Connections formed by years of captivity and shame at marrying militants might explain why some Chibok girls have chosen not to return home from their Boko Haram ordeal, experts say.
Their militant Islamist captors released a video on Monday showing some of the remaining girls — who were kidnapped from the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok — appearing to relish their new life and disavow their old.
More than 200 girls were abducted in 2014 and 106 have been found or freed. They are now undergoing a special course at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola. One more girl was found this month and 100 are still believed to be in captivity.
A group of about 12 girls, some carrying babies, are seen in the 21-minute Boko Haram video, which security experts described as a propaganda coup that showed backing for the Islamists.
“We are the Chibok girls. We are the ones you are crying about for us to come back. By the grace of Allah, we are never coming back,” said one of the girls.
The chairman of the abducted girls’ parents association, Yakubu Nkeki, confirmed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation that at least two of the girls in the video are among the missing.
“In any human relationship, healthy or unhealthy, when you live with someone for years, connections are formed,” wrote psychologist Somiari Demm in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Stockholm Syndrome — where hostages or kidnap victims can develop a strong alliance with their captors — is a condition that has been identified by psychologists in a range of crises.
It is more often cited in the imprisonment of women — be it Californian heiress Patty Hearst or Austrian abductee Natascha Kampusch — and took its name from a botched Swedish bank siege, where captives bonded with captors during a six-day standoff.
If such a bond can be cemented in days, experts said it was little wonder that connections ran deep after many years.
“These men, and the small community or people around them are the only contact they have had for almost four years. The isolation creates the perfect setting for brainwashing, religious indoctrination, radicalization, lies,” said Demm, who works with the freed Chibok girls studying in Yola.
Some of the freed girls have said in interviews they could choose whether or not to marry the militants. Those who refused were starved and beaten regularly, with many then succumbing.
Other girls opted to marry after they were wounded in Nigerian military airstrikes, unable to walk or hear well.
A Boko Haram wife would be more vulnerable to indoctrination than a girl who had not wed, said psychologist Fatima Akilu.
“Some might have agreed [to marry] because they were fearful or because they thought they might get better treatment,” said Akilu, head of the Neem Foundation, a non-profit group aimed at countering extremism in Nigeria.
“Some might have agreed because they thought they might never see their families. But now that they have made those decisions and had children, they might be ashamed that society might not accept them,” added Akilu, who has run programs to deradicalize Boko Haram militants and their former captives.
Life in captivity could also have become the girls’ greater reality, especially if they were treated better than at home.
“So, although they have been beaten, tortured, raped, starved, etc., all ‘acts of kindness’ such as food, power, favoritism are all viewed as good intentions by their victimizers,” Demm said. "There's an unwarranted level of gratitude extended for still being alive."
To dissuade those who wanted to go home when negotiations for their release were made known, the militants took them to a store packed with rice, oil and provisions, according to one of the freed girls who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They asked us if this is the life we want or if we would prefer one with no food. They gave us a week to think about it,” said the girl, who requested that her name not be used.
Pressure also came from some of the wives, she said, as former classmates urged the unwed to stick with the militants.
“They told us that it is better that we accept Boko Haram and get married and join them...'Can't you see that they give us spaghetti, slaughter cows for us? If you go home, it is only miyan kuka [soup] you will eat, without meat. Even Nigerians, with time, they are going to accept BH [Boko Haram],'" she said.