Joy for Nigerian families reunited with 21 Chibok girls, kidnapped by Boko Haram
For two and a half years they waited, with hopes kept alive by rumours of negotiations, an international campaign and their own deep faith.
On Sunday a group of Nigerian families were finally reunited with 21 girls released last week by Boko Haram, the Islamic militant movement.
The abduction of nearly 300 female students from a government secondary school in the remote town of Chibok, in the north-east Nigeria in April 2014 prompted a global outcry, and an international campaign to #BringBackOurGirls, backed by celebrities including Michelle Obama.
The girls were released very early on Thursday morning and flown to the capital, Abuja, where they received medical attention and trauma counselling. Tsambido Abana, a Chibok community leader in the city, said some are “emaciated” from hunger.
However, their families, travelling from Chibok, faced 800km of driving over potholed roads, with the trip slowed by military checkpoints and the danger of attacks by insurgents. They embraced their children in emotional scenes amid singing and dancing at a church service in the capital on Sunday morning.
The release has been celebrated throughout Nigeria, and will boost Muhammadu Buhari, the beleaguered president.
Abana, the father of one of the released girls, said he was worried that their release would be exploited for political gain. “People’s children aren’t money, people’s children are not clothes you wear to campaign, people’s children are their pride,” he said.
Few details have emerged of the ordeal of the abducted girls, many of whom are believed to have been taken as wives by extremists and systematically raped. Others have reportedly been forced to carry out demanding physical tasks. As Christians, all are believed to have been forced to convert to Islam.
Over the weekend, commanders from Boko Haram, which has waged a bloody seven-year insurgency against the government, displacing millions and causing a humanitarian disaster, said that the girls were freed to prove good faith and more will be released if demands for cash and an exchange of prisoners are met.
“These 21 released girls are supposed to be tale bearers to tell the Nigerian government that this faction of Boko Haram has 83 more Chibok girls,” said Garba Shehu, spokesman for Buhari. “The faction said it is ready to negotiate if the government is willing to sit down with them.”
Senior Nigerian officials said last week they would “rule nothing out” in talks with the militants.
Dozens of the girls escaped in the first few hours after their abduction, one was found wandering in a remote area in May, and Boko Haram is believed to be still holding about 190.
Boko Haram, which is theoretically an affiliate of Islamic State, has split in recent months after its erratic leader, Abubakr Shekau, was replaced as leader. Shekau, who is short of manpower and weapons, is thought to be holding the girls.
The group of 21 were released following a deal brokered by the Red Cross and the Swiss government.
There are conflicting reports about why the girls were freed, with military officers saying they were exchanged for four detained Boko Haram commanders. The statements were later denied by civilian officials. There are also reports that a significant ransom was paid.