Into the Vacuum: A Tale of Two Kidnappings

As the call to save the kidnapped Nigerian girls bounces through the echo chamber of sympathetic social media followers and reaches the highest offices of the U.S. government, the atrocious abstraction of this crime has taken many, very vivid shapes.

In Foreign Policy’s blog, Lauren Wolfe clearly illustrates the complicated point that this case is but the latest example of the tragic collision of armed conflict and deeply entrenched discrimination. In the the New Yorker’s, Teju Cole offers a beautiful meditation on the girls’ imagined reality, juxtaposed with the grinding of the geopolitical and social media machines behind them. And on Cosmopolitan.com, which is often not mentioned in the same breath as Foreign Policy but which is read by girls of the same age, across the world, Jill Filpovic revisits #KONY2012 and ponders the pitfalls of “hashtag activism.”

Can you imagine? we think, as we share Facebook posts, as we read plaintive quotes from the girls’ stunned mothers. Truly we cannot, as we are sitting with time and perspective to contextualize this phenomenon—to read and to write.

I remember a time, three years ago, when, I sat in the breakfast nook of a four-bedroom apartment in Nairobi and learned that 720 Somali schoolchildren were kidnapped by al-Shabab militants, loaded, at gunpoint, onto four waiting school buses, and driven away. The table I at which I sat belonged to the owners and administrators of the children’s school: a Somali woman named Dr. Hawa Abdi and her two daughters, Deqo and Amina. They are doctors and activists whose life’s work is to care for the women and children displaced by their own country’s intractable civil war.

I was living with them while ghostwriting the memoir of Dr. Abdi; it was my second visit to Kenya, and the fifth day of my trip. We were meeting in Nairobi because their native Somalia was still considered too dangerous for me, an Ohio-born, New York-based writer. Now, along with tea and toast, the day had started—and now stopped—with this horrible news.

It came in by cell phone; the breathless voice at the other end belonging to a young man who’d grown up in the displaced persons’ camp surrounding Dr. Abdi’s home. After the sparse details had been shared, in Somali, among mother and daughters, they were relayed to me. Still in her nightgown, her head not yet covered by the hijab, Deqo, Dr. Abdi’s eldest daughter, struggled to process the information. The struggle would continue into the day, as three cell phones rang over and over and the sun streaming through the white muslin curtains moved across the wooden floor.

Can you imagine? The entire school was empty, its lively population—the only treasure not already stripped from these poor families, who’d survived starvation, displacement, and the hellfire of countless armed militias—vanished into the dust the al-Shabab buses kicked up by southern Somalia’s unpaved roads. The mothers had run after the buses, the young man had told Deqo. They’d tried in vain to save their children, but it was no use.

So we did the only thing we could do from our position, 750 miles away: the same thing that all of us, across the world, are doing now: We got on our computers.

Jittery from too much tea, I felt the meat of my wrists dig into the edge of my laptop as I held clenched fists above the keys. This had worked before, this public outcry: In 2010, calls from the international community had ended a weeklong siege at the camp, in which Dr. Abdi was held hostage. “Go to the media,” Deqo told me. “Tell the U.S. government. Tell everyone.”

Just yesterday I went through the emails from that day, pleas marked URGENT directed to the Somalia desk officer at the State Department, The New York Times, and the non-governmental organizations that had supported Dr. Abdi’s work. Requests to people that I’d met once, if at all, which seem measured when compared with my memory of the cold panic that had gripped me. They’re stuffed with every single fact we had scared up, and they’re tied together with a vague request for “anything you can do to raise awareness on your end.”

The words seemed to disappear into the vast space between my naïve faith in something that I can now only guess is “justice” and the unknown that Deqo and Amina had lived in for most of their lives. In the silence that followed, I was most struck by the sense of futile calm that had quickly settled over each of these three usually action-oriented Somali women. It was as though there was no air for outraged epithets, no energy for prolonged pacing.

No one acted on my emails. No journalist, no State Department–dispatched team. I was as powerless as women and men alike have always been, in desperate situations like ours, long before the advent of the Internet.

This morning I am home in New York City, our book on a shelf. I am the mother to a tiny daughter of my own. I sit with the same computer and know how our story ended: The many, many children we’d feared we’d lost had been shuttled to a rally in support of al-Qaeda—an imaginable best-case scenario, to a lucky woman like me—and returned safely.

My thoughts are with the families of these beautiful Nigerian girls who have now vanished into a terrifying uncertainty that can only be inflicted by those carrying deep and unchecked hatred. Can you imagine how, for two weeks, these families howled into the vacuum, and how now our hashtags must provide, at best, cold comfort? With the words I send out now, so too come two silent prayers. First and most obviously, for their safe return, and then, most importantly, for Wolfe’s simple hope that “our eyes have begun to open.” May they stay this way long after the swell of the social media chorus seems obsolete.

(Photo courtesy of Reuters via the Council on Foreign Relations)

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