‘I had to find them’: kidnapped filmmaker Mellissa Fung on her mission to find the Boko Haram girls

After being abducted on assignment in Afghanistan, journalist Mellissa Fung shares an intense bond with the teenage girls who were held captive by Boko Haram

The journalist and filmmaker Mellissa Fung is showing me her wound – or to be precise, the scar where her wound once was. It’s from the struggle with one of the Afghan rebels who, 12 years ago, kidnapped Fung near Kabul and held her in a pit in the ground for a month, a place she refers to simply, and rather chillingly as, “the hole”.

“In combat training they teach you not to fight back, but I played ice hockey as a kid so I couldn’t help it,” Fung says. “The guy had a knife so I learned my lesson.”

I am peering at her collar bone when Fung directs my gaze to a spot on her right shoulder – a white mark about the size and shape of a garden grub.

I nod and a grim silence descends as we both reach for a glass of wine. We are sitting in the kitchen of her flat in Primrose Hill, London, where she has lived for the past five years with her husband, the Canadian TV news correspondent Paul Workman, and their rescue mutt Sammy.

Back in her native Canada, Fung’s kidnapping is a matter of public record. I’ve met her socially, but I’ve never been alone with her before and we’ve never discussed it in depth. I’ve certainly not seen her scar. By showing it to me she is making a dark joke.

“If you need me to bleed, I’ll bleed,” she says. “But obviously you know all I really want to talk about is the girls.”

The girls are Zara, Gambo and Asma’u, three teenagers from northeastern Nigeria who were kidnapped as pre-teens by Boko Haram and forced into marriage with their captors. All of them are “survivors” in the most literal sense. Like Fung, they experienced captivity and rape. They managed against the odds to return home safely to their families. Captive, Fung’s extraordinary debut feature-length documentary, tracks the girls’ struggle, over several years, to reintegrate into their communities and cope with the trauma and stigma of being violated and kidnapped. It’s a fascinating and heart-wrenching story. It’s also one that she has lived a version of herself.

Fung was born in Hong Kong and emigrated to Vancouver with her family as a young child. She then went on to study at Columbia University’s prestigious journalism school. By the time she was in her 30s, Fung was a roving war correspondent for CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster.

At the time of her capture, Fung was a familiar face on Canadian news, but the kidnapping, which coincided with Canada’s military involvement in the Afghan war, transformed her into a household name. She was held in the hole for 28 days during which she was occasionally beaten and repeatedly raped. Her release, negotiated in a hostage trade by Afghan intelligence, was diplomatically controversial and also provoked national shock – CBC enforced a news blackout for the duration of her kidnapping.

Fung returned to Toronto, took a few weeks off to recover, saw a trauma therapist, and then quickly went back to work. To start with she did not disclose the fact that she’d been sexually assaulted to the federal authorities or her bosses at CBC. Fung says her reasons were simple: she wanted to protect her parents and she was worried – rightly as it turned out – that it would stigmatise her as a female journalist. “Like so many sexual-assault victims I just wanted to move on and show everyone I was fine,” she says. “So I threw all my energy into getting back to normal.”

Upon returning to work, she immediately began lobbying her producers to return to Afghanistan – but one by one, all her story pitches were turned down. “They didn’t say, ‘No,’” she recalls, “but over time there was a clear pattern.” She continued to work for CBC for three years, but was never sent out on a foreign assignment again. “The attitude was basically, ‘Oh, we can’t send her back, what if she has a flashback and panics in the field?’ I knew they didn’t trust me and because of the PTSD I began to question my own abilities. Then at a certain point I just got really angry.”

Mellissa Fung with Boko Haram survivors Zara and Amina.
Women of war: Mellissa Fung with Boko Haram survivors Zara and Amina Photograph: checking

Rage, Fung says, is one of the commonly unacknowledged aspects of recovery from sexual trauma. “It’s the lack of control, obviously. You can’t fight back at the time so you end up channelling your helplessness into feelings of rage.”

She sighs and takes a sip of wine. “I still flip out over little things,” she laughs. “For instance, during the first lockdown I became a full-blown Covid-regulation-Nazi. I mean I can laugh about it now at the time it wasn’t funny. Paul still thinks I have anger issues, but as I often point out to him, there’s a lot to be angry about.”

Before leaving CBC, Fung wrote a bestselling book about her experience, Under an Afghan Sky. Since then she’s worked steadily as a freelance correspondent for Al Jazeera, reporting on stories everywhere from Nepal to Korea.

Fung had just returned home from assignment in Afghanistan when the story of the Chibok girls broke in April 2014. Like many people, she was transfixed by the details: 276 teenage girls forcibly taken from their Nigerian boarding school overnight by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The mass kidnapping caused an outpouring of concern. The world’s media descended on Nigeria. The first truly global social media justice campaign was then born when Michelle Obama and others posted the story with the now-famous hashtag #bringbackourgirls. Like most hashtag activism it was successful in attracting attention to the issue, but less so in practical terms. While over half of the Chibok girls were eventually released, more than 100 still remain missing.

