. So when we entered the forest, I realized that my friend had injured her leg and she [couldn’t] even walk and we didn’t know what to do and we stayed in the forest. And we spent the night in the forest till the next day in the morning. So the next day in the morning it was morning and we [didn’t] know where we were and we [didn’t] know what to do because I can’t carry her to take her home. So I decided to go and look for help. So when I decided to go and look for help I was going around in the forest and I found a shepherd in the forest and I asked him to help us and [take] us somewhere in the town so that we may find help; we may find somebody who is going to take us back home.
Tom Gross: Emmanuel Ogebe who’s sitting here is a Nigerian human rights lawyer. He helped to bring Saa, and nine other escaped schoolgirls to the United States so they could continue their education there and complete their education in safety. Emmanuel, as I believe that Boko Haram actually means Boko, educational books, Haram is forbidden or is a sin. What do Boko Haram actually want, what are their aims and what is being done to try and prevent them carrying their aims out.
Emmanual Ogebe: Yes, Boko Haram is one of the most lethal terrorist groups on the planet today. Right now as we speak, they’ve killed more people than Isis. And data that I just reviewed this morning indicates that last year, Boko Haram killed as many people as the Taliban. We’re looking at a total of 10,000 people that were killed last year by this group.
Now Boko Haram means Western education is evil, which means that they go out to destroy schools. They’ve destroyed over 900 schools. They’ve killed over 300 teachers, they’ve killed over 500 students. But apart from schools they target churches and so they’ve destroyed, at this time, over several hundred churches. One church congregation alone, they’ve killed 8,000 of their members. So this is a group that is conducting genocide on the planet. But their official name is people for the propagation of the prophets’ teachings and jihad. So there is no doubt as to their objective and to their ideology. Their ideology is entirely consistent with the ideology of ISIS.
Tom Gross: And Emmanuel, when the school girls were kidnapped, which was about 10 months ago, there was an international outcry. We even have Michelle Obama being photographed with a sign saying bring back our girls, so she took, as many others did, possession of the issue by saying our girls. Do you feel that the international community, the United Nations, the United States, is doing enough to highlight and confront Boko Haram?
Emmanuel Ogebe: Yes, as an advocate who’s been working on this issue for many years, I have to say that the global response has been totally disappointing. For example, I led the push for the designation of Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization in the US, and we finally got it designated. But the United Nations did not designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist group and impose sanctions until after the girls were abducted. But, interestingly the United Nations had been bombed by Boko Haram in 2011, and yet they didn’t designate it, ‘til we had the hahstag campaign of everyone doing the bring back our girls. So that advocacy campaign helped a little but it wasn’t enough. When I went on a fact-finding mission to Nigeria and I met the first girl who escaped, I asked her, have you been interviewed by the military, the police? No. Have you been interviewed by the media? No. This was in June. Three months after the girls were abducted in April. That was when I realized that nothing was being done for the girls who escaped. And so very little was even being done for the girls who went missing. And that was when I started the initiative to bring them back to school.
Moderator: I’ll just turn back to Saa for a moment. So Saa, how long have you been now living in America? Do you feel safe there? Are you able to speak with your parents regularly? Are you worried about your friends from school that are still kidnapped?
Saa: Yeah, I’ve been here in America for four months now and my family is still in Nigeria. Well Borno State is not safe yet because since I came to the United States I don’t even have a chance to talk to my family because I can’t even contact them. It was just three weeks ago that I started talking to my family. Well they escaped from the Boko Haram because the Boko Haram attacked the place where they were living and they even have a chance to escape and move out from there. And now the Boko Haram are still attacking the places in Borno State. People are leaving their homes, leaving their properties to go and find somewhere to stay. So our family in Nigeria now, they are not safe. And among the girls that attended here, and two girls among us lost a member of their families just in last two weeks from the attack of the Boko Haram because the Boko Haram attacked their village and they killed a member of their families.
