A teenage girl whose family members were murdered by members of the militant Islamist group Boko Haram is sharing her story in hopes that it will spur action against the Nigerian terrorist organization.
“I was in shock. I didn’t know what was happening,” 15-year-old Deborah Peters said, growing visibly emotional as she recalled witnessing the murders of her father and brother at the hands of Boko Haram militants two and a half years ago.
Peters spoke May 13 at a discussion on Boko Haram hosted by Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.
The event was held in Washington, D.C., amidst a rising interest in Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly as “Western education is sinful.” The group recently made international headlines when it abducted more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Northern Nigeria several weeks ago. Efforts are currently underway to find and rescue the girls.
Peters, a Chibok native, described the attack on her own family three days before Christmas in 2011. She and her brother were at home when they heard shooting outside in the town. Three men knocked on the door, asking for her father, who was a Christian pastor at a nearby church. The church building had been destroyed several weeks before, but Peters said her father “didn’t give up” and had worked to rebuild it, drawing the animosity of Boko Haram.
The men “told him that he should deny his faith,” Peters said, explaining that her father “told them that he can’t deny his faith, so they told him that they were going to kill him if he didn’t.”
“But he told them that he should rather die than to go to hellfire,” she said. “So my dad refused to deny his faith, and then they shot him three times in his chest.”
The three men then discussed whether or not they should kill her brother as well. One of the men suggested that they should spare his life, because he was young, but the others decided he might “grow up and become a pastor” like his father.
Consequently, the men also shot Peters’ brother three times and restrained her, eventually leaving her in shock with the dead bodies.
After the murders of her father and brother, Peters tried to come to the United States. Initially, the State Department denied her visa because of her lack of relatives in the country. However, she has since gained a visa and is currently attending school in the U.S.
Peters said that she “wanted to help other people with what was happening in Nigeria” and hoped that by sharing her story, she could inspire others to “stand strong” against the violence in her home country.
Joining Peters at the Hudson Institute discussion was Emmanuel Ogebe, an international human rights lawyer and U.S.-Nigerian relations expert.
Ogebe warned that Boko Haram is the “second most deadly terrorist group in the world,” after al-Qaeda, and said that the group seems to be intensifying its attacks.
“In the past they were attacking empty schools,” Ogebe said, adding that the group acted as “gentlemen terrorists” and spared the elderly, women and children.
Recently, however, “the terrorist group is more energized,” he said, speculating that the militants, encouraged by the media attention their crimes have attracted, will continue to commit acts of violence that gain high levels of attention and outcry.
Ogebe also called for a greater response from the international community, pointing out that Boko Haram has been carrying out attacks for months without ceasing, yet Nigeria has only recently received international attention and aid.
Boko Haram’s attacks have killed thousands since 2009; human rights groups estimate they have killed more than 1,500 in 2014 alone. The U.N. estimates that the attacks have led to more than 470,000 internally displaced persons in Nigeria.
The U.S. government has come under fire in recent years for its treatment of Boko Haram. The U.S. State Department designated the group as a “foreign terrorist organization” in November 2013, only after a lengthy campaign from human rights and religious freedom groups calling for the designation years earlier.
In addition, critics argue that the Obama administration has downplayed the religious ideology driving Boko Haram and instead classified the group as being composed of rebels or individuals acting out against poverty.
“These are not rebels. They are anarchists, jihadists,” Ogebe emphasized. “We do not have a cure for extreme fanatical Islamism. Containment, not appeasement, is the solution.”
Boko Haram will continue to act until they have achieved their goals for Africa, which include “an Islamist theocracy over northern Nigeria,” he warned.
“You cannot achieve that when the population is 50 percent Christian. You cannot achieve that without massive genocide.”
He added that “they want a very extreme version of Shariah law. They want public beheadings in a stadium where people can gather. They don’t want the process with a court and trials – that is too slow and boring.”
Ogebe emphasized that when dealing with Boko Haram, the conflict “must first be properly framed in the lens of global jihad.”
“We were facing an administration that was denying the religious discrimination of Christians in Nigeria,” he said, commenting on his reason for speaking out on the topic.
“We wanted to put a face to the atrocities that were going on in Nigeria.”