What she didn’t say with her soft voice Deborah Peter made loud and clear with the small poster she held up before a phalanx of cameras that read ‘#Bring Back My Sisters.’
Peter is a survivor, a 15-year-old from Chibok, Nigeria, the same town where nearly 300 schoolgirls were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram. She came to Capitol Hill Wednesday to tell members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of her harrowing 2011 experience with Boko Haram, an encounter that left her father and brother dead. She also had a message for Washington’s lawmakers.
‘I want the government to know how much Nigeria is in our prayers and I want them to like maybe send armies to find the girls or maybe they should help the people who lost their families,’ she said.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the foreign affairs committee chairman, wants to comply with Peters wishes. He pressed for more U.S. assistance to the Nigerian government in locating and rescuing the schoolgirls.
‘U.S. forces are well positioned to ‘advise and assist’ Nigerian forces in the search for these girls,’ he said. ‘In this role, U.S. forces – expertly trained to deal with hostage situations and in jungle environments – could help Nigerians with intelligence, planning and logistics.’
White House officials said last week outlined the size and scope of the team assisting the Nigerian government in finding the girls. It includes five State Department officials, two strategic communications experts, a civilian security expert, and a medical support officer.
The effort also includes 10 Defense Department planners and advisers who were already in Nigeria; seven additional Defense Department advisers from AFRICOM, the U.S. Africa Command; and four FBI officials with expertise in safe recovery, negotiations and preventing future kidnappings.
‘As committed as the U.S. is to supporting Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram and in returning these girls safely to their families, Nigeria’s fight against this barbaric group is a challenging case,’ Amanda Dory, deputy assistant defense secretary for African Affairs told the foreign relations committee in written testimony. ‘In the face of a new and more sophisticated threat than it has dealt with before, Nigeria’s security forces have been greatly challenged by Boko Haram’s tactics. Also troubling have been the heavy-handed approaches by Nigerian forces during operations against Boko Haram – approaches that risk further harming and alienating local populations.’
Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., acknowledged that concerns about corruption and human rights abuses by Nigeria’s military may be hindering further direct support in location and rescue efforts by the administration.
Still, Royce and Engel pressed President Barack Obama to do more in Nigeria. Royce said if there are U.S. laws that are hindering U.S. efforts then ‘the (Obama) administration should use its waiver authority under these extraordinary circumstances.’
Royce and Engel peppered Dory and Sarah Sewall, the State Department’s undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, with questions following a meeting with Peters and listening to her story.
On December 22, 2011, she witnessed Boko Haram members shoot her father in the family’s home after her father, a pastor, refused to denounce his Christian faith.
When the men threatened to shoot Peter’s brother, Caleb, he asked her to plead with the gunmen for his life.
‘They told me to shut up or they would kill me, too,’ Peter told reporters. ‘The leader agreed that they should kill him and shot my brother two times. My dad had still been breathing but when he saw them shoot Caleb, he died.’
Peter resides in the United States now and attends school in Virginia. When asked if she wants to return to Nigeria, she gave a soft, one-word answer.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Deborah Peter's name was spelled Peters.