Escaping from Boko Haram and using education to heal her community

Young girls playing outside their school in the Far North. Photo: UNICEF/A.BRECHER

When Tabita Baana fled her village during a night of terror, she didn’t know that along the way, she would learn how to protect other girls and become an important young leader in the refugee community of Minawao.

Tabita Baana was only 15 when Boko Haram attacked her village in Nigeria for the first time.

“For as long as I can remember, I always wanted to spend my whole life in my village, Tchikele,” she says. “The only landscape I had ever known was the hills surrounding our mud huts. It was a quiet, peaceful place. I was happily living there with my grandmother. I didn’t want to go anywhere else, I’m not much of a traveller. But sometimes life doesn’t give you a choice.”

It happened at night. Gunshots. Explosions. Tabita didn’t realize immediately what was happening but her grandmother did. The armed group that many other village elders kept talking about had finally reached them.

“They came to our house,” Tabita recalls. “We thought they would just kill us. But they had other plans.”

They asked the grandmother to follow her outside and started negotiating with her. Their goal was clear and terrible: they wanted to marry Tabita — the only girl in the household.

Tabita in Minawao. Photo:UNICEF/A.BRECHER

“They told my grandmother that if she must pay them if she didn’t hand her over for marriage. Otherwise, they would just abduct me, and kill her.”

Unexpectedly, having made their offer, the fighters left the house. “They said they would come back. My grandmother gave me some food for the way and told me to run.”

It took a few days for Tabita to reach Tchinéné, the village where her father was living and working as a farmer. She hid in corn fields in the mountains. “Those were the worst moments in my life,” she remembers. “But then I found my father, I hadn’t seen him in months. I was so happy. Almost happy enough to forget about what had happened.”

Amazingly after a few days, Tabita’s grandmother also reached the village. She had escaped the same night, but had to hide for a longer period of time. Boko Haram was still around and looking for her.

“We thought that everything would be fine. I had my father and my grandmother with me. I had some stability. I made new friends, I was happy.”

But Tabita’s ordeal was not over.

“Peace lasted for a few months. And then everything collapsed. Again.”

One night, Boko Haram attacked Tchinéné. They burnt the houses and killed all the men. As soon Tabita’s parents heard the first gunshots, they left the village. By the time they had found a hiding spot their village had gone up in flames.

The family eventually found their way to the Cameroonian border where they were piled into trucks and sent to Minawao Refugee Camp. “It was so difficult for us to settle in a new place after having been chased from our home, twice. But at least, in Minawao, we knew we were out of danger.”

It took a very long time for Tabita to find herself comfortable in the camp, to meet new friends, and to go back to school. But in Minawao, she was supported in her recovery by UNICEF’s partner for child protection, ALDEPA. The organisation work to rehabilitate children who have fled violence. Her care included games and life skills training. Tabita happily learnt to make dresses and accessories.

“These activities helped me meet lots of girls my own age. They became my friends, my new family. In the conversations I had with them, I heard about some cases of domestic violence, and early marriage. I reported them to one of ALDEPA’s social workers, who told encouraged me to join the girls club.”

These clubs, run by the social workers, help generate conversation about issues related to the life of young girls in the camp, the opportunities they have, and the risks they face. “My role is to monitor, identify cases of violence, and to encourage the victims to talk to the social workers. Then they can take action to protect the girls.”

Recovering from her ordeal has been a miracle for Tabita. She thought she would never be able to enjoy life again but, as she says that now she feels less worried. “I wouldn’t say I’m happy — But I can forget about what happened and think about my future.”

Looking to the future Tabita would like to become a teacher. She has learnt in this conflict the importance of education. “That’s how we will defeat Boko Haram, for good.”

When we asked her where she would like to teach, Tabita smiled and said: “In my village of Tchikene. I miss it so much. One day peace will be back in Northern Nigeria. That’s when my journey will end.”

By Alexandre Brecher, UNICEF Cameroon

The Minawao refugee camp. Photo: UNICEF/A.BRECHER