2014 - Ongoing
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 heart breaking 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.
Boko Haram had been rapidly increasing attacks in Northern Nigeria. Sadly young girls and boys have become a target. Girls are used for tactical reasons and a form of punishment to them and their communities. Up to 500 girls have been abducted since as far back 2009 from the north-eastern Borno and Yobe states.
They have been abducted while, traveling on the roads, attending school, working on farms, and from their homes during attacks on villages. They are put through psychological abuse, forced labor, forced marriage, forced to convert to Islam, and become victims of sexual violence and rape. Boko Haram are taking young people on operations and teaching them to carry ammunition and eventually to kill, even an increasing number of young girls are now being sent out as suicide bombers. Some have been fortunate to escape however many still remain captive.
The Chibok attack on April 14, 2014 was the largest case of abductions, with 276 girls taken, 57 managed to escape. It brought the attention of the world on Nigeria, and to the atrocities carried out by Boko Haram. Escapees of the Chibok attack have received some counseling and educational scholarships however there remains a serious lack of support for girls and boys abducted before and after Chibok. They urgently need post trauma counselling as they struggle with the memories, and many no longer attend school fearing they will be kidnapped again. Many of the girls that escaped are now stigmatized, and often relocate to new towns as they ostracized by their neighbors.
It is not uncommon for abuses against children and youth to go prosecuted in Nigeria. A code of silence prevents justice taking place, robbing them of their rights as the victim.
Background to the series
I got to know these young woman over several years, starting in 2014, visiting them at their places of refuge, playing games, attending some of their school events. I didn't feel comfortable to make quick photographs of them, portraying them merely as victims, or showing up in their spaces and photographing them in their day to day house clothes. They are more than that, they are survivors, individuals with their own unique personality. They were not allowed to show their faces for security and privacy reasons, so we decided to dress up in their favorite clothes for the portrait sessions to show something of their own personality and fashion sense.
Most of them chose traditional dress, with fantastic Nigerian fabrics. They enjoyed the experience, and some came wanting to be photographed in more than one outfit. On the first day of abduction they were all made to leave their own clothing, and wear a dull gray or black head covering, which they have all since burnt after being released. It was great to see them proud to be photographed, empowered, and with control over what they wore, and how they presented themselves.
In the future I plan to meet more young ladies that have since been released or have escaped, and continue the portraits in this format. I also plan to work together with an art therapist, to collaborate and draw through some of the experiences in the camp, and also their day to day life now. A lot of the girls struggled to explain to me how life was in the camp, and found it easier to talk it through while drawing. I believe the art therapy aspect is an important element to bring to this story, as the wounds are still fresh, and may of them are not receiving the help and counseling they need, and have been stigmatized by their communities. To gather their stories, it helps to do this in a way that does not further traumatize.
The title "Malaiku" is Hausa for Angels