The more Fung understood about Boko Haram, the more she realised the Nigerian kidnapping story wasn’t just about the Chibok girls. There were hundreds more girls missing. At the time, Amnesty International estimated an additional 2,000 had been taken, while today, even with a steady number of releases, Fung believes it may well be into the many thousands. An entire village of girls essentially vanished, forgotten by everyone but their families. Fung couldn’t get her head around it. She also couldn’t stop wondering about them. Where were they being held? How were they treated by their captors? Even if they managed to escape, how would they reintegrate?

“Every time I hear the word ‘kidnapped’ on the news I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut,” she explains. “And these forgotten girls, the ones who were not the Chibok girls… I just became obsessed. I had to go and find them. I won’t pretend it wasn’t personal. It was.”

Fung’s impulse to track down the survivors of Boko Haram and tell their stories is the driving impulse of her documentary, Captive.

Zara is a teenage mother who, having given birth to her captor’s child at the age of 12, is desperate to return to school. Asma’u is a second-generation survivor who was kidnapped along with her mother. Gambo struggles at school and fantasises about revenge on her captors. She is also understandably enraged at those in her community who shun her as “one of them”.

During the film the girls grow up before our eyes – striving to learn, falling in love and forming friendships like teenagers everywhere – all the while struggling to process and reconcile their trauma. It’s not easy, Fung says, in a culture like rural Nigeria where rape victims are often stigmatised and self-reflection is not encouraged.

“It’s not that they don’t want to talk about it,” Fung says of the girls, “it’s just they don’t have the luxury to sit around feeling sorry for themselves. Most victims want to move on but these girls actually need to move on. They’re poor – it is a simple matter of survival.”

The girls open up to Fung about the violence, subjugation and confinement that they experienced at the hands of the men they still, disconcertingly, refer to as their husbands. In her intimate conversations with the girls, Fung is careful not to use the words “rape” or “rapist” out of cultural respect, though she does not mince words when speaking to camera.

Mellissa Fung sitting on a mat in a dusty street opposite Gambo, talking, with a cameraman and microphone man in the foreground
Quiet courage: filming with Gambo Photograph: PR

“Of course, they know that’s what it was,” she says, “but if they don’t want to call it ‘rape’ or ‘forced marriage’, then I see it as my job to respect their boundaries.”

Fung’s style as a documentarian is humane and empathic – a testimony to the possibilities of a new kind of trauma-sensitive reporting. She makes no pretence of objectivity or emotional distance toward her subjects. She is paying their onward school fees out of her own pocket, which she describes as “not a big deal”.

Unlike most reporters, Fung knows what it feels like to have her wounds probed by the media. During an interview promoting her book, Fung recalls a female journalist saying to her: “So you were raped, what was that like?” It made her want to slap the woman in the face.

Having said that, Fung admits to having uncertain feelings about the way violence and gender bias intersect in conflict reporting. She recalls a conversation she had several years ago with the New York Times reporter David Rohde who, in an awful coincidence, had been kidnapped in Afghanistan the day after Fung was released. “His experience was very different to mine,” she says. “He’d been badly beaten, almost every day, because he was a man. I told him he’d had it worse and I remember him saying to me, ‘No Mellissa. You had it worse. Nothing is worse than what you went through.’”

I ask her if she agrees with his assessment today. “I don’t know,” she muses. “I mean I was raped, which is obviously awful. It’s certainly worse in the eyes of the law, which I think is correct. I mean it is worse, right? But would I choose to be kicked in the head every day instead? Probably not. It’s weird. I honestly don’t know.”

For victims of rape, she says, it’s what happens afterwards that really messes with your head – the need to minimise and normalise the experience because of the perceived cultural stigma. “So many women end up denying the reality of their experiences,” she says. “I mean, I definitely did – and I had a good job, a supportive partner and the best trauma therapist in Canada. So you can imagine what it’s like for the girls.”

Fung’s first public mention of her assault was oblique – a vague reference to the experience in the first draft of her book. When she asked a trusted male colleague to read it he told her she needed to come clean. “You don’t need to go into gory details,” she remembers him saying, “but you need to tell the story in a way that doesn’t raise more questions than it answers.”

In Captive, we watch Fung form bonds with her subjects that are based on trust and respect – the kind of understanding that comes from shared experience. Fung recounts how the girls asked her things about her captivity that no one else would ever dare to ask because it would just be too awkward. They wanted to know where she slept, how often she was fed and what the food was like, even where she went to the bathroom. The curiosity went both ways. It was, she says, an exchange rather than an act of voyeurism. “The shared experience made it OK.”

Midway through the film there is a powerful scene in which Fung and Asma’u compare their scars, quietly trading stories of how they fought back and lost. The exchange is intimate, heart-wrenching and quietly courageous, a dignified private exchange rather than a gratuitous public display; two women back from the wars, sharing their wounds rather than showing them off.

Captive premiered on TVO and will be available to stream in the UK later this year


Leah McLaren

The GuardianTramp

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