Her 18th birthday was anything but spectacular. There was no party, no cake, no presents. Whatever she owned, she had to share with her two younger siblings. Instead of celebrating she cleaned the small hut that used to be a stable. The villagers let them stay there for free.
Hannah did not complain. She was happy to have a roof over her head. On the day, she went to the small river outside the village, filled her water bucket, and carried it back on her head, so that her siblings would have something to drink. They were the only family she had left – and were her responsibility.
On her 18th birthday, she refused to think back to the day that changed her and her siblings’ lives forever.
That was the day when the men came in Jeeps, wearing military uniforms, Kalashnikovs in hand. Ready to shoot – ready to kill. Her parents referred to them as “the Taliban”. To the world, they are better known as Boko Haram – a violent Islamist sect which seeks to introduce the strictest versions of Sharia law in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon.
They bring terror to the land. They target Christians and kill Muslims who refuse to support them.
Hannah and her siblings managed to escape. Unlike their parents.
As she took care of her family, she did not grow discouraged. Her faith carried her. The support from the villagers encouraged her. They gave her food, clothes, small tokens of appreciation. The Islamic cleric made particular efforts to help her out regularly. Hannah never sat idle. She worked in the fields and assisted in other households to earn a small income. She had never doubted that they would make it through. Until she turned 18.
“Hannah is not an isolated case,” her lawyer explains. He does not want to be identified. His life is on the line, he says. Local authorities would not want anyone to know about Hannah’s story.
When Hannah turned 18, the Imam wanted to make her his wife. He already had three. But he had kept her fed and clothed over the last few years and was therefore entitled to her, he reasoned.
Forcing poor girls to marry their benefactors is not seen as a real crime in Africa. It may be prohibited in theory, but it is well-accepted in practice.
Hannah refused. She was almost raped, but managed to flee. The much older man filed a complaint with the local Sharia court. She had fooled him, he said. She had abandoned her Muslim faith and turned down his marriage proposal.
That would make her guilty of apostasy – punishable by death under Sharia law. Nobody seemed to be interested in the fact that Hannah was a Christian and had never converted to Islam.
“In Nigeria, we do not execute people because of apostasy, anymore,” explained Hannah’s lawyer.
Instead, people remain in prison for life. The situation in jail is so miserable that it considerably shortens life expectancy. Nobody would want to spend even a day in such a pitiful hole, the lawyer said. This, however, is what Hannah ought to expect.
With the help of ADF International, Hannah’s lawyer wants to save her life and restore her freedom. He has already been successful in doing so. At least partially. Hannah is free on bail. This is exceptional. She is able to take care of her siblings again, until her case is heard by a state court.
“Hannah’s case could turn the tables for Nigeria’s Christians,” explained her lawyer. If she wins, it could set a precedent that Christians should never be subject to Sharia courts. Under Sharia law, they cannot expect a fair trial. They are often found guilty of blasphemy or apostasy. Those as poor as Hannah usually cannot afford a lawyer and easily fall victim to a flawed legal system.
ADF International’s allied lawyer has helped Hannah under dire circumstances. Neither the terrorists from Boko Haram nor the local authorities are happy to see such a case brought to court. Especially if it is brought to the attention of the international community at venues such as the United Nations or the European Union.
“I trust in the Lord. I have to do everything in my power to help people like Hannah. I owe this to my community and my country,” said the lawyer. This is why he had studied law. During his time at university, he had prayed wholeheartedly: “Lord, if you allow me to become a lawyer, I will defend the fundamental freedoms of my fellow Christians in Nigeria.”
Hannah’s case is dangerous for him. But he isn’t worried. Her freedom means more to him than his own life. Her freedom is also his freedom, and the freedom of all Christians.
To find out more about ADF International, see: www.adfinternational.org.
Picture: A group of Chibok girls are seen with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari after being released from captivity at the hands of by Boko Haram militants. (Bayo Omoboriowo, Reuters).