Cultural Knowledge and a Little Luck: Surviving Boko Haram

9 Apr

A couple of weeks back, Al Jazeera published the testimony of Apagu, a Christian, 16-year-old Nigerian girl who was kidnapped by Boko Haram and subsequently escaped to Cameroon. I really encourage everyone to read it, if only to understand what she, and many other women, have gone through. Beyond the emotional weight of the interview, Apagu’s story provides a fascinating insight into the physical, cultural, and social terrain that people in warzones have to navigate to survive.

The first obstacle Apagu had to overcome was the physical environment around her. Both before and after her spell in captivity, she had to walk long distances, find food and water, and remain hidden from Boko Haram fighters. The physical inability to flee, either because of environmental factors or physical weaknesses, creates a whole new set of possible choices. For Apagu, had she been unable to escape her captors, her choice would have been between accepting marriage to a Boko Haram fighter and death.

The physical environment of a warzone dictates the possibilities available to civilians, but cultural and social relations are largely what determine who survives. Reading Apagu’s testimony for the first time, I was struck by the number of times she almost died. These near-death experiences weren’t from falling into a swollen river or being bitten by a snake. Rather it was that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person or wearing the wrong set of clothing in the wrong place would have meant almost certain death. Apagu had to perform some delicate cultural dances, and individuals without a deep knowledge of the social cartography would have had little chance.

Her survival, more than anything else, was dependent on the help of the people around her. Without the aid of friends and strangers, she never would have escaped the Boko Haram compund in the first place. Previous literature has emphasized that environments of mass violence feature three types of people: perpetrators, bystanders, and victims. Stopping mass violence can be achieved through activating bystanders to protect victims from perpetrators.

Apagu’s story shows that there’s more to the narrative; individuals float between the three categories and the victims have significant agency. On the one end, some of Boko Haram’s member were more cruel than others, and in some moments, they were as much bystanders as perpetrators. On the other, Apagu could not have survived without the help of others, who by becoming active bystanders risked victimhood. But there were also some, like those in the village Palam (who helped them find the way to Cameroon), who would have killed Apagu if they thought she was a Boko Haram member. These constantly-shifting roles doesn’t fit traditional conceptions of unarmed actors in warzones, but it is line with work like Kalyvas‘ and Kaplan‘s that sees civilians as crucial in both the persecution of others and their own protection. Protection and persecution operate through small-scale social networks, in which the two behaviors are mutual. Most people can choose to inform on each other, or to steer each other away from harm. No group has absolute power, and no group is powerless. Even when individuals choose to become perpetrators, civilians, like Apagu, still sometimes find the strength to run, hide, and survive.

Civilians who do live through mass violence, as I’ve written before, tend to do so without the help of anyone beyond their local communities. International politics might influence the environment, and aid might cushion the fall, but when it comes down to the experience of proximate physical violence, civilians are relying on their friends, family, and neighbors. And even when these social networks are strong, and civilians successfully navigate the physical and social landscapes, survival is rarely possible without luck. Communities play a role in shaping mass violence, but they often can do little more than respond and adapt. Subsequently, not everyone, even those who are well prepared, will survive. Apagu came closest to death when she was spotted after her escape by a Boko Haram fighter, but mercifully he didn’t have a gun, and she was able to escape. That civilians need such luck, and that so many do not have it, is tragic.

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One Response to “Cultural Knowledge and a Little Luck: Surviving Boko Haram”

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  1. Cultural Knowledge and a Little Luck: Surviving Boko Haram | everything matters... - April 10, 2015

    […] Cultural Knowledge and a Little Luck: Surviving Boko Haram. […]

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