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Haunting Portraits Show Why We Still Need To #BringBackOurGirls

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    Update: It has been two years since nearly 300 schoolgirls were abducted from their homes in Chibok, Nigeria, by fighters from the militant group Boko Haram. People around the world implored Nigerian authorities to #BringBackOurGirls. But to date, only some have managed to escape or been rescued.

    In the two years since, UNICEF estimates that 2,000 more children across four countries have been kidnapped by the group, forced to become fighters, sex slaves and, in some cases, suicide bombers. The violence has displaced 2.3 million people, 1.3 million of them children. For those who manage to escape Boko Haram, rebuilding their lives and finding hope is difficult. Ahead, some of those young women and men share their powerful stories of survival.

    This story was originally published on November 2, 2015 and republished on January 18, 2016.

    Growing up in New Zealand, photographer Ruth McDowall was always intrigued by Africa. After visiting Nigeria for the first time in 2008, she returned two years later to work with at-risk young people, empowering them through photography lessons.

    "Nigeria is a fantastic country full of great people, talent, and creativity, but like most countries in the world experience war, Nigeria is now going through their own," McDowall told Refinery29.

    She said she saw her friends and students increasingly affected by religious and ethnic violence as Boko Haram, an armed Muslim group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State group, terrorized the country. And it was increasingly targeting young people, McDowall said.

    "Boko Haram is using young people for strategic reasons," McDowall said. "They are trying to indoctrinate young men in their ideology and turn them into fighters. The women are also used for logistics in the camp, to fetch water and cook. They are also being forced to marry insurgents. Young people can be paid to join Boko Haram, or run errands for them. If you are broke and have nothing to lose, then you will quite possibly join their insurgency."

    But more and more, the group has turned to kidnapping to fill its ranks. McDowall reported that "500 girls have been abducted since as far back as 2009" from two northeastern states alone. Many are abducted on the way to school, while working in the fields, or from their homes during attacks on their villages.

    "They are put through psychological abuse, forced labor, forced marriage, and forced to convert to Islam. They become victims of sexual violence and rape," McDowall said.

    But the horrible kidnappings and abuse McDowall had been seeing since 2009 have continued to make headlines around the world. After the 2014 kidnappings in Chibok, McDowall said she decided to find the survivors — girls and boys who had escaped — and share their portraits and their stories. The result is "Malaiku" (Angels), a powerful photo essay McDowall has shared with Refinery29.

    McDowall writes: "I am openly embraced by three young ladies running up to me greeting me as Aunty Ruth. During five years living in northern Nigeria, I have seen many haunted faces, but these girls look different — haunted and also broken. I wanted to photograph them looking like the strong resilient survivors they are, but as they sat slumped in their chairs, I had the heartbreaking realization that at such a young age, these beautiful young people have lost their innocence and experienced the worst of humanity. They are just a few of the many youth that have been abducted by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram."

    Ahead, her powerful portraits and the stories of the young people who managed to escape. For their safety, their names have been changed. Some captions have been edited for clarity and length.

    Photo caption: Lydia was kidnapped by Boko Haram while riding on a public bus in 2013. She escaped but has not been reunited with her family in Cameroon.

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  2. Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.


  3. Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.


  4. Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.


  5. Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.


  6. Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.