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Boko Haram kidnapping survivors look to the future with hope

06/02/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/01/2016 05:59 EDT
Deborah, Blessing and Mary giggle as they snap photos of one another on their cellphones and tablets, before sitting down to speak to CBC News.

The trio are wearing bright headscarves, but are still too frightened to show their faces on television and only use their middle names, fearing Boko Haram reprisals against their families.

Their smiles are bright before recording starts in the Nigerian city of Yola. They've just sat the exams they were about to take on April 14 last year before Boko Haram stormed their school in the northeastern town of Chibok. The militants shot at random and burned the school to the ground. In the mayhem, Deborah, Blessing and Mary were kidnapped with more than 200 of their classmates.

The three girls and 54 others escaped the clutches of the insurgents that night, fleeing into the darkness. The remaining 219 were not so lucky and are still being held, likely married off to Islamist fighters and not seen since.

Details of their escape and what happened immediately afterwards is off limits. Both they and the management at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) where they now study don't want to go back to that place. Their lives are now in Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, where they feel secure and can continue their education.

Life couldn't be more different now from that in Chibok: back home, lack of opportunity and facilities would likely have stifled their ambitions. But since receiving scholarships to attend the AUN, they are striving for big futures and to fulfil their potential.

"I want to become a medical doctor," says Deborah confidently. "There's only one hospital in the whole of Chibok and it's not well-equipped and there are no skilled doctors, so I want to become a qualified doctor with a modern education so that when I go back home I will give my people the best I have."

As well as ambition, there is something else that has got them through the worst of times and made them thankful for the best – faith.

'They don't know what they are doing'

Despite their ordeal, forgiveness is something Deborah and Blessing are ready to grant. For Blessing, she says this is simply what she has been taught.

"No matter what a person did to you in life you just have to forgive him because as for me it's like they don't know what they are doing," she says.

Deborah feels the same.

"Forgiveness is something that must be done," she says. "If people are doing the bad thing, the way you will correct them is showing them love and forgiveness not by hating them or punishing them. You must forgive to continue."

Mary isn't there yet, however. She scratches at her fingernails repeatedly when she is asked how she feels about the men who wanted to stop her education.

"I pity them," she nods, pursing her lips tensely as she breathes. Asked whether she can forgive them she mutters "no" and her eyes glisten.

It's clear the girls feel at home at the university campus. But their education — a "Western" education to which Boko Haram is opposed — comes at a price.

University has 600 security personnel

Security is tight at the AUN, a modern, campus university situated at the edge of impoverished Yola, on land stretching far towards the mountains to the east that form the border with neighbouring Cameroon.

With some 600 security personnel, the university effectively has its own private army and state-of-the-art equipment. Head of security Lionel Von Frederick Rawlins describes his staff as "educated people, all highly skilled". With the militants still operational in the north of Adamawa, they have to be.

"We have drones, we have horses, we have dogs, we have undercover people but what has made us so unique is our intelligence network that we have created," he explains. "I created a network that expands, goes from Adamawa state to Yobe state, to Benue state to Taraba state and so we are all around and I get intelligence reports every 10 to 15 minutes and we are constantly on everything."

But it's not just Boko Haram that pose a threat.

"We have groups and people and organizations who feel the same way, and politicians," he says. "So, we are constantly being targeted in a strange way, there is no specific target but we know that people are looking at us. So we are constantly on guard."

Boko Haram advanced to within an hour of Yola last year and with repeated attacks in recent weeks in towns and villages bordering Borno state to the north, the threat is ever-present. But Rawlins says despite all eyes turned on the university and suspicions they would evacuate from the campus, teaching carried on as normal.

To speak to Deborah, Blessing and Mary is to speak to young women of courage, determination and conviction. Few would be able to withstand the pressures they have faced in the last year and come out the other side still full of hope and ambition.

Yet despite all they been through, their first thoughts remain the town synonymous the world over with the brutality of the Boko Haram conflict.

But they want the world to know a different place in the future – with their help.

"Let Chibok be fully secured," says Deborah. "Let there be no killing of innocent people ... making children orphans, making women widows.

"Life is very difficult there. I do hope things will improve, to see the people living a better and a happy life with security."

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