#BringBackOurGirls: What You Need to Know About the Nigerian Kidnappings

More than 200 girls were abducted in Nigeria and have been missing for three weeks.

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Heavily armed terrorists have abducted more than 200 teenaged girls from the boarding school dormitory where they slept. Here's what you need to know, and how you can help.

What happened?

On April 15, members of the terrorist organization Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, drove into the town of Chibok, a small farming town in northeastern Nigeria, and made their way to the girls' boarding school. The girls, ages 15 to 18, were inside their dormitory. They awoke to gunfire, their school ablaze. The militants, reportedly dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, herded the terrified girls into their vehicles, telling them they would be taken to safety. Instead, they vanished.

How many girls are missing?

No one knows for sure, but all estimates place the total number over 200. Original reports say about 275 girls were taken, but around 40 or 50 of them managed to escape. One, named Deborah Sanya, gave a chilling account of the kidnapping to The New Yorker. The school's principal told The New York Times 223 girls were still missing, though the most commonly circulated number on social media is 234.

What has happened to the girls since they were taken?

Sanya told The New Yorker they were initially taken to a camp in the bush not far from Chibok. We don't know much else or where the remainder of the girls may have been taken since. The leader of the Boko Haram claimed responsibility on May 5, and can be seen in a videotaped statement saying he plans to sell the girls "in the marketplace." The videotape follows reports from family members of the missing girls last week who said they had heard there had been mass marriages and that the girls were being shared out as wives among the militants.

Who are the Boko Haram?

Terrorists. A Muslim extremist group who basically hate everything remotely associated with the West. Case in point: their name means "Western education is a sin." Since their founding in 2002, they have staged massacres, shootings, and numerous coordinated bomb attacks around the country, notably attacking both a police headquarters and the United Nations headquarters in the capital city, Abuja, in 2011. Students and teachers are frequent targets. According to Amnesty International, in 2013 alone fifty schools were burned or badly damaged and more than 60 others were forced to close. Earlier this year, Boko Haram members shot or burned to death 59 male students at a boarding school also in the northeastern part of the country. Since March, many schools in the area had been closed for fear of attacks. The school where the girls were kidnapped had only recently reopened, so final exams could be held.

What is being done to find the girls?

The families have said the Nigerian government has done next to nothing to help recover the girls. Some of them even pursued the kidnappers themselves, but turned back. Shortly after the girls were taken, the Nigerian military claimed to have rescued them, but that was quickly ruled false. On May 5—nearly three weeks after the abductions—Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan ordered an investigation into the rescue efforts.

Is the U.S. doing anything to help?

The families are desperate for help—with one father telling The New York Times he and the other parents are praying for the U.S. and the United Nations to intervene and/or put international pressure on the Nigerian government to rescue the girls. Secretary of State John Kerry is in Africa and has said the U.S. is "engaged and cooperating," but no further details of the U.S. involvement have been released.

How can we help?

You can help by not letting this story disappear off the radar—after all, the investigation announced by President Jonathan was announced only after this story gained traction in the media and on sites like Facebook and Twitter. Use the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to help encourage an international response. (You can do as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring the attend school, has and post a message to Instagram.) There's a We the People petition posted on WhiteHouse.gov that urges the Obama Administration to work with the United Nations and Nigerian government to bring the girls home, a Change.org petition directed at President Jonathan, and a Facebook group.

UPDATE -- May 13, 2014:

Alright, it's been four weeks. What's happening now?

The biggest news of the week is that the Boko Haram released a video on May 12 giving the world its first glimpse of the kidnapped girls. It's not clear if the girls in the video are in fact the girls kidnapped on April 15, but there appear to be more than 100 girls pictured. They wear full-length hijabs and are sitting in some sort of outside area. The militant leader Abubakar Shekau—the same man who said last week that he planned to sell the girls—now says he'd like to use them as a bargaining chip.

"These girls will not leave our hands until you release our brothers in your prison," he says, referring to members of Boko Haram that have been imprisoned by the Nigerian government. Little is said by the girls in the film, and what little is said is almost assuredly based on coercion and the traumatic circumstances they've likely endured, not fact. When asked if she's been manhandled, one girl replies "no." And when asked what she's been eating she answers "rice." Others speak of converting to Islam (by force, we can safely assume).

What's being done to find them?

The U.S. has sent an intelligence, logistics and communications team in to assist with the search for the missing girls. "We have shared commercial satellite imagery with the Nigerians and are flying manned [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets over Nigeria with the government's permission," a senior administration official told The Washington Post. Soon, drones may be used to bolster the search. France, the United Kingdom, and China are also aiding the search. As for the Nigerian government, the good news is they accepted outside help from the U.S. and other nations and they've also sent soldiers to the border to make sure the girls are not taken to neighboring countries. But, they've also suppressed and dispersed efforts by Nigerian citizens to rally support for the search in the capital Abuja (some of the protest leaders have even been arrested).

What's up with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls?

The message has been tweeted and Instagrammed by everyone from Lena Dunham to Kim Kardashian, but the awareness campaign received its biggest boost on May 7 when Twitter lit up with an image on First Lady Michelle Obama holding a sign that reads #BringBackOurGirls. The tweet, sent from the First Lady's account, has since been re-tweeted nearly 58,000 times (and made its way on to the cover of the New York Post.)

Kayla Webley Adler

Kayla Webley Adler is the Deputy Editor of ELLE magazine. She edits cover stories, profiles, and narrative features on politics, culture, crime, and social trends. Previously, she worked as the Features Director at Marie Claire magazine and as a Staff Writer at TIME magazine.