The Islamist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, has issued a video demanding the release of imprisoned militants.
The group say the girls will be held until the prisoners are freed. About 100 of the girls are apparently shown in the video, and one says they have not been harmed.
Whatever the truth of their ordeal, if they are eventually returned to their families, research from other African war zones suggests the prospects for psychological recovery are surprisingly positive.
The most complete picture of the consequences of abduction by armed groups comes from the Survey of War Affected Youth, which tracked the fates of 1300 of tens of thousands of young people taken by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) during the long-running civil war in northern Uganda. Some were kept for just a few days, but others were held for months or years. That often meant enlistment as a child soldier for the boys, and forced “marriage” for the girls.
Young women who had been abducted showed more symptoms of emotional distress than the men – a gender difference that has been seen in other studies of conflict. But overall, the story was one of surprising resilience: most successfully reintegrated into society on their release.
Mass abduction is a relatively new tactic for Boko Haram, which makes it difficult to know what lies in store for the girls. In a video released last week, the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau said they would be sold on the open market. That’s a real threat: human trafficking is big business, and children make up two-thirds of the victims in Africa and the Middle East, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
But Boko Haram’s latest video shows that the group might be willing to negotiate.
Boko Haram translates loosely as “western education is forbidden”, and disrupting educational opportunities for young women is one of its central goals. However, Murray Last, an anthropologist at University College London who has worked for decades in northern Nigeria, believes that the group’s main aim in targeting schools is to cast the government as weak and unable to protect its own people. “It’s a very nasty form of PR,” he suggests.
The closest parallel to the current situation again comes from northern Uganda, and indicates that the economic consequences for the affected families may be severe. In 1996, the LRA kidnapped 139 schoolgirls from a boarding school in Aboke. Like the girls taken in Nigeria, they were the children of middle-class families – and the Aboke families’ financial security took a major blow as the parents devoted themselves to trying to recover their children.