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What Happened When a Times Reporter Traded Brooklyn for Dakar

Searcey traveled to northeastern Nigeria and across the border where the group was pursuing its war into Cameroon, an area the French called the “Extreme North.” To find out what was really happening there, she had to get past officious government spokesmen and cagey U.N. officials who thought journalists should take down dictation rather than do their own reporting. Over the next few months, two remarkable fixers helped her in her sleuthing: a Sierra Leonean named Jaime Yaya Barry, who had helped The Times cover the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and, later, a northern Nigerian named Shehu, who had already established a reputation locally for his reporting on Boko Haram.

Interviewing a woman bomber would offer a new way to look at Boko Haram, Searcey believed. But locating one who would reveal her intention to blow herself up would not be easy. (And anyone who had already pushed the detonator button was dead.) Then she was introduced to a woman called Rahila.

Rahila told Searcey that she had been stolen from her home one morning when Boko Haram arrived in three vehicles, abducting as many women as possible. She spent 10 months as a captive of the group. They didn’t have a lot to eat, and Rahila quickly lost weight. Then one day they were rounded up and driven to an old cement factory where another group of young women was being held. These girls were plump. Some were crying. They told Rahila they had been kidnapped from a school in Chibok. Rahila realized they were Boko Haram’s most famous hostages — the Chibok girls.

Soon the girls began training. First they were sent to Koranic school — days and days of it. Then weapons training, and, later, decapitation school. “Always cut from the back of the neck,” their instructor told them, “to prevent the victim from squirming. They’ll die quicker that way.” Next came suicide bomb school. “Keep the bomb tight in your armpit,” Searcey reports the girls were advised, “to stop it from shifting around and exploding too soon. When you reach a crowd of 10 or 20 people, detonate.”

“You press this,” Rahila told Searcey, miming the act of pushing a button. “They taught us that as soon as you pressed it you’d go directly to heaven.” In the end, though, Rahila couldn’t go through with a bombing. Taking advantage of a moment when a big crowd was assembling at the Boko Haram camp, she ran away, trudging with her grandchildren for seven days to the border between Nigeria and Cameroon until she reached the desert refugee camp where Searcey recorded her account.

“In Pursuit of Disobedient Women” abounds with stories like that of Rahila, the suicide bombing school dropout. Quietly listening, Searcey takes down the details of their everyday experience — including details the authorities around her might prefer were not made public. In doing so, she reveals herself to be, even today, one of the “disobedient women,” bearing witness to so many ordinary lives tossed and turned by other people’s whims.

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