(ABUJA, Nigeria) — The most famous schoolgirl in the world, Malala Yousafzai, is bringing worldwide attention to the plight of the more than 250 young girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Arriving in Abuja on her 17th birthday, Malala had a series of meetings Sunday with desperate parents and with girls who had escaped the kidnapping. Her one birthday wish: “Bring back our girls, now and alive.”
Parents of the missing girls made a 20-hour journey through dangerous territory in northern Nigeria, risking their lives to meet with the Pakistani teen who was shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school.
In an emotional meeting, 11 fathers and one mother shared their grief and frustrations that their daughters had not been found after 90 days in the forest. They described going into the forest themselves, with bows and arrows, to rescue their daughters, but being told to turn back because they might not come back alive.
“All they are asking for is for the government to search for their daughters,” Hadiza Usman of the Bring Back Our Girls movement said. “They feel neglected and abandoned.”
Many of the parents sobbed as they talked of their missing daughters, saying they were so worried they couldn’t work or even eat. Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, cried, too, remembering how it felt to almost lose his own daughter.
“When she was shot, her mother said it would have been worse if they had kidnapped her,” he said. “But there is hope. We must be hopeful.”
Malala said, “When I was hearing the story of the girls being kidnapped on Twitter, it was everywhere, but I did not really know what the parents would be feeling. And then I came here and I met the parents and all of them crying. And it just made me cry and my father was crying as well.”
Malala, who now lives in Great Britain for her safety, promised the desperate parents that she would be their voice when she meets with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday.
The president has been widely criticized for being unable to contain a string of terrorist attacks by Boko Haram, or find any of the more than 250 missing schoolgirls.
Despite the pressure of being just a 17-year-old girl going before the president of a country to speak her mind, Malala expressed optimism that she will be able to have an effect.
“I’m very hopeful that my voice will have an impact and it will reach to the President and he will take action, and I’m hopeful that the voice of those parents who were crying and those girls who were sharing their feelings with me,” Malala said. “I’m hopeful that he will listen to it carefully and I’m feeling a bit confident because these people are with me. And I’m representing the people — the people of Nigeria.”
Malala was also representing the girls abducted by Boko Haram. On Sunday she spoke with five school girls, ages 16 to 18, who escaped shortly after they were kidnapped. They shared their devastating stories.
Kauna Bitrus, 16, described how her father was shot and killed by Boko Haram; her mother and sister were also shot and injured. Hauwa, 18, said she still limps after jumping from the speeding Boko Haram truck that was taking her away. She says she has nightmares every night, but wants to go back to school to become a lawyer.
Rebecca Ishaku, 18, said she is afraid to go to school, even though she wants to learn. She said she still has hope that her classmates will be found.
She also talked about what it meant to her and the others who escaped the kidnappers to have Malala speaking to the president.
“She makes us happy because of what she said,” Ishaku said. “She goes and tell our president, ‘Bring back our girls.'”
But Malala said that she not only had a message for the president, she had one for Boko Haram, if they were listening to her words.
“My simple message to Boko Haram is to think about your own sisters. …They should understand that what they are doing is badly impacting, badly affecting the name of Islam,” Malala answered. “It’s not the real Islam. So they should think about their own sisters and they should release those girls. It’s a request. It’s a request. Please.”
But instead, Boko Haram marked the third month of the girls’ captivity by releasing a video Sunday showing its leader, Abubakar Shekau, standing in front of armored vehicles, flanked by masked militia, mocking the Bring Back Our Girls movement.
He claimed responsibility for three bombings last month, and said the schoolgirls would not be freed until the Nigerian government released the “army” of Boko Haram extremists in jail, saying sarcastically, “Oooh, bring back our army.”
In the end, Malala said she believes words are stronger than armies.
She is launching a new hashtag, #StrongerThan, celebrating the courage and sacrifice of the kidnapped girls.
“My voice and the voice of these girls here in Nigeria and the voice of the parents is more powerful than any weapon here on earth,” Malala said. “And it was our voice that defeated terrorism in Pakistan in Swat Valley and here it is going to be our voice that will defeat all the terrorist activities and all the terrorism here.”
Copyright 2014 ABC News Radio
Marisa Russell, CNN
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