Boko Haram Horror Leads to Life
Four. Fourteen. Fourteen. Lydia Pogu remembers that day vividly — and her sleep is often still interrupted by even more vivid dreams of that life-changing date. Late in the evening on April 14, 2014, Pogu and 275 mostly Christian girls were kidnapped by the Boko Haram, an Islamist militant organization, from their boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria. It was a night filled with unimaginable terror . . . and ultimately for Pogu, a still, small voice.
Pogu, who was 16 at the time, knew all too well how the Boko Haram treats those who violate their extreme views. Reports of kidnappings, rape, beatings, mass killings, executions, being burned alive, and captives made into sex or labor slaves were commonplace as the Boko Haram ravaged the countryside, with thousands of Christians suffering their wrath.
Pogu explains that earlier in the day, two men approached the school on a motorcycle wearing military garb. “I thought they were there to protect us,” she says. Instead, the men were disguised in order to prepare the way for other members of the group to pillage the school.
“It was about 11 at night when I began to hear gunfire and girls screaming and crying,” says Pogu, who is the sixth of eight children in her family. “There was a lot of noise and confusion. They threatened to kill us if we didn’t do as they said.”
The terrorists started lighting things on fire and stole vehicles in order to transport the girls. Pogu and her friend Joy Bishara were crowded in with other girls onto the back of a truck that was also carrying barrels of gasoline and other stolen items from the school and town.
“They drove us for a long time, we were so scared,” Pogu says. “We didn’t know where we were or where we were going.”
It seemed that they were in the truck for hours, but it was difficult to tell how far they had traveled.
“In Africa, the roads are not like they are in the United States,” Pogu says. “They are made of dirt and very bumpy — so our truck was not going really fast.”
As the girls inside of the truck clung to each other for safety and in fear, Pogu says that she began to hear voices in her head. One of the voices was telling her to stay in the truck, that she would be safe and everything would be okay; but the other voice — there was something about that voice that appealed to her — was softly urging her to jump from the back of the truck and escape. She turned to her cousin who had also been kidnapped and told her the plan, but she was unwilling to jump — too afraid what might happen to them if they were caught.
The truck they were in was at the back of the convoy, followed by militants on motorcycles. When the motorcyclists suddenly sped up to assist with something ahead, Pogu and a friend leapt from the back of the truck, safely tumbled onto the road, and then quickly ran into the nearby thicket. Bishara would jump soon after. Pogu’s cousin, to this day, remains a captive of the Boko Haram.
“As a child growing up, we always went to church, my dad even worked at the church,” Pogu recalls, “but I wasn’t close to God. I didn’t understand what God was all about. I went to church because that’s what my family did.”
But when she heard that soft voice telling her to escape, she instinctively knew that God was speaking to her.
Pogu explains that several other girls also jumped from the back of the truck, but many of the girls were in vehicles that also had militants in them, were covered tightly, or in cars where it would be very difficult to successfully jump out and escape.
Although Pogu and her friend made it safely into the thicket, their fears were not eased. They had no idea where they were, they didn’t know if the militants were searching for them, and the African thicket is not a safe place. Unknown to them, the militants had driven them toward or already into the Sambisa Forest, a game reserve and a gathering place for the Boko Haram. Poisonous snakes, leopards, and wild dogs were all real threats.
But for the two girls, wild animals were never a problem — the thicket was. The bushes and short trees that make up the Sambisa Forest are known for their hard, sharp thorns. Soon the girls were streaming blood as thorns pierced their hands, ripped through their thin school uniforms, and sliced their bodies, arms, and legs. Undeterred by the pain and spurred on by fear of being shot or captured, the girls ran throughout the night, trying to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the militants.
As dawn broke, the girls with their uniforms now in bloody tatters, met a family in the bush who had been hiding from the Boko Haram as well, but were willing to help them. The family traveled with them away from the militants. As evening approached, they encountered a person on a motorcycle who, after learning what had happened, gave the girls a ride to Chibok.
Pogu found her parents in front of the church, where many had gathered, praying and weeping for their children. Her parents, stunned and overjoyed to see her, brought her home and treated her wounds.
“Ever since I escaped from the attack, I realized that God exists,” Pogu says. “The one voice telling me to jump out, I was thinking, Wow, this is God, telling me to jump and He only wants what is best for my life!”
But saving Pogu from the Boko Haram wasn’t the end plan for God — He had much grander things in mind.
As Pogu recovered, she says many people came to interview her at the house about what really happened, especially because she could speak a little bit of English.
