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Zain Asher on Nigeria kidnappings: Education is choice between life and death

By Zain Asher, CNN
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zain Asher: Girls in Nigeria "now have to decide between staying alive and getting an education"
  • Kidnappings are common throughout Nigeria, from which her parents fled during the Biafra War
  • Her uncle was kidnapped three years ago

Editor's note: Zain Asher, who was born and raised in England but spent some of her childhood in Enugu in southeastern Nigeria, is a business and personal finance correspondent for CNN.

(CNN) -- As a Nigerian, and as somebody who has been blessed with a top-tier education, the idea that teenage girls could be snatched from their school in northeastern Nigeria is particularly chilling.

I was born and raised in England but spent some of my childhood in Enugu, in the southeastern part of Nigeria. I studied at Oxford University and Columbia University, and my thirst for knowledge made journalism a natural choice. I wouldn't be working as a CNN reporter today if it wasn't for the fact that my parents fled Nigeria during the Biafra War and my mother, despite losing my father in a car accident, sacrificed everything to send me to good schools in England.

Girls in Chibok, Nigeria, now have to decide between staying alive and getting an education. Aside from the nearly 300 school girls who were kidnapped in April, 56 boys at a boarding school were also recently killed. This is particularly heart-wrenching because I've always believed education is freedom, especially for children in northeastern Nigeria whose education will be the only chance they have at eventually escaping poverty like my parents did.

A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown in September 2013. Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation: A video of Abubakar Shekau, who claims to be the leader of the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, is shown in September 2013. Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group waging a campaign of violence in northern Nigeria. The group's ambitions range from the stricter enforcement of Sharia law to the total destruction of the Nigerian state and its government. Click through to see recent bloody incidents in this strife-torn West African nation:
Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
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Boko Haram: Nigeria\'s crisis Boko Haram: Nigeria's crisis
Police in riot gear block a route in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday, October 14, during a demonstration calling on the Nigerian government to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. In April, more than 200 girls were abducted from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, officials and witnesses said. Police in riot gear block a route in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday, October 14, during a demonstration calling on the Nigerian government to rescue schoolgirls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. In April, more than 200 girls were abducted from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, officials and witnesses said.
Nigerians protest over kidnapped schoolgirls
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Photos: Nigerians protest over kidnapped girls Photos: Nigerians protest over kidnapped girls
Map: Where the girls were kidnapped  Map: Where the girls were kidnapped
Map: Where the girls were kidnappedMap: Where the girls were kidnapped
Slavery a reality in Nigeria

However, the unyielding presence of Boko Haram has meant that education has become a choice between life and death. And parents, who are naturally more concerned about their children living to see another day than anything else, have stopped sending their children to school.

Kidnappings are not just limited to Boko Haram's antics in the northern part of Nigeria but are widespread throughout the country. Every Christmas, Nigerians who live in the Western world often travel back to Nigeria for the holidays. The sheer presence of so many foreigners often means an sharp uptick in the number of ransom kidnappings. Whenever I return to Nigeria, I follow sharp instructions from my mother not to tell too many people I'm coming back, not to announce my arrival ahead of time, and not too stay in one place for too long. We've become even more cautious after my uncle was kidnapped three years ago.

He was living between London and Dublin at the time and returned to Nigeria to visit family. One evening, as he was pulling into my grandmother's compound, kidnappers sneaked in behind him on foot. They knocked on the window to his car, and as soon as he rolled down the windows, they hit him over the head, took over his vehicle and drove him five hours through the night. It was by miracle that the car they used broke down. The kidnappers -- and my uncle -- were were stranded. They panicked and let him go. For a very long time, he was afraid to ever go back to Nigeria.

When my uncle shares that story, people aren't necessarily as shocked as you might expect. The first thing people ask him is not, "Oh my goodness, you were kidnapped?" but rather "Who did you tell you were coming back to Nigeria?" This is a country where no one is immune from the rife practice of hostage taking and if you travel to Nigeria, the onus is on you to stay safe. If the Nigerian President's cousin can be kidnapped and the finance minister's mother can be held hostage, then anyone else can be, too.

For that reason, I've always tried to avoid traveling back to Nigeria alone, especially during Christmas. I simply won't do it. And when I am there, the idea of going out after dusk alone is inconceivable. Every time my mother tells me, "You need to go to Nigeria this year," I often look for any excuse to get out of it. It pains me to admit that because I cherish my memories of going to school in Nigeria and the chances of anything happening to me -- though possible -- I hope are unlikely.

Although I'm not in Nigeria physically right now, the story about these girls has haunted me from day one. Whenever I read headlines about the missing schoolgirls, there's always this feeling of guilt that hovers over me. It's hugely unfair that I live comfortably in a first world country, in a nation that affords me the freedoms and luxuries that I can't imagine living without and those girls, whose only wish is to get an education, have to live in a constant state of fear. That's their life every single day, and had my parents not made the sacrifices they did, that could easily have been my life too. My heart bleeds for them.

READ: Opinion: Can U.S. apply lessons learned from War on Terror in Nigeria?

READ: Nigeria abducted girls: Why hasn't the rescue effort produced results?

READ: Nigerian missing girls: Families sleep in the bushes, fearing more attacks

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