In this photo taken Monday, April, 21. 2014. Security walk past burned government secondary school Chibok, were gunmen abducted more than 200 students in Chibok, Nigeria.
The girls were relaxing in their dorms at the Government Girls Secondary School in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok when gunmen arrived in trucks, cars and on motorcycles.
There were dozens of them — suspected jihadis with the Boko Haram Islamic group — and they were heavily armed. After shooting the guards, and setting fire to houses, the terrorists kidnapped nearly 300 of the girls and drove off into the woods.
That was on April 15. The girls haven't been heard from since.
And the media, for the most part, has remained largely silent. Coverage of the missing girls has been dwarfed by the other major stories of late — the South Korean ferry, the racist NBA owner and the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
"Maybe if the more than 200 Nigerian girls abducted from their school weeks ago were on a ferry in Korea, a jet liner in the Indian Ocean, in the owner's box at a Clippers basketball game, or were white, the world would pay more attention," Boing Boing blogger Xeni Jardin said, echoing the thoughts of many.
"If it had happened anywhere else, this would be the world's biggest story," said CNN's Frida Ghitis.
But now, three weeks later, a hashtag associated with their disappearance has been tweeted nearly 1 million times.
There is a petition calling on the Nigerian government and all enabled international parties to rescue them, and more than 250,000 people have signed it. There are tumblr blogs, Facebook pages, and — finally, some would say — mainstream media coverage.
But getting to this point was no mere accident. It was the direct result of a semi-coordinated campaign to make world leaders, the media — and you — aware of the plight of Nigeria's missing girls.
The rise of #BringBackOurGirls
Much of the digital chatter around the girls is tied to a hashtag — #BringBackOurGirls — which is nearing its one-millionth mention on Twitter.
Its launch can be traced to an April 23 event honoring the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, recently nominated as UNESCO's 2014 World Book Capital City (Bangkok previously held that title).
There, at the opening ceremonies, a former Nigerian government official and Vice President of the World Bank for Africa named Oby Ezekwesil spoke for the crowd in demanding the release of the school girls, saying, "Bring back the girls!"
Two men in attendance tweeted her remarks — and included the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters.
Yes #BringBackOurDaughters #BringBackOurGirls declared by @obyezeks and all people at Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014.
— Ibrahim M. Abdullahi (@Abu_Aaid) April 23, 2014
Knowing @ObyEzeks well I could sense d tears in her voice, sadness on her face & strength speaking truth to authority #BringBackOurDaughters
— Kayode Akintemi (@KayodeAkintemi) April 23, 2014
Ezekwesil, later that day, tweeted the hashtag, too:
Lend your Voice to the Cause of our Girls. Please All, use the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to keep the momentum UNTIL they are RESCUED.
— oby ezekwesili (@obyezeks) April 23, 2014
It hummed along until April 30 when news broke that hundreds of the girls would likely be shared with Islamic militants as wives — read: sex slaves — or sold for $12 at local markets.
"We have heard from members of the forest community where they took the girls," one man told his family of the girls' fate. "They said there had been mass marriages and the girls are being shared out as wives among the Boko Haram militants."
The girl’s father fainted, the Guardian reported, and has since been hospitalized. But the news got worse. Village elder Pogo Bitrus told Agence France Presse locals had consulted with “various sources” in the nation’s forested northeast. “From the information we received yesterday from Cameroonian border towns our abducted girls were taken… into Chad and Cameroon,” he said, adding that each girl was sold as a bride to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira — $12.
That woke people up.
Mentions of #BringBackOurGirls spiked that day, according to data provided by Sysomos, as Twitter reacted with fury that the girls were missing — and their story wasn't being told. It was tweeted 268,616 times on May 1. In total, there have been 916,984 mentions of the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls as of May 5. The one-millionth mention will likely come early this week.
And since that day, celebrities, politicians and world leaders — from Mary J. Blige to Hillary Clinton to Wyclef Jean — have all joined the call.
It's been two weeks since the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian girls and they still aren't home #bringbackourgirls pic.twitter.com/8OiC5GJPrc
— Mary J. Blige (@maryjblige) April 30, 2014
Access to education is a basic right & an unconscionable reason to target innocent girls. We must stand up to terrorism. #BringBackOurGirls
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) May 4, 2014
Children are the reward of life. Rescue our Nigerian sisters. The world is watching, Make your voice heard. Retweet! #BringBackOurGirls
— Wyclef Jean (@wyclef) May 2, 2014
I'm in Nigeria for in-depth #CNN coverage of missing schoolgirls. We all want answers! #BringBackOurGirls pic.twitter.com/evJlTXWHUE
— Isha Sesay (@IshaSesayCNN) May 2, 2014
One young Nigerian woman started a Change.org petition, declaring solidarity with the kidnapped girls and calling upon the world to remember their ongoing plight.
"I cannot imagine what they are going through as a Nigerian, as a girl and as a human being," Ify Elueze, the petition's creator, tells Mashable. "I know the families because I can see their pain, their anguish, and I feel for them and I feel like I am one of them," she says.
"That is the same feeling as everyone who has cried out to make the voices of these girls heard — on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram — and all the other platforms that people have been using to express their concern and solidarity for their families," she says.
One of those platforms is tumblr. Amnesty International has launched bringbackourgirls.tumblr.com, where they are asking people submit solidarity photos to tell the missing girls' families that "our thoughts are with them and their daughters and sisters."
Cristina Finch, managing director for the women’s human rights program at Amnesty International USA, tells Mashable they launched the tumblr to let the girls and their families know that they’re not alone and that "the world is watching, and cares and is trying to help free them.”
She notes seeing a noticeable uptick in media coverage throughout the last week, due in part to all the social media bringing attention to the girls, whose kidnapping she calls "a human rights violation of paramount importance."
"We want to continue to keep the press on and keep the visibility of what's happening there until there is a resolution of this issue and these women are released," Finch says.
Nigerian government vows to rescue the girls
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan addressed his nation on Sunday after three weeks of silence and said he would bring the girls home. "Wherever these girls are, we’ll get them out,” he said on live television, asking for “maximum cooperation” from parents.
Nigeria's Minister of Information Labaran Maku joined in with a press release that stated, "The President assures Nigerians that ‘wherever the girls are in the world, we will get them back, apprehend and punish the culprits.’”
Relatives of the missing girls, however, claim the Nigerian government is not doing enough.
The president's wife, Patience Jonathan, had the leader of one protest arrested on Monday after a meeting concerning the missing girls. Others, meanwhile, staged a "million-woman march" in the capital city of Abuja calling on the Nigerian government to bring the girls home. Supporters, meanwhile, held rallies around the world — in New York City's Union Square and outside London's Nigerian High Commission.
John Kerry pledges assistance
Speaking at a press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Saturday, John Kerry said the U.S. would support Nigeria's efforts to find the missing girls. "Let me be clear," Kerry said. "The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime, and we will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice."
What is Boko Haram?
Boko Haram is an Islamic militant group active in Africa whose name means "Western education is sinful."
The group has been suspected for a causing string of recent attacks throughout Nigeria, including two bus bombings in April as well as mass murders of 30 schoolchildren in February and 50 in September.
The group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed responsibility for the girls abduction in a video that surfaced on Monday, according to the AFP.
"Western education should end. Girls, you should go and get married," he said. "I will repeat this: Western education should fold up. I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah," Shekau said, adding that his group was holding the girls as "slaves."
Want to read more about this story? See Nick Kristof's column in The New York Times, "Bring Back Our Girls," and the New Yorker's Alex Okeowo on "Nigeria's Stolen Girls."