However, although she was successful in her escape attempt from the militants, there was no escaping the fear that the Boko Haram would find her again. Finally, she, Bishara, and a number of other girls appealed to the American Embassy and they were granted permission to go to the United States.
Once in the United States, the girls were sent to Mountain Mission School in Grundy, Virginia, though the Jubilee Campaign, which promotes the human rights and religious liberty of ethnic and religious minorities around the world. The school is described as “a place of sanctuary and education for thousands of children since 1921.” Catering to kids who have come from difficult circumstances, the school seemed like an ideal starting point for Pogu and Bishara.
In 2016, Pogu and Bishara were transferred to Canyonville Academy in Canyonville, Oregon, to complete their high school education by request of the FBI and Division of Homeland Security as questions had arisen concerning individuals using the girls’ fame to make money.
Canyonville Academy is a former AG Bible school, then it became a high school where many AG missionaries taught and their kids attended. Academy President Doug Wead says the school agreed to accept the girls, and provided the pair with comprehensive scholarships that included room and board.
It wasn’t surprising that the government reached out to the academy. The academy had a total of seven girls who had escaped Boko Haram attend the school.
“We brought in tutors and provided counselors and private counseling sessions for the girls,” Wead says. “The girls are survivors in every sense of the word. Lydia and Joy needed a lot of tutoring to make it, but they did a good job — they are hardworking girls and they love God.”
After the girls earned their GED diplomas, Wead contacted Southeastern University (SEU) in Lakeland, Florida — Wead had sent three of his children to attend SEU — to see if they would be interested in bringing the girls to the school.
“When we were contacted by President Wead, SEU President Kent Ingle immediately wanted to be a part of helping the girls,” says Dana Davis, chief communications officer for SEU. “We were able to provide them with full scholarships.”
Transitioning from the Northwest to the Southeast in 2017, Pogu and Bishara took general electives at SEU like most incoming freshmen, adjusting to the new environment and challenges as they always have.
According to Davis, the girls did well in their first year of classes and also held jobs on campus. However, it could be said that, when viewed from a “life perspective,” Pogu and Bishara have done a bit more than “well.”
In addition to attending classes, the pair have become spokespersons calling for countries to put an end to the ongoing persecution of Christians. Bishara recently spoke at the International Christian Concern (ICC) event in Washington, D.C., and to the United Nations Security Council, while Pogu accepted an invitation and spoke to leaders at the Human Rights Watch in New York. Both girls met President Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, at the White House and have communicated their concerns to him as well. SEU is starting an ICC club on its campus this fall, with Pogu and Bishara expected to be involved.
Pogu was also selected to be a member of SEU’s Student Leadership Team beginning this fall. “I want to share what God has done in my life, share that love, the Word of God, with other students,” she explains. “I want to help them understand that no matter how bad your life was or appears to be, God is still there for you.”
Yet, the nightmare ordeal surrounding their kidnapping still haunts the young women. Pogu says that during the day, the events of that terrifying time no longer trouble her. However, at night and in her dreams, the screams, the shouts, the shooting, and the fear of being captured again return all too often.
“I was able to visit my family for the first time [since 2014] last summer,” Pogu says. “I wanted to see my parents, but it was a bad situation — people were after me and I was so scared. I was so thankful to be able to come back here.”
“It was very dangerous for them to go back,” Wead confirms. “The media has made them celebrities in Nigeria . . . their faces are very well-known, making them easy targets for the Boko Haram. But despite the real dangers, they went to visit their families anyway, and thankfully made it back.”
But for how long?
“Lydia has no guarantees that she will not be sent back to Nigeria,” Davis says, “so we’re working together to raise money for a lawyer who can help her seek asylum in the United States, and then she wants to become a U.S. citizen.”
Davis says lawyers believe Pogu has a strong case for being granted asylum, and Pogu believes that God will answer her prayers to protect her and use her to make a difference.
“God has done a lot for me — He has changed my life, turning bad into good, and I’m so much closer to Him than ever before,” she says. “He brought me out of the danger to a place where everyone gets an opportunity.”
Pogu plans to continue to do her best to influence leaders and governments to work together to end the persecution of Christians. She also sees it as her role to share Christ with others.
“It hurts me a lot when people say they are atheists, they don’t have ‘a god,’ or that they were a Christian, but no longer,” Pogu says. “When I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through, how can you question that [that God is real]? You just have to have patience and faith in Him that you’ll be all right . . . because even if you don’t believe He exists, He does care for you.”
IMAGE: Joy Bishara (left) and Lydia Pogu.