This is a special report on female abduction and sexual slavery in northern Nigeria as a form of gender-based religious persecution.
While the Chibok girls’ mass abductions (2014) has propelled into the world’s longest running mass abduction and Leah’s Dapchi abduction (2018) has made her the world’s youngest prisoner of conscience, the case of Ese Usuru has revealed that its not just terrorist abducting Christian girls in northern Nigeria.
The report narrates the experience of putatively the world’s longest sex slave.
It also includes a plea to the reading public for help reuniting the escapee with her co-prisoner who inspired her escape. The media are called upon to pass on to us any reader feedback that might help reunite these two victims. By Emmanuel Ogebe
I had braced myself for a traumatic and emotional meeting. How do you engage with someone for whom time stood still, who dropped off the face of the planet and came back? Despite a quarter century of human rights work, I was nervous meeting possibly the world’s longest sex slave.
Our meeting in Nigeria’s capital was amazingly lighthearted. “Rebecca” broke the ice as her daughter “Abigail” tried to correct her about her date of birth, “are you going to tell me when I was born?”. We laughed at the irony especially since the two had just reunited a couple months before. She told me the year but that was one of the few dates she could recall. Most of her life was a blur.
One day, she boarded a shared taxi in Muslim majority northwest Nigeria. She woke up days later in a forest that would become home. “I need water,” she asked the old man she saw. “Ask the men who brought you here,” he replied. When they returned, she was serially raped and abused by a band of men in their enclave and ultimately delivered a baby boy.
After some years, another female Christian captive was brought to the den. Fortunately, “Deborah” spoke one of Rebecca’s two languages and she quickly plied her with questions. “What year is it?” Deborah the new captive said “two thousand.”
“What kind of year is that?”, Rebecca queried. The years she knew had “19s” in them…
The latest captive was the beginning of time literally for Rebecca and that’s why she knows the age of her second child of rape, a girl, and not the boy born in the camp.
A midwife came for each delivery and the second time, Rebecca told her she had been abducted and needed help. The midwife reported to her captors and she was beaten.
One day, the laconic old man, who stood guard over the camp when the men were away told the two ladies that one day, they would escape. He apparently had also been abducted himself but although he went out of the camp, he always came back…
Rebecca asked her captors to let her go but each request was met with beatings. “He will question ‘Where are you going? You’re not going anywhere,this girl’. I started crying. So, one day the new Yoruba lady announced we’re leaving, I said, ‘no… I can’t leave my children.’ She said, ‘what type of children?’ I said ‘see them.’
“I told her I do not know whether this one is alive or not (pointing to Abigail) because I can’t remember much anymore. I told the lady that ‘no, I am not going anywhere again.’ She told me to look at the children, ‘they are not children, let’s go and leave them behind.’ I went and told that baba, the old man that we were leaving ‘since these people have not been around for three days, I have decided to leave.’
I said, ‘I am leaving with my children’ and Deborah said, ‘No, you’re stupid; if you escape it will be better, your people are waiting for you, they have not seen you in many years, leave the children alone, those children are not your children; they will behave like their fathers.’ “
The new captive encouraged Rebecca to escape along with her or be left behind and they did in the summer last year. The old camp guard watched them slip into the night…
Muslim nomads startled by them, provided shelter and bade them tell their horrifying tale. At daybreak they helped guide them on their way southward. In one city, a Muslim family saw how wretched her clothing was and gave her some of theirs. “You can’t travel like this.”
Rebecca laughed wryly, “refugees fleeing Boko Haram actually pitied me and gave me a change of clothes.”
Her daughter Abigail takes up the narrative, “On the 24th of December, I was in the market in Abuja; when someone called to inform me that my mother was back. I was really shocked..we all believed that she was dead…the last time I saw her was 1989. She brought me here to her cousin’s and younger sister’s house. Actually, she wanted me to stay with her sister, but I preferred to go back, so she left me. From that day we didn’t hear from her again, not until 1992 when she wrote a letter, but after that we didn’t hear anything from her until December 24th 2019, when we heard that she came back. We had already lost hope, in fact when I got married, I told my husband that she was dead; I never knew that she was still alive, so I couldn’t believe it.”
Rebecca is gradually adjusting to the new world of her daughter. She was puzzled and asked her what those things were people were holding up to their ears. She was told “cellphones.” She even has one now.
She’s discovered she has grandkids and her parents have long since died. She has forgotten her original tribal language but still speaks the one she and Deborah spoke. She’s very fluent in the abductors’ language though.
Something she said shook me – “I used to be educated.” Rebecca had a high school diploma and worked at a government office before her abduction and then someone knocked her into the Stone Age..
Rebecca is sad that she’s lost touch with her heroic co-captive Deborah since December. “I was afraid because I didn’t want to leave the boy and the girl there. But she told me that I am better than her, that I still have one child at home but she didn’t have anyone. She said, we should leave them there, that even if I take them, I can’t go out with them, that is how we left there. I’m not worried much about the boy like the girl.”
The “girl”, her second child of rape was about 19 when they escaped in 2019 and has only known a life of captivity. Our best estimate of how long Rebecca was enslaved is a minimum of 22 years and a maximum of 27 years – pretty much my entire law career.
At a point, Rebecca lamented that her life was wasted. I encouraged her that her story of survival and escape, almost from the grave, would be an encouragement to many.
I had one more question for her. “What religion were they practicing?”
“Did they make you practice it with them?”
“No. They were more concerned with money. They made lots of money from selling human body parts for years. Then they changed to kidnapping for ransom. Sometimes we used to hear crying from the room next door. Maybe they were slaughtering people.”
May 10, 2020, Rebecca spent her first Mother’s Day with her daughter, Abigail, 43, in 31 years, after decades locked down as a sex slave in an evil forest, coaxed by her co-captive Deborah to give up her two offspring to reclaim her life and find her other one.
Rebecca’s story is emblematic of how long and endemic the abduction of Christian females in Nigeria has been (way before the hundreds of Chibok girls six years ago that sparked the #bringbackourgirls) but it is also an awe-inspiring testimony of escape to freedom.
P.S. If her co-escapee reads this, or you know who she is, she should please get in touch as Rebecca would like to reconnect with her.
•Ogebe is an international human rights lawyer based in Washington with the US NIGERIA LAW GROUP