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Nigerian Schoolgirls' Abduction Told In 'Beneath The Tamarind Tree'


More than five years ago, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, a small town in northeastern Nigeria. Some of the girls escaped; others were released. More than 100 remain missing.

Boko Haram opposes Western-style education for girls and has targeted schools that teach girls and young women. They tried to persuade the Chibok girls, most of whom were Christian, to convert to Islam.

Former CNN correspondent Isha Sesay recalls the story of the girls in a book called "Beneath The Tamarind Tree." She told our co-host Noel King that, for her, this story is personal.

ISHA SESAY: Chibok isn't that different from the town my mother grew up in in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world. And Chibok always felt very familiar to me. It always felt like something and a place that I'd been to before and heard about throughout my life. So for me, hearing that the girls came from this corner of northeastern Nigeria, it didn't feel all that remote. It felt far away but also very close to me at the same time.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: What influence did your mom have on how you ended up telling this story?

SESAY: My mother grew up in this kind of environment where there weren't role models that encouraged her to pursue an education or to strive and reach the heights that she did. But from these humble beginnings, she rose up to gain a Ph.D. in English language and linguistics and be the first woman to be on the ticket to run for vice president in Sierra Leone. So I have seen personally what education can do.

So for me, these girls - for them to have been stolen while they were on a pathway to transforming their lives through education felt very intense to me. And my mother made sure I never forgot what was at stake.

KING: You ended up speaking to many of these young women. In the book, there's one you seem to spend a lot of time with. Her name is Priscilla. Tell us about her.

SESAY: Priscilla is this incredible young woman, as she is now. When you first meet her, she seems incredibly fragile. And she's got these beautiful eyes - big eyes - and tall with these long limbs. And she does seem almost like a dancer - graceful like a ballet dancer. And you just think that, you know, a big gust of wind would knock her over.

But as you speak to her, it strikes you almost immediately that there is this incredible spirit within her and strength and resilience. And I think that surprised me when we first met because she walked in so timidly. But to hear her story and her acts of defiance while in captivity really did open my eyes to how we had underserved these girls and young women, as they are now, in our reporting.

KING: Let's talk about their time in captivity. You titled your book "Beneath The Tamarind Tree." And readers will understand that it was beneath a tamarind tree that these girls were forced to live for days on end after they were captured. Can you talk about what they experienced under that tree?

SESAY: It's important to lay out for our listeners that when they arrived in Sambisa Forest, after days on end of traveling deeper and deeper into this bush with strange sounds and this heat and dust, they get out of the cars, and they say go under that tree. To see this overgrown, gargantuan tree and see that that is where they will be hidden away was completely horrific. And they started to weep before they were forced underneath.

And they endure this heat and being attacked by bugs and lying on a cold ground and being terrorized by these voices outside the walls of the tree, if you will - walls made of leaves and branches. It was nature's prison where they sat. And they were hungry. And they were cold. And they were terrified. And these men, you know, spent, you know, weeks on end trying to break them to convert to Islam, to warn them of attempts to escape would result in beatings and death.

And it was sheer terror. And I don't think anyone can overstate how terrified they were. But within that fear, there were also these moments of defiance and demanding to be taken home.

KING: Two-hundred-and-nineteen girls disappeared; 107 are now back. Do we know anything about the 112 who are still missing?

SESAY: The last video was in 2018. And this group say they will not come back, that they are happy, they are grateful to those who have cared for them this long while and they have no intention of coming back. And that is the last time we saw any of the girls - young women who say they're from Chibok.

KING: You write in your book that there is a great deal of frustration in some quarters, especially among parents, at the Nigerian government for its apparent lack of interest in this.

SESAY: It's more than disappointment; it's anger...

KING: Yeah, yeah.

SESAY: ...It's fury. It is a recognition of the fact that if these girls - as they were when they were taken - had been wealthy, they would have marshaled the assets of the state and would spare no effort. But these families aren't. They are poor. And they are barely educated in some cases. And they are far, far away in a corner of Nigeria that is hard to access.

KING: It has been 2 1/2 years since the 21 girls that you followed, that you met, were released. How are they doing today?

SESAY: Remarkably well.

KING: Yeah?

SESAY: They're doing well. Listen; I don't want to underplay, you know, the issues. There are some who have physical ailments. And you know, there are lingering health concerns - PTSD, as you'd expect. But amidst that all, you know, there are 107 who have made it back. And the majority are in this school in northeastern Nigeria, and they're embracing their studies.

KING: Still studying.

SESAY: And Priscilla, I asked - when I saw her, I said, you know - bearing in mind at the beginning of our time together, she had said she wanted to be a doctor and that had been her childhood ambition - I asked her, do you still want to be a doctor? And she paused and looked down quietly and smiled and said, I don't know if I want to be a doctor. But I do know I want to be somebody.

KING: That is beautiful.

SESAY: They're amazing.

KING: Isha Sesay, author of "Beneath The Tamarind Tree," thank you so much for joining us.

SESAY: Thank you, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.