Schoolgirl Leah Sharibu would not renounce her faith despite friends begging her to pretend to accept Islam
The only Christian girl among the Dapchi schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram last month could have been freed along with her schoolmates but refused to renounce her faith, according to her mother.
Leah Sharibu refused to accept Islam, resisting the entreaties of her classmates to pretend to do so, her parents learned from snatched conversation with her friends.
A faction of Boko Haram kidnapped 110 girls and one boy from the girls’ school in Dapchi, a town in north-east Nigeria, in February, and released most of them a month later, after what the government described as “back-channel” negotiations.
Five were killed, possibly trampled to death in the overcrowded trucks as they were being abducted.
Early on Wednesday morning, Rebecca Sharibu, the mother of Leah, 15, heard girls’ voices and the sound of vehicles driving past her house. She was told to stay inside, but when she heard the cars coming back after dropping the girls off, she ran out. All around her were joyful parents and their returned daughters.
But she could not find Leah anywhere.
Frantic with worry, she found two of Leah’s friends and asked them: “Where is Leah, I can’t find my Leah, why did you leave her there?”
The girls told her: “Boko Haram told Leah to accept Islam and she refused. So they said she would not come with us and she should go and sit back down with three other girls they had there.
“We begged her to just recite the Islamic declaration and put the hijab on and get into the vehicle, but she said it was not her faith, so why should she say it was? If they want to kill her, they can go ahead, but she won’t say she is a Muslim.”
Leah asked her friends to tell her parents to pray for her, they said, but her mother could not find out anything else about how her daughter was, as the army then ordered all of the released girls to report to the hospital.
They were held there for several hours and then taken to Abuja, where on Friday they were to meet the president, Muhammadu Buhari, in his villa, surrounded by cameras, as he declared their release “cheery and hearty”. Neither they nor their parents were asked if they consented to this.
Instead of lining them up for photocalls on Buhari’s lawn, some Dapchi parents, who did not find their children among those Boko Haram dropped off, wanted to talk to the returned girls to find out what happened.
Fatima Mohammed’s distraught parents think she is among the five who died, but the army prevented them from confirming this with Fatima’s friends, and none of the authorities have made contact.
“We heard that some of the girls who returned said that she died, but we haven’t been able to talk to them or get any official confirmation, so we’re still in the dark,” said her mother, Salamtu Mohammed.
Fatima’s father tried to search for her in the hospital while the girls were waiting there, but the soldiers guarding them threw him out. There is a chance that she is among the girls taken to Abuja.
“If they had let us go and talk to the girls, we would know if she is alive or not, or if whoever is taking care of them in Abuja checked. We’d know,” Salamtu said.
Her father could not speak, but only wept and shook his head, his clothes covered in dirt.
It is not known exactly how the five died.
“We just kept moving and moving for three days before we stopped, until we came to a river,” Hafsat Abdullahi remembered her sister Fatima saying, before she was taken to Abuja. “We were told to come down from the vehicle and five people were discovered dead. They dug a hole and buried them.”
Though distraught that Leah remains a prisoner, her parents and the pastor of her church are very proud of her.
“I am feeling fantastic because she did not deny Christ as her personal saviour,” said Lathan Sharibu, Leah’s father and a policeman. “That makes me feel great.
“I didn’t think that girl could do something like that because she is young, small and she doesn’t talk just like that. She’s a very quiet girl.”
He added: “I expect the federal government to bring her back to me the way they brought the others home.”