The Current

How Mellissa Fung's abduction informed her reporting on the girls who escaped from Boko Haram

A former CBC journalist who was taken hostage in Afghanistan says making a documentary about young girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram has helped her grapple with her own trauma.

The journalist's documentary, Captive, examines how girls in Nigeria are coping with the trauma of abduction

Three women look at the camera as their picture is taken.
Journalist Mellissa Fung, right, spoke with young girls in Nigeria who managed to escape from extremist group Boko Haram after being abducted. Her new documentary is called Captive. (Antica Productions)

Story Transcript

A former CBC journalist who was taken hostage in Afghanistan says making a documentary about young girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped by Boko Haram helped her grapple with her own trauma.

"I learned so much from the girls," Mellissa Fung told The Current's Matt Galloway.  "You know, they have so little materially when you look at where they live, how they live. But they have so much inner strength. They have so much faith in God.

"And that's what I find amazing. Their resilience is inspiring."

Fung's documentary, Captive, takes viewers to northeastern Nigeria, where Islamist extremist group Boko Haram has been waging attacks on communities for years. The militant organization drew international condemnation in 2014 when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, in the country's Borno State.

The film explores what life is like for a small number of girls who have escaped the extremist group's grips, as they come to terms with the violence they faced and the stigma that has made it difficult to reintegrate into their community.

The documentary was produced by Antica Productions, and premieres Tuesday on TVO.

Similar traumas helped build trust

The girls' stories hit close to home for Fung, who was kidnapped by armed men in Afghanistan in 2008 while working as a reporter for CBC's The National. She was held captive inside a hole in the ground for 28 days.

"I remember what it was like for me — my first night in a hole in Afghanistan — and just what runs through your mind, you know. 'Have my parents been told?' 'Where are my parents?' 'Are they going to kill me?'" Fung said. 

"These girls were so much younger than me that I just couldn't imagine what might have been going through their minds."

Fung speaks with a girl at Nigeria's Malkohi displacement camp, where survivors of Boko Haram stay, in Yola, Adamawa State. (Antica Productions)

Some of the girls Fung spoke with for the film were as young as 12 or 13 when they were captured by Boko Haram. Many of them were taken hostage with their entire families, and later separated from them as Boko Haram continued to kidnap more children and adults after the 2014 abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls.

The girls all had dreams of being doctors, journalists or lawyers, Fung said. Instead, they were forced to marry members of the extremist organization, and sometimes have children with them.

Having experienced the trauma of being abducted herself, Fung said she wanted to understand how these young girls were rebuilding their lives. That curiosity became the impetus for her documentary.

I was very, very open with them. I mean, I told them things I haven't even told close friends. So I think that helped build trust and it helped them tell their story.- Mellissa Fung, journalist

But she didn't want to approach her interviews the same way many other journalists do, by simply asking victims what they went through. That method often retraumatizes people, said Fung.

"So when I went in, I told the girls I understood in a way that most people probably don't, and they were free to ask me about my experience," she said.

"I was very, very open with them. I mean, I told them things I haven't even told close friends. So I think that helped build trust and it helped them tell their story."

Freed girls face community mistrust

Part of that story is about the girls' escape. 

In the film, they describe running away through Nigeria's Sambisa Forest, where they had been held by Boko Haram. Some of the girls were able to escape during military attacks on the Boko Haram encampment, while others got out on their own.

But when they finally became free, the girls were shunned by the communities and families they returned to.

"They have good reason not to trust [the girls who escaped], because Boko Haram has been using their kidnapped girls … as suicide bombers, sending them back into villages," Fung explained.

However, that mistrust has made it even more difficult for the girls to deal with their trauma. Fung said that one of the girls she spoke to, for example, has struggled with a deep sense of anger over her circumstances.

Fung can relate to the long-term impact of their abduction. She said her captivity will always be a part of who she is.

However, it doesn't define her.

Fung speaks with a girl named Asma'u, who was abducted by Boko Haram in 2014, when she was 12 years old, along with her mother. The journalist says she spoke openly with the girls in her documentary about the trauma she experienced when she was abducted in Afghanistan in 2008. (Antica Productions)

In the process of making the documentary, Fung said some of the girls in Nigeria were able to receive counselling to help them deal with their trauma, and they realize that it doesn't define them either.

"When I first met them, you know, they kept saying they're OK … and gradually they were able to say, 'Well, no, I still do have nightmares. I can admit that to you,'" said Fung. "And I said, 'That's OK. I do, too.' That's part of what this experience is — what it means to heal."

Fung said that making the documentary forced her to revisit her own captivity, which wasn't easy.

"I will admit there were really dark days, dark nights," the journalist said. 

However, it was also rewarding. Fung said she drew strength from the girls she met.

"I hope that going to those dark places will shine a light on the beauty and the strength that these girls show us."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alex Zabjek.

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