Haunting Portraits Show Why We Still Need To #BringBackOurGirls

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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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Sarah
20 years old

"On May 7, 2013, I was traveling in a public bus with my friend. A Boko Haram member stopped us on the road, and he entered the vehicle. We also realized the driver of the bus was a Boko Haram member. I was in the camp for three days until they released us."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Hauwa
15 years old

"In 2009…my friend and me were taken by my mother’s friend who lived nearby. The woman and her husband were Boko Haram members. The neighbor locked us inside her house and wanted us to become her Muslim daughters. The woman tried to force me to convert to Islam and change my name. When I refused, I would be severely beaten…"
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Hauwa
15 years old
(continued)

"…After one week passed while the woman was in the home, my friend held a brick and hit the lady in the head. Then we grabbed the house key and locked the woman inside. I ran away back to my house, only to discover my father had just been killed during the crisis. The lady's husband impregnated my friend that was taken. [She] now has a child born to a Boko Haram member. I no longer live in Abeokuta, and I miss my family. But I have to work very hard so that eventually I can support my mother and my siblings."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
A drawing by Hauwa, a Boko Haram survivor
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Lydia

"I was traveling in a public bus after paying my school fees on May 7, 2013. While on the road, a Boko Haram member stopped the bus and entered it. Everyone was telling me to say I’m a Muslim, otherwise I will be killed.

"We entered a Boko Haram camp in the Sambisa forest. I stayed there for three days, and each night we would sleep under big trees. I saw young boys in the camp carrying guns, some even as young as 10 years old. I didn’t eat any food for three days; I was thinking it could be human flesh, because there are rumors that Boko Haram fighters eat human flesh, so I would throw the food on the ground each day and pretend that I ate.

"Eventually, some insurgents asked which village I was from, and realized they knew my father's brother. So they decided to let me go, and dropped me off at a main road. They made me wear the hijab and gave me 2,000 naira [$10 USD]. My family are now taking refuge in Cameroon, but I am not staying with them. I burnt my hijab after I escaped. I have dreams of Shekau in the night, coming to kill me."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
"It is a heavy subject to work on, and extremely sad. At first, I was very shocked to see the trauma in their faces. As time went on and I visited them every few months, they became more used to me, and were excited to see me and spend time together," McDowall told Refinery29.

"All of the young people [I interviewed] escaped on their own, without help of the military. One young man spent nine months planning an escape because he was on crutches and could not run. He waited for the rainy season, so they could not trace his steps in the morning. A lot of others escaped while pretending to go the toilet or faking a sickness, and being taken to town for medical care," she said.

Photo caption: All of the young people that were abducted had to move to new cities for security reasons. Plateau State is one of the new homes where some have been relocated.
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Martha
14 years old

"On September 7, 2014, while I was traveling to a wedding, I was captured by Boko Haram. They killed my brother-in-law and my sister's fiancé. They carried me and my two sisters to their camp in Gulak. I stayed there for four months.

"I suffered greatly during this time; sometimes there was not enough food, and I hardly bathed. They told me not to walk around outside, and when I did they would beat me. They told me not to talk, and I would talk, so they would beat me. They told me not to sing; I would sing, and they would beat me.

"They taught me how to use a gun, and I went on two operations with them where I would carry ammunitions. They wanted me to kill people, but I could never bring myself to kill anyone. I met some of the Chibok girls, and they had been taught to kill people. Boko Haram members tried to force my sister to kill an old man. When she refused, they shot her instead…"
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Martha
14 years old
(continued)

"…I watched people being slaughtered like ants. They were planning to marry me to one man. A week before the wedding, I escaped. I had tried to escape four times but failed every time.

"One day, an old woman in the camp who spoke my tribal language explained directions of how to escape through the bush. So that night, while pretending to go to the toilet, I snuck away into the night with another girl. I still think about the experience all the time. When I sing in my tribal language, I forget what happened. But if I sit quietly, I remember everything and will just cry."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Although some children who escaped the major Chibok attack and abduction of 2014 have received counseling and other support, "there remains a serious lack of support for girls and boys abducted before and after Chibok," McDowall said.

