Editors’ Note: The above portraits, environmental shots and drawings tell the story of several individuals who escaped a horrible captivity with the infamous extremist group Boko Haram. These photographs and narratives represent only a small fraction of their story. This series was shown at the International Photoreporter Festival, from October 3—November 1, 2015.

I am openly embraced by three young ladies running up to me, greeting me as Aunty Ruth. During five years living in northern Nigeria, I have seen many haunted faces, but these girls look different, haunted—but also broken.

I wanted to photograph them looking like the strong, resilient survivors they are, but as they sat slumped in their chairs, I had the heart-breaking realisation these beautiful youths—at such an early age—had lost their innocence. After all, they had experienced the worst of humanity, first-hand. These youths are just a few of the many that have been abducted by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.

Over the past few years, Boko Haram has radically increased its presence in Northern Nigeria. Sadly, many young girls and boys have become a target. Girls are targeted for tactical reasons, in addition to serving as convenient examples for Boko Haram’s extreme ideology (non-Muslim girls are targeted most frequently). Meanwhile, young boys are taken in order to be used as fighters. They are quickly indoctrinated into Boko Haram ideologies.

The abductions have occurred all over the northeastern part of the country. Children have been abducted while walking on roads, attending school, working on farms, and even from inside their homes. Once captured, they are put through psychological abuse, compulsory labour and forced marriage. Some are forced to convert to Islam, while many become victims of sexual violence and rape.

After brainwashing, the youngest children are taught to carry ammunitions and eventually to kill. Some young girls have been utilized as suicide bombers, a particularly shocking turn of events.

The well-known Chibok attack on April 14, 2014 was the largest case of abductions. Nearly 300 girls were taken from their school. The event ultimately brought world-wide attention to the situation and the atrocious actions of Boko Haram (leading to the immensely popular #BringBackOurGirls).

Fortunately, some 57 girls have managed to escape. These survivors have received some counselling and educational scholarships—however there remains a serious lack of support for the girls and boys abducted before and after Chibok. They urgently need post-trauma counselling. Many of them struggle with their experiences and some no longer attend school for fear that they will be kidnapped again. Many of the girls that escaped were strongly stigmatized in their communities, forcing them to relocate to new towns altogether.

—Ruth McDowall