In a video released late Wednesday, a woman in a blue hijab who identifies herself only as Grace tells the camera she’d been kidnapped six days earlier.
She says she is a Christian and worker for an international aid group that tries to feed the hungry. Five men sit behind her on an orange carpet, heads bowed and fidgeting.
They’ve all been taken by militants who called themselves “Calipha,” she says. They’re all Nigerians and don’t know where they are. Behind them hangs a sheet with upside-down United Nations refugee agency logos.
“I am begging on behalf of all of us here,” she says, “that please Nigerians should not allow such to happen to us.”
It’s unclear if she’s reading from a script.
Action Against Hunger confirmed Thursday that the woman in the video, published by Nigerian news site The Cable, is one of the organization’s employees in the Damasak region of Borno State, where extremist groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa are known to carry out regular attacks.
The men were also staffing a humanitarian project in the area, where some 3,000 aid workers are based in efforts to curb hunger and help a growing population of refugees who have fled extremist violence.
The nonprofit said the workers were abducted last week after gunmen attacked their convoy near the Niger border. A driver died in the ambush.
“They are humanitarians and health workers and they chose to dedicate their lives to support the most vulnerable communities in Nigeria,” Action Against Hunger said in a statement, declining to comment further. “They were only in pursuit of solidarity, humanity and neutrality.”
More foreigners are kidnapped in the nation than anywhere else, according to a report last year from Constellis, an American security firm. (Mexico ranks second.) Anyone linked to an international operation faces heightened risk, analysts say.
Heavily armed bandits, meanwhile, seize ordinary people from homes and highways, hoping to squeeze cash from their families. Sometimes victims walk free after a ransom is paid. Sometimes they’re injured, raped or killed anyway.
Data on the problem is fuzzy, but authorities say kidnapping is widespread and have beefed up law enforcement to crack down on it.
But investigations can take months.
Grace’s video plea comes less than a year after two midwives employed by the International Committee of the Red Cross were killed by suspected Boko Haram fighters in the same region.
Saifura Hussaini Ahmed Khorsa, 25, and Hauwa Mohammed Liman, 24, were captured as they sought to help pregnant refugees in Rann, a Nigerian town near the Cameroon border. Tens of thousands of displaced people were camped there before Boko Haram bloodshed drove many out in January.
Khorsa’s attackers released footage of her execution after holding her for six months, The Cable reported in September. Liman’s captors killed her less than a month later.
“We appealed for mercy and an end to such senseless murders,” Patricia Danzi, the ICRC’s regional director for Africa, said at the time. “How can it be that two female health-care workers were killed back-to-back? Nothing can justify this.”
Anietie Ewang, a Human Rights Watch researcher in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, said the pattern is troublingly familiar.