Non-fiction: ″Stolen Girls″ by Wolfgang Bauer

What hides in the woods

Satellite images of Duhu, Gubla or Gulak reveal little. A road flanked by scattered settlements runs through sparse terrain. Somewhat further away, the Sambisa forest. North-eastern Nigeria – home to the Islamist terrorist organisation Boko Haram, described by Wolfgang Bauer in his shocking and poignant reportage ″Stolen Girls″

The first chapter is called ′The Forest′, referring to the swampy Sambisa forest that the kidnapped women and children from Duhu, Gubla and Gulak were taken to. These women and children, whom the Zeit reporter was able to talk to in July 2015 and January 2016, were abducted, forced into marriage and abused by Boko Haram fighters.

The fact that they managed to flee does not mean they′re now in safety, for Boko Haram is still on the rampage and more so than ever – in other regions too. What′s more, all of these women have lost family members, friends and neighbours, have seen and suffered unspeakable atrocities. The Boko Haram terror group "has killed the most people in recent years, more than the Islamic State. As deadly as it is, we know very little about it," writes Bauer.

How should a journalist talk about this criminal regime, how can we wrap our minds around it? "We can only fight this terror successfully," continues Bauer, "when we listen to its victims: the women." It′s the impressive voices of Sadiya and Talatu, of Batula and Rabi, Sakinah and Isa, Clara and Lydia that leave their mark on this book and reverberate in the reader′s mind long after putting it down. It is Sadiya and Talatu, mother and daughter in the first chapter, who tell about their lives – before, during and after their abduction by Boko Haram militias.

Cover of Wolfgang Bauer's "Stolen Girls", translated by Eric Trump (published by The New Press)
Wolfgang Bauer graduated in Islamic Studies, Geography and History in 1994 to begin a career in freelance journalism. HIs work has since been featured by, among others, the German magazine Focus, Zeit Dossier, Neon/Nido, Greenpeace Magazin, Geo und National Geographic

Their story is similar to that of thousands of women who were carried off to Sambisa forest as slaves after their villages were conquered by Boko Haram troops. When these women tell their story, however, we come to know their personal lives and the rural surroundings they live in.

Marked by unfathomable brutality

The widow Sadiya sold bean cakes at a bus stop in Duhu; her daughter Talatu dreams of becoming a doctor. Forty-one-year-old Batula and her daughter Rabi were in captivity for months as well. When their village was taken by terrorists, they had to look on as the men were decapitated. Dragged off to the Sambisa forest, they were forced into marriage and raped. The leader of the group, Abubakar Shekau, who lives in the forest, had the women brutally abused. The schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014, whose plight went viral with the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign, were indoctrinated by Boko Haram and had to give lessons in Islam to the newly arriving girls.

Alternating with these female voices, the author explains the origins and history of this Islamist terror group. Bauer masters this difficult task as well, describing a world marked by unfathomable brutality without falling into sensationalism or flaunting his inside knowledge. A key factor in Boko Haram′s evolution, the reporter concludes, is the weak Nigerian state.

Ubiquitous corruption and the lawlessness resulting from this has created a situation in which the promises of radical preachers fell on fertile ground – namely, establishing law and order again with the aid of Sharia. "Officially there are 330,000 policemen in Nigeria, but almost a third of these are busy protecting high-ranking politicians and businessmen in exchange for perks and bonuses." The regime under President Goodluck Jonathan was marked by elites enriching themselves. President Buhari, in office since 2015, may have promised anti-corruption measures, but the brunt of the struggle against Boko Haram is "still borne by neighbouring states like Chad, Niger and Cameroon," according to Bauer.

An impotent callous state

That Boko Haram has transformed itself from fundamentalist guerrilla troops into a veritable army since 2010 is also the fault of a government that for many years cared little about the country′s Muslim north. And its belated military measures against Boko Haram were dubious at best. The women Bauer talked to mentioned fighter planes that destroyed their villages with no regard for civilian lives and said that Boko Haram used them as human shields.

Bauer describes how the "chief emir" Abubakar Shekau is increasingly gaining ground and influence, how he claims to use witchcraft, how his propaganda works, how Boko Haram is gradually networking with IS and training its fighters in the Middle East. It is the advancing internationalisation of terrorism that makes the Boko Haram phenomenon an increasing threat, one that can′t be held back with short-term military operations.

This reportage book of Wolfgang Bauer, whose interview transcripts and background reports are supplemented by the stark black-and-white photographs of Andy Spyra, shows how urgent it is to open our eyes and look. "Globalisation has done away with the outside world. Many of us have yet to understand this. Or don′t want to understand it, out of fear. In recent years the outside world has merged with the inside one."

In the end, though, it′s the courage and strength of these women who – however absurd it may seem, given the extent of the horrors they′ve seen – ultimately inspire something like hope.

Jutta Person


Translated from the German by David Burnett is a website run by the Goethe-Institut. It presents a selection of new publications from the German book market. These books are selected by a jury of critics on a regular basis. Information on these books is provided in the form of book reviews by well-known literary critics, sample passages and details on the authors and publishers, all of which is published in three languages: German, English and a special-focus language. From 2015 to 2018, the special-focus language is Arabic.

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