On the night terrorists came to her boarding school, holding hundreds of girls at gunpoint, Saalome thought there was no escape. “They told us to say our last prayer,” she said. “They said they were going to kill all of us.” Later that night, on a truck bound for a forest hideout with her captors, she thought about how she was about to disappear from her family forever. She decided not to let that happen. She would risk her life to flee.
Saalome is one of hundreds of girls abducted by Boko Haram from the Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014, sparking the global hashtag campaign Bring Back Our Girls. She is one of just a few dozen to escape.
She spoke to Women in the World on the sidelines of an event in Manhattan on Monday, where she took the stage with United Nations Special Envoy for Education Gordon Brown. The event, called Up For School, was hosted by UNICEF and children’s charity Theirworld, drawing leaders from around the globe to talk about the importance of getting kids to school.
Boko Haram has waged an ever more bloody war in Nigeria, slashing and shooting thousands of people to try to create an Islamic state and eliminate Western influence from schools. At least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped since the start of 2014, according to Amnesty International. Some have been rescued in military raids, but many remain missing, including the Chibok girls — more than 200 schoolgirls.
Saalome, who is Christian, said she was asleep when the gunshots rang out. The students awoke and waited for their teachers to advise them, she said, since the teachers had always said to wait for direction in case of emergency. “We were waiting for them,” said Saalome, who is now 19 years old and dreams of being a doctor. But the teachers never came. “We don’t know if they heard the gunshots and ran,” she said. Men in military uniform entered the school with guns. At first, the girls thought the men had come to protect them. But then the men threatened to shoot, rounding up the girls and forcing them into trucks. They lit the school on fire.
On the truck, Saalome said, she decided to jump because she did not want to vanish from her family forever. “I was thinking of my family at home,” she said. “They didn’t know what was happening.” She felt that if she died trying to escape, at least her family would find her body and would know what had become of her. She jumped, and so did a friend. The truck was moving slowly, she said. That may have been on purpose. According to Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian human rights lawyer who helped Saalome and others get to America, some of the drivers had been abducted themselves with their trucks from the market. Sitting with Saalome at the event, he said the drivers may have driven slowly to help the girls escape.
Saalome and her friend hid under a tree in the forest that night. Her friend had injured her leg and could’t walk. The next morning, Saalome found a shepherd herding sheep in the countryside, and asked him for help. At first he didn’t want to get involved, simply telling the girls to take the back roads, not the main road, to get back to the town. She pleaded, telling him her friend “can’t walk through the forest,” and he finally agreed to help. He wheeled her friend on his bike, while Saalome walked behind, reaching safety. Today Saalome is applying to colleges in the U.S. She said she tells her story with the hope that the world will remember her missing classmates and not give up the search.
She was one of many powerful voices at the event on Monday, including a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, Mohamed Sidibay, now a schoolteacher. Others included Sarah Brown, president of the charity Theirworld; Graca Machel, the first education minister of Mozambique; Holly Gordon, chief executive of the initiative Girl Rising; Kennedy Odede, the founder of schools for girls in the slums of Kenya, and many others. Vietnamese American director Steve Nguyen showed a powerful short film he co-directed about kids in conflict called RISE.
Tens of millions of children around the world are out of school, due to child trafficking, forced marriage, child labor, and war. “Some of these children will never see school unless we do something about it,” said Gordon Brown. You can do something about it by signing the Up For School petition to encourage governments to take action.