"They urgently need post-trauma counseling as they struggle with the memories, and many no longer attend school, fearing they will be kidnapped again. Many of the girls who escaped are now stigmatized, and often relocate to new towns as they are ostracized by their neighbors."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Hannah
15 years old

"Boko Haram stormed into my house on the night of September 28, 2013. I was in a deep sleep. They asked my sister, mother, and I to come outside. My father was not around at the time. They asked our names, and upon hearing our Christian names, they decided to take me away…"
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Hannah
15 years old
(continued)

"…At the time, I was only 14 years old. When I left the house with them, they burnt a church and then we journeyed for two days to reach their camp in the Gwoza hills. It was a long and difficult journey. Once I reached the camp, I was forced to join Islam, given a new name, and they married me to one man. I managed to escape one night with two other girls. I am still struggling with the memories, but I am trying to focus and to continue with school and become a businesswoman."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Drawing by Hannah, a Boko Haram survivor

"We were kept in a room all together. The room next to us was full of ammunition. Outside, Boko Haram members would be praying on their mats. We escaped down several paths through the bush; the bush was scary."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
"I wanted the images to be emotive, therefore I used natural light through the window. Their faces are turned from the camera due to security issues, to protect their location and identity, and to also avoid any stigma because of their experience," McDowall explained.
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
"These young men and women have been through a very hellish experience. Their innocence has been taken at a young age, and they have seen the worst of humanity," McDowall told Refinery29.

Photo caption: All of the young people that were abducted had to move to new cities for security reasons. Plateau State is one of the new homes where some have been relocated to.
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Blessing
19 years old

"At about 8 p.m. on September 30, 2013, Boko Haram came into my brother’s room and shot him. They took his wife and put a gun to her head; they asked for all the ladies in the house to come outside. They took me away with my sister and sister-in-law.

"When we reached the Boko Haram camp, they asked me to denounce Christ and accept Islam, and if not, they will slaughter me. Out of fear, I agreed, and then they gave me a hijab to wear. After converting, I was then made to marry an insurgent called Abul. I suffered so much during the three weeks in that camp.

"While Boko Haram was outside gathering ammunition, a wife of one commander showed me how to escape. I ran away to safety with two other girls."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Mairama
16 years old

"Boko Haram attacked my village and came to my house on the night of September 30, 2013. I was sent to a camp in the Gwoza hills, where I spent three weeks in the camp. I would fetch water and cook for the insurgents and spent a lot of time sad and crying.

"They arranged for me to marry, but I refused to sleep with the man, so he threatened he would kill me next time. One night, a wife of one of the commanders showed us the path to escape, so me and two other girls spent two days walking and running through the bush until we reached a safe city.

"It was just the grace of God that saved me. I am now back in school and would like to become a nurse one day."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Drawing by Mairama, a Boko Haram survivor

"We stayed in some small hut. Every day, there were plenty of insurgents in the camp carrying guns."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
"I have always had an interest in conflict and war. And I also am always interested in working with youth, so these two interests collided. I wanted to explore how youth are often used in war, and bear the brunt of the conflicts," McDowall told Refinery29.
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
Markus
28 years old

"I was involved in a bad road accident in 2012. My leg was severely injured and doctors wanted to amputate it. I spent the next 18 months in and out of hospitals across the country, trying to find a surgeon who could properly fix my leg.

"In January 2014, I was on my way to the hospital again after Christmas celebrations….Boko Haram had blocked the road, they stopped the car. I was abducted that day along with an old pastor from the south. The Boko Haram members knew we were Christians.

"They decided to keep us in the camp to bring us out of the darkness and into the light by teaching us the Koran. A few Boko Haram members who could speak English would teach us scriptures every day. We wanted to escape, but the pastor was elderly and I could not run because I am permanently on crutches.

"Sometimes, new captives would be brought to the camp and killed right in front of us. Every month they would discuss whether they would release us, but they never did. They even suggested they could send a Chibok girl for me to marry.

"The pastor and I would fast and pray for three to five days sometimes. There was one guard who was very diligent through the night, so we knew we could not sneak past him. We decided we had to wait for rainy season, so that no one could trace our steps. On October 1, 2014, a very heavy rain came in the afternoon. We knew this was our moment, so that evening we made our escape.

"It was a five-day journey through the bush to get to safety. I was in captivity for nine months. My family did not believe I was alive until they saw me face-to-face. I can no longer stay in my hometown for security reasons."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
A drawing by Markus, a Boko Haram survivor

"Everywhere we were surrounded by Boko Haram camps on every side. During the first night of our escape, there were two large snakes that were 2 meters from where we were. We prayed that night the snakes would not disturb them. They just stayed where they were. We would stay under the thick canopy of the trees to hide from military helicopters [who were] seeing the camp."
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Photographed by: RUTH MCDOWALL.
"My advice to young women is to follow stories that you are naturally interested in, regardless of whether people may be interested or not. If you are passionate about a certain story and spend a lot of time and energy on it, other people will also become interested. Besides from the actual photography, it's also important to make a difference simply in how you treat people on the ground, your taxi driver, your guide, and the people that are allowing you into their lives," McDowall said.
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