A young woman who escaped Boko Haram has urged the international community to forgive the militant group, arguing that their actions are rooted in ignorance and that education, not punishment, is "the best answer."
Last April, over 250 girls were captured by the Islamic extremist group, whose name translates as "western education is sinful," from a school in Chibok village in north-eastern Nigeria. According to a Human Rights Watch report featuring the stories of 50 girls who managed to escape, the 200 girls who remain in captivity are likely facing forced labor, sexual assault and even being used in military operations by luring men into ambushes.
Among those who fled captivity was 19 year old Deborah, who recently spoke to the Times about her experience and why she believes the international community should approach the jihadist group with compassion.
"Even though they have done so much destruction, to me, punishing them will not be the best answer," she said.
"They say it is that western education is bad, based on their religion. I think it is that western education is everything," she said. "It is by showing them what they are doing is wrong. Most of them are illiterate. They don't know what they are doing."
Deborah explained that many of Boko Haram's members chose to join the group simply to escape Nigeria's widespread poverty. "So by giving them a job, making them realise that these things are not good, this is the best way, I think, to help them," she said.
The young woman, who today attends the American University of Nigeria, explained that she and the other girls who escaped have coped with their traumatic experience by staying together and praying that the other girls captured with them would one day be released.
For the past six years, Boko Haram, which is designated as a foreign terrorist organization in the U.S. and European Union, has terrorized northeast Nigeria, killing or displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens.
The group was founded by an Islamic cleric, Mohammad Yusuf, about a decade ago to fight Western education, which he claimed was behind moral and political corruption in the country. Yusuf was from the Salafi movement, which has promoted jihadist terrorism in several countries.
In attempt to purge the region of religions other than Islam and establish a caliphate in the Muslim-majority region, Boko Haram has specifically targeted Christians and destroyed dozens of historic churches.
Persecution watchdog International Christian Concern has said that "far too many" Christians have been "martyred, displaced, and terrorized at the hands of armed extremists."
"For years, Boko Haram has waged a campaign of terror against Christians, moderate Muslims, educators and students, and law enforcement and military personnel for the establishment of a separate Islamic state," said ICC Regional Manager for Africa Cameron Thomas.
"The international community [must] come together and lend its full support to the Nigerian state in its battle against Boko Haram, and all other extreme ideologies plaguing the stability of not only that state, but the entire region."