Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

UNICEF Official Says Children Used By Boko Haram Still Have A Chance


More children than ever are being used to carry out suicide bombing attacks by Boko Haram militants. That's the alarming new finding in a report from UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, released earlier this week. It's a good time to talk about it.

Friday marked the three-year anniversary of the kidnapping of more than 200 girls by Boko Haram militants from Chibok, Nigeria. To find out more about the trend of Boko Haram using children in terrorism attacks, we're joined by Patrick Rose, who's based in Dakar, Senegal. Rose is UNICEF's crisis communications specialist for West and Central Africa. Welcome to the program.

PATRICK ROSE: Thank you for having us.

SUAREZ: First, tell us the overall findings of your report.

ROSE: Well, we're very deeply alarmed by the spike in suicide attacks that we're seeing in northeast Nigeria. There have been 27 since the beginning of the year, and that's as much as we had in the whole of last year in 2016. And then it is alarming the way that these 27 attacks have created an outsized impact on the crisis. They've had an impact on our ability to respond to the looming famine that we're seeing in this area. So the attacks mean that it's harder for the humanitarian community to get this aid through.

SUAREZ: Some children have been released, some have escaped. Have we been able to piece together a picture of what daily life has been like for the abductees?

ROSE: So these pictures are emerging of a very sort of eerily similar pattern of young girls being abducted, taken into the forest, being subjected to a range of different sexual violence and then oftentimes impregnated and even having to give birth on their own in the forest.

But we are starting to sort of see what's happening as the fortunes of war are turning against Boko Haram, as these girls are abandoned on the battlefield or sometimes even manage to escape. But really, the findings that we really want to sort of make clear here is that these children are, by all means, victims of their circumstances. They are not sort of willing agents of these attacks. They're being used in really the most horrific way.

SUAREZ: Coming home has been complicated for so many. We're marking the third anniversary of the Chibok kidnapping. Yet last year, when 21 Chibok schoolgirls were released by Boko Haram, many of them were shunned by their own communities. There was worry that the girls had been radicalized by their captors. There was mistrust. There was isolation and ostracization that came from the fact that many were pregnant or had babies of their own. How do we help these girls now?

ROSE: The title of the report is actually called "Silent Shame" because that was one of the key findings was just that many of these girls are afraid to even mention that they've been associated with Boko Haram. They're sort of hiding in the shadows in some of these camps because they recognize that to talk about it invites a very unpredictable range of reactions from the community.

The community leaders, we're working with them - the community religious leaders. And we are trying to have that discussion about how these children are victims above all. But that takes time, and there's always going to be casual remarks at the water well or, you know, unkind remarks on the soccer field. And children talk to me about that. We are trying to kind of break down those perceptions, and that's a very important piece of sort of peace-building work. But they do return to being children. That's, again and again, what we find is that the scars are never too deep, and that there's always a chance for them to sort of find a sense of happiness.

SUAREZ: That's Patrick Rose. He's UNICEF's crisis communications specialist for West and Central Africa, and he spoke to us from Dakar. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

ROSE: Nice to speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ray Suarez
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.