Moderator: And what about politicians? Obviously you’re still a teenager and you’re not a campaigner, you’re just studying at school. But have been able to speak to senior politicians. I mean after all, the President of the United States himself took an interest in your case. Do you feel now that you’re in America have you met Senators or even been invited to the White House maybe?
Saa: When I came to the United States, I spoke but I didn’t have a chance to speak with the President or the Senators but I have spoken there.
Emmanuel Ogebe: She actually met with some congressmen in the United States. She’s also met with the President of Nigeria in Nigeria. But again, we haven’t seen this issue escalate to where it should be. And I feel that this is one of the most understated genocides on the planet today that is not receiving the attention that it deserves
Moderator: If I’m not mistaken, the same day that we had the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last month, there was a particularly gruesome massacre in Nigeria. Reports say even up to 2,000 people were killed. It’s not clear whether it was quite that number, but in any case it did not get the same publicity partly because the media was obviously very consumed with Charlie Hebdo. So, one final question because then we’ll turn to Pierre is as I understand, Boko Haram have got increasing connections and inks with other jihadi terror groups including ISIS, is that correct?
Emmanuel Ogebe: Yes, absolutely. You see the problem is that Boko Haram, while it is an extremist jihadist group is being looked at by many in the West as a function of poverty and misgovernance in Africa. No. The ideology behind Boko Haram is the same ideology behind Isis, behind what’s happening in Syria and so on and so forth. I want to dispel the notion that this is poverty driven. Because if you look at Libya, if you look at Iraq, and you look at Nigeria, guess what! They are all OPEC member countries; they’re all oil producing countries. So it is not poverty that is the driver. And these groups are all interlinked. As far back as the invasion of Afghanistan, there were Nigerian foreign fighters fighting alongside al Qaeda. When Boko Haram first emerged in 2002, its original name was the Nigerian Taliban. And so for any Western individual to claim that this is a function of poverty and that this is not global jihad connected – that is false.
Let me point out one more thing. We’re very disappointed that, you know, what happened in Bagga, where 2,000 people were killed at exactly the same time as what was happening in Paris. Here’s the thing. Boko Haram has killed citizens of over 15 countries. Many people don’t realize that they’re not just killing Nigerians. They’ve killed Norweigans, Britains, Italians, Germans, Koreans, Chinese, so many people. Yet, we’re not getting the attention that this deserves. So we hope that what has happened in Paris is a wake-up call to humanity that we’ve all got to stand up and face what Pope Francis has called the Third World War, which is happening incrementally across the globe.
Moderator: And just finally you might want to also add that Boko Haram have recently infiltrated into neighboring countries; Cameroon, Chad and so on. And also that one of the bombers caught in London, who was Nigerian – London in England of course – and inspired by Boko Haram and was living in a 600,000 pound apartment in one of the nicest areas of London. So it’s absolutely not about poverty. They’re quite a wealthy group, as are ISIS. It’s about ideology, what’s the philosophy behind Boko Haram. Just finally, because I understand you have to go to give an interview, is there any final message maybe Saa, or Emmanuel would like to give maybe, you know, for your friends that are still kept and some of them we read from. I should point out that other girls who escaped later, Saa was lucky enough to escape on the very first night she was abducted. But some months later some other girls escaped, bringing stories of absolute atrocities and hell and rape and abuse of all kinds. So is there any final message you might want to give to your school friends who are still abducted?
Saa: The message I want to give is that I really want my friends – they were my friends, my colleagues – I really want them to come back. Because if I look at myself here, I am now in the United States, I came here to continue with my studies. Well, my colleagues are still in captivity and it’s been like 10 months now, not any serious action was taken about them. And I was here continuing with my studies [while] they were in the forest. Nobody even knew anything about them. I really want help. If the United Nations can help and bring back the girls so that we could come and continue with our studies and to help and bring them back to their family. And also to help our country, especially Borno State in Nigeria, that is captured by Boko Haram.
Moderator: Thank you very much. They have to go and give a television interview now.